What if I told you that your menstrual cycle has four different phases and that each one brings out different physical and emotional strengths in you? What if you could learn how to harness this knowledge to improve your life? This blog goes over the four phases of the Menstrual Cycle, the symptoms of each, and actions to take to prepare for and overcome them.
The Menstrual Cycle is more than just a period. Your period is only one phase of the cycle - there's three more! The Menstrual Cycle starts on the first day of your period and ends the day before your next period. The average cycle length is 26-30 days, but the length may vary period to period, and it may also change over the years. The brain, ovaries, and uterus work together and communicate through hormones to keep the cycle going.
Some people notice changes in their hair, skin, poop, mental health, etc., and changes in how they experience sex, during different parts of their cycle. Your body, through hormonal changes and fluctuations, is getting you ready for pregnancy over and over and over...and over again. Hormonal contraceptives can prevent pregnancy and mask some of the symptoms of your period - but for some people, the symptoms of birth control can outweigh the benefits of it. Knowing your cycle and when you may be fertile can help prevent pregnancy and help you prepare for the different symptoms you may experience throughout it.
The Menstrual Cycle has 4 phases: The Menstrual Phase, The Follicular Phase, The Ovulation Phase, and The Luteal Phase. Each brings different levels of hormones and can effect your strength, mental health, fatigue levels, bloating, acne and more. These phases interact and overlap with each other, which can be confusing, so allow me to break it down for you.
The Four Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
Phase 1 - The Menstrual Phase
Your Menstrual Cycle and Phase 1 begin the first day you start bleeding, and ends the last day of your period. This phase begins when the egg from the previous cycle isn't fertilized. Because pregnancy hasn't taken place, levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone drop. The drop in progesterone tells your uterus to shed, AKA, your "period" happens. This phase lasts anywhere from 3-8 days, with the average being 4-6.
Drop in Estrogen: during this week, your energy is the lowest and you may feel tired and withdrawn. You might have a lower sex drive and an increase in acne.
Drop in Progesterone: tells your body to shed the uterine lining. Progesterone is called the "anti-anxiety" hormone and low levels can cause anxiety, irritability, and anger.
Uterine contractions cause cramps.
Actions to Help Symptoms
Limit exercise to walking or yoga
If you experience cramps, taking ibuprofen consistently the day before and during your period can help.
Try to clear your calendar of major social gatherings
Phase 2: The Follicular Phase
There are two parts of The Follicular Phase: The Menstrual Phase and the Proliferative Phase. The Follicular Phase begins at the start of your period (it overlaps with the Menstrual Phase), and ends at ovulation. The Proliferative Phase begins right after your period and this is when the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release the Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH). (This is why this phase is called the Follicular Phase). The ovaries then produce sacs called follicles, each containing an egg, and only the healthiest egg is released when you ovulate. The maturing follicle releases a surge of estrogen - a hormone that thickens the lining of your uterus and is associated with boosted energy, increased motivation, and increased serotonin. Your testosterone levels also gradually increase after your period.
Rise in Estrogen: Increase in energy, motivation, serotonin. Your skin glows, you may feel more extroverted and assertive, you build more muscle and you build it faster
Rise in Testosterone: Increase in libido, orgasms are most intense and attainable, higher pain tolerance
Discharge: Amount of discharge increases. At first, it may look thick and sticky but become more wet and creamy, like lotion. In the days before ovulation, it may become stretchier and clear.
Your thinking and decision-making ability will be major strengths during the last half of the Follicular Phase, so initiate new projects and make big decisions.
This is when to make use of your social superpower. Speak up in meetings, join a social group, and make plans with friends!
Channel your increased energy and motivation into strenuous activity like weight lifting and HIIT workouts. Your energy levels are rising during this phase, so there isn't really a limit on exercise!
Phase 3: The Ovulatory Phase
Ovulation occurs about 13-15 days into your cycle, only lasts about a day, and is triggered when your estrogen levels are high enough. The high estrogen levels send a signal to your brain to release the luteinizing hormone, which starts the process of ovulation. Ovulation is when your ovary releases a mature egg. The egg travels down the Fallopian tube toward the uterus to be fertilized by sperm. The mature egg will survive 24-48 hours and sperm can live in a woman's body up to 5 days, so you're most fertile during this window. Use contraception during this time period if you're not wanting to get pregnant.
Estrogen and Testosterone: are at their peak levels, so you may feel that you look better, have more confidence, and your sex drive will be at its highest. (This is because your body wants to get you pregnant).
Slight rise in basal body temperature
Discharge: 1-2 days before ovulation, your discharge will be thick, stretchy, and egg-white
This is the time for networking, public speaking, and job interviews as your estrogen and testosterone are peaking.
Go on a date!
Energy levels are still high, so continue to get that work out in.
Phase 4: The Luteal Phase
This is the second half of your cycle and begins after ovulation and ends the day before you start your next period (or the beginning of your next Menstrual Cycle!). After the follicle releases the egg, it changes into the corpus luteum and releases progesterone and estrogen. Progesterone peaks about halfway through this phase. If you do not get pregnant, the corpus luteum will start to break down and be reabsorbed about 9-10 days after ovulation. This leads to decreased levels of progesterone and estrogen, thus causing the the onset of your period. We will break this phase down into two weeks as hormones act differently in the first half of this phase from the second half.
Week 3 of your cycle (first half of Luteal Phase):
Begins right after ovulation and lasts for about 8 days. Progesterone rises, estrogen and testosterone drop the first half of this week, then estrogen rises again. This is the time frame in which you may experience the most PMS symptoms.
Drop in Estrogen and Testosterone: You may feel more fatigued and down. This is when most women break out due to the drop in estrogen.
Rise in Progesterone: This slows you down, makes you quieter, a bit "foggy", more cautious and physically fatigued. Your appetite is greater and you may experience cravings because your body thinks you could be pregnant, so it wants you to eat for two. If you don't eat enough, you run the risk of a dramatic shift in mood that can leave you feeling sad or angry. Progesterone also causes water-retention and a drop in libido. On the upside, you burn 30% more fat when you exercise thanks to the combination of estrogen and progesterone.
Rise in Estrogen: In the second part of this week, your estrogen rises again putting a stop to the fatigue and pre-menstrual symptoms.
Week 4 of your cycle (second half of Luteal Phase)
In the final 6 days of your cycle, estrogen drops making you feel more sad, anxious, and irritable. Not all women experience this, so if this doesn't resonate, that's okay!
Drop in Estrogen (again): You may feel more critical, pessimistic, and more cynical. It's harder to make decisions, and your cravings go towards carbs and pasta. (Fun fact: this is because as estrogen drops so does serotonin, and carbs help replenish the latter hormone). You also may break out around this time due to excess oil production.
Libido Returns: Not due to hormones, surprisingly, but researchers believe it's from nerve endings being stimulated in preparation for menstruation.
Progesterone Descends: Progesterone is still relatively high, adding to the food cravings but levels descend toward the end of the week, leaving you feeling more energized.
Practice a bit of self care these two weeks, eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, and exercise. This may help some of the PMS symptoms.
Taking magnesium supplements can help reduce headaches and muscle tension.
Use a chemical exfoliate to help prevent breakouts.
Periods can be dreadful, but they don't have to be. When you work with the phases of your cycle, you feel more in alignment with your body. Keep these things in mind as you move through your next cycle, it might just make your life better.