As women, we all can relate to the turbulence of our monthly cycle. Throughout our lifetime, we can have approximately 450 monthly cycles. If challenged by your cycle, it can disrupt work, socialising, workouts, and even intimate connections. Did you know that it is possible to not just survive, but actually thrive and learn how to embrace the superpower that is our monthly cycle?
Over the course of each cycle, we move through 4 phases. These are our Period (phase 1), our Follicular phase (phase 2), ovulation (phase 3) and finally our luteal phase (phase 4). Let's break down what goes down over each phase.
Phase 1 – Menstruation, aka Our Period
We should get a bleed every 21-45 days. It should come without much notice and should be relatively pain-free. Yep, that's right, period pain is not normal. Common, yes, but not normal. You want to see a deep red, cranberry-like colour and we generally lose between 50ml – 80ml of menstrual fluid over 3-7 days. During this time our hormones are low, and this may result in lower energy. It is important to listen to your body and if it's telling you to rest, please rest. Consider sleep part of your exercise routine during this phase. We should focus on cooked foods such as warm oats, vegetable curry or chicken soup. These foods are easy to digest and therefore reserve energy for the process of menstruation. An easy way to remember this is to think of your period like winter. Hibernate, eat warm cosy food and reserve your energy for spring.
10 fully soaked pads or tampons = 50ml menstrual fluid
Phase 2 – Follicular Phase, There’s a Spring in Our Step
During this phase, follicles within the ovaries are at their final stage of growth and maturation. To finalise this process, hormones called LH, FSH and estrogen gradually rise over 1-2 weeks. As these hormones rise, so may your energy. We can relate this phase to spring, the gradual growth of our follicles like flowers on trees and our food choices turn to fresh, vibrant coloured fruits and vegetables. We have a little more energy to break down raw/lightly cooked meals such as a berry smoothie, salads with grilled fish and vegetable stir-fries. This phase ends with hormones reaching a peak, initiating ovulation.
We are born with follicles inside our ovaries. During your menstruating years, these follicles are stimulated by hormones. The maturing process of our follicles takes over 100 days. Therefore, your health over the last 100 days can determine the health of your cycle today. Period problem or PMS? Ask yourself, "how was my health 3-4 months ago?"
Phase 3 – Ovulation, Cracking Open Our Fertile Window
Hormones have reached a peak that initiates ovulation. This is when the most matured follicle releases an egg. You may feel some slight twinge in your lower abdomen during ovulation, commonly referred to as ovulation pain. The lifespan of this egg is between 24 – 48 hours and within this time, if in the company of sperm, the egg may be fertilised. Not only is this phase necessary to fall pregnant, ovulation is also key for a healthy monthly cycle as it determines the production of another major hormone, progesterone.
We can relate this short phase to summer, continuing to include fresh, vibrant colourful fruits and vegetables. We have the energy to break down raw/lightly cooked meals and feel dynamic, happy, and motivated. Your sex drive may be higher, and you will notice a few key changes that can be recorded in your cycle tracking app or diary. These are the increase in your basal body temperature, the thinning of cervical mucus or discharge and the position of your cervix will rise, whilst becoming softer. 10-16 days after ovulation, your period will start again. Although we have one more very important phase to go through.
You are fertile for 5-6 days each month. Not the entire month. Sperm can survive in this environment for up to 5 days, therefore your fertile window will begin 2-3 days prior to ovulation and end 2-3 days after ovulation. Do be mindful of having intercourse around this time if wishing to avoid pregnancy.
Plot twist – No Ovulation
We can have a monthly cycle without ovulating. It is quite common and offers some explanation for hormone imbalance. No ovulation means that we will not create a corpus luteum to make our much-needed progesterone. Estrogen will still rise, but it is not balanced with progesterone. Turning your luteal phase into a 1 player game, where estrogen wins. This isn't a win, rather when we can see symptoms of PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome), such as moodiness and irritability. Not fun for anyone.
Phase 4 – Luteal Phase, Hello Progesterone!
Remember that lucky follicle that has released an egg? Its job now is to create a temporary organ known as the corpus luteum (corp-us-lu-tee-om). This is very cool, a temporary organ! Within just 1 day, it grows up to 4cm and begins to make an incredibly important hormone, progesterone. Over the following 2 weeks, progesterone rises along with a slight rise in estrogen. I want you to think of this like a 2 player game, except for everyone to win, progesterone must always be a little bit ahead of estrogen.
Over this phase, we may notice our energy gradually decline. Remember this phase as Autumn, as we slowly turn to warm nourishing foods, similar to those during menstruation.
If you experience irritability, headaches, night sweats, you feel puffy, or as though you've gained a few kilos, and even putting a bra on can feel so painful as your chest is so tender, you are feeling what is known as Pre-Menstrual Symptoms (PMS). This is a group of symptoms commonly felt 1-2 weeks prior to a period. Like period pain, these symptoms are not normal. Common, but not normal. Your diet, exercise levels, stress and even your environment can disrupt ovulation and lead to PMS. You must do yourself a favour and seek the guidance of a qualified health professional, such as a clinical nutritionist, to help sort out these symptoms.
After this phase, we go right back to the start and say hello to our period.
Need a Little Guidance?
There is so much going on inside our incredible body each month, we should be pretty proud of what we can achieve. From a week of bleeding to follicles turning into a temporary organ, we have only scratched the surface of your superpowers. If reading this has raised any concerns for you please feel welcome to book in for a 10-minute complimentary discovery call or initial consultation here to get started on your health journey.
Remember, we get around 450 cycles over our wonderful lifetime. If we must live with our cycle, we need to embrace all our hormonal power. To not just survive but to thrive!