What Is The Menstrual Cycle?

The menstrual cycle is a natural, cyclical process that occurs in the bodies of reproductive-aged individuals and generally consists of four phases or stages: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. These stages serve specific purposes in the reproductive process and are regulated by various hormones including FSH, LH, estrogen and progesterone. A menstrual cycle is measured from the first day of menstruation to the first day of your next menstruation. The average length of a menstrual cycle is 28-29 days, but every woman’s cycle is different.

Understanding the four stages of the menstrual cycle is important for anyone seeking to gain insight into their own reproductive health or manage menstrual-related issues. Learning about the menstrual cycle can also help us develop powerful connections with our own bodies and allows us to recognize the signs and symptoms that accompany each phase of the cycle. By becoming aware of these signals, we can better anticipate changes in mood, energy levels, and overall physical well-being. This knowledge is empowering and helps us make informed decisions about self-care, exercise, nutrition, and more- tailored to our own individual needs throughout each phase.

Menstruation (Day 1-5)

The menstruation cycle begins with menstruation (commonly known as a period). The menstruation stage is the shedding of the uterine lining (endometrium) when pregnancy does not occur and typically lasts between three and seven days, although length of this stage may vary for each individual. Menstrual bleeding is a result of reduced hormone levels, particularly estrogen and progesterone. The shedding of the endometrium is facilitated by the constriction of blood vessels and the contraction of the uterus. The primary sign of menstruation is bleeding from the vagina and additional typical symptoms include:

  • Abdominal Cramps: Many women experience abdominal cramps or lower abdominal pain during menstruation. These cramps are caused by contractions of the uterus as it sheds its lining. The intensity of the cramps can vary, and they may be accompanied by a dull, achy sensation or sharp, stabbing pains.
  • Fatigue and Tiredness: Hormonal changes during menstruation can lead to feelings of fatigue and tiredness. Some women may experience lower energy levels and a need for more rest during this time.
  • Mood Swings and Irritability: Fluctuations in hormone levels can affect mood during menstruation. Some women may experience mood swings, irritability, or feelings of sadness or anxiety. These emotional changes are often attributed to hormonal shifts.
  • Breast Tenderness: Breast tenderness or sensitivity is another common symptom of menstruation. Some women may experience swollen or tender breasts due to hormonal changes.
  • Headaches: Hormonal fluctuations can trigger headaches or migraines in some women during their menstrual cycle. These headaches may be mild or severe and can last for a few hours or several days.
  • Bloating: Water retention and hormonal changes can lead to bloating or a feeling of abdominal fullness during menstruation. This bloating can be accompanied by discomfort or a sense of heaviness.
  • Back Pain: Some women may experience lower back pain or discomfort during menstruation. This pain can range from mild to severe and may be related to the contractions of the uterus.

Not all women will experience these symptoms, and the intensity/duration can vary. Some symptoms may be alleviated or managed through lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and stress reduction techniques. If you experience severe or debilitating symptoms during menstruation that significantly impact your daily life or if you have concerns about your menstrual cycle, it is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional for proper evaluation and guidance.

First Menstruation

A first menstruation is called “menarche” and in most Western countries, the average age for a first menstruation is between the ages of 8 and 17 (or 2 years after the first signs of puberty), though may vary for each individual. Signs of menarche include light bleeding, cramping, and mood swings. Menarche means that one is now physically capable of becoming pregnant and is a defining part of puberty. Before menarche, several changes in the body may be noticed:

  • Chest (breast) development
  • Widening hips
  • Growth Spurts
  • Oily skin and acne
  • Hair growth on underarms, legs, and pubic area

A young woman’s body may continue developing after menarche, but typically, the body will have gone through most of the changes puberty brings by the time one gets their first menstruation.

What Is PMS?

PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome, which refers to a combination of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that many women experience in the days or weeks leading up to their menstrual period. PMS symptoms typically occur during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (more information on this below!), which is the time between ovulation and the start of menstruation.

The exact cause of PMS is not fully understood, but hormonal changes, specifically fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels, are believed to play a role. PMS symptoms can vary widely from woman to woman, both in terms of the types of symptoms experienced and their severity. Some common symptoms of PMS include:

  • Mood Swings: Women with PMS often experience mood changes, such as irritability, sadness, anxiety, or mood swings. These emotional symptoms can range from mild to severe and may affect daily functioning and relationships.
  • Physical Symptoms: PMS can also cause various physical symptoms, including bloating, breast tenderness or swelling, headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain, and changes in appetite or food cravings.
  • Digestive Issues: Some women may experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal bloating, constipation, or diarrhea during PMS.
  • Sleep Problems: PMS can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or disrupted sleep quality. Some women may experience difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep during this time.
  • Skin Changes: Hormonal fluctuations during PMS can contribute to skin changes, such as acne breakouts or increased oiliness.

It’s important to note that PMS symptoms typically resolve or significantly improve once menstruation begins. However, for some women, the symptoms may be severe enough to interfere with daily activities and require medical intervention. In such cases, the condition may be diagnosed as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a more severe form of PMS.

Managing PMS symptoms often involves a combination of lifestyle changes and medical interventions. Lifestyle measures may include regular exercise, a balanced diet, stress reduction techniques, and adequate sleep.

Follicular Phase (Day 6-14)

Following menstruation, the follicular phase starts and lasts until ovulation. During this stage, several follicles in the ovaries start to develop under the influence of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) released by the pituitary gland. These follicles contain immature eggs (known as oocytes) and as they grow, they produce estrogen, preparing the uterine lining for potential implantation. The increase in estrogen triggers a negative feedback loop that inhibits the release of FSH, allowing one dominant follicle to mature. The follicular phase is characterized by these specific hormone changes that can result in various symptoms and experiences. Some common symptoms and changes that women may experience during this phase include:

  • Low Hormone Levels: At the start of the follicular phase, both estrogen and progesterone hormone levels are relatively low. This can contribute to a general sense of well-being and stable mood for some women.
  • Energy Increase: As the follicular phase progresses, many women may experience an increase in energy levels and even motivation. This is due to rising estrogen levels, which can have this stimulating effect.
  • Reduced PMS Symptoms: For some women, the follicular phase brings relief from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms such as mood swings, irritability and bloating. The decrease in hormone levels during menstruation and in the early follicular phase can alleviate these common symptoms.
  • Heightened Libido: Rising estrogen levels during the follicular phase can lead to an increased sex drive for some women. This is because estrogen plays a role in enhancing vaginal lubrication and sensitivity.
  • Lighter Cervical Mucus: As this phase progresses, the cervix produces a mucus that is usually sticky/creamy in consistency. This type of mucus provides a less conducive environment for sperm survival compared to the fertile cervical mucus produced during ovulation.
  • Possible Ovulation Pain: Towards the end of the follicular phase, some women may experience mild pelvic pain on one side of the lower abdomen. This can indicate the impending release of an egg.

It is important to note that not all women will experience these symptoms and may have variations in their own experiences. Individual hormone levels and health conditions can also influence the symptoms during the follicular phase.

Ovulation (Day 14)

Ovulation is an essential stage in the menstrual cycle and occurs approximately halfway through a typical 28 day cycle after the follicular phase. Many women think that they ovulate on day 14, but 14 is an average, and most women will actually ovulate on a different day of their menstrual cycle. Additionally, the day of ovulation may vary from cycle to cycle.

During ovulation, the dominant follicle releases a mature egg (and rarely, more than one egg) into the fallopian tube where it waits fertilization by sperm. Ovulation is triggered by a surge in luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland, which stimulates the release of the egg. The surge in LH leads to the rupture of the mature follicle and the release of the egg into the fallopian tube. This egg can survive for 12-24 hours before it disintegrates into the uterine living and is shed. Ovulation marks the most fertile period of the menstrual cycle and fertilization can occur if sperm is present in the fallopian tube. Some common symptoms of the ovulation phase include:

  • Increased Basal Body Temperature (BBT): Basal body temperature refers to the body’s temperature at rest. During ovulation, some people may experience a slight increase in BBT (typically by about 0.5 to 1 degree Fahrenheit. Tracking your BBT can help identify your ovulation window!
  • Changes in Cervical Mucus: As ovulation approaches, the cervical mucus becomes clear, slippery and stretchy. This type of cervical mucus is considered fertile and facilitates sperm movement, which increases the chances of conception.
  • Mild Pelvic Pain: Some women may experience mild pelvic pain on one side of the lower abdomen during ovulation- this occurs as the follicle ruptures and releases the egg from the ovary.
  • Heightened Libido: Increased levels of estrogen and luteinizing hormone (LH) during ovulation can boost sexual desire in some women. The body’s natural inclination towards reproduction may lead to heightened sex drive during this phase of the menstrual cycle.
  • Breast Tenderness: Fluctuations in hormone levels (particularly estrogen and progesterone) during ovulation can cause breast tenderness or sensitivity in some people. This symptom is similar to what some women may experience during premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
  • Abdominal Bloating: Some women may notice mild bloating or a feeling of fullness in the abdominal area during this phase. This is because of hormonal changes and increased blood flow to the pelvic region.
  • Ovulation Spotting: In some instances for women, a small amount of light spotting or vaginal discharge may occur during ovulation. This spotting is usually very brief and can range in color from pink to brown.

Some individuals may not experience any noticeable symptoms during ovulations, and the intensity/occurrence of these symptoms can vary from woman to woman. Symptoms may also be influenced by factors such as hormonal imbalances or underlying health issues.

Although ovulation occurs only one time during each menstrual cycle and generally lasts 12-24 hours, a woman’s fertile window generally lasts for about 6 days. Sperm can live inside a female reproductive track for up to 5 days. That means that a woman can potentially get pregnant via intercourse that happens anywhere from about 5 days

Natural Ovulation Prediction Methods

There are several natural methods available for predicting ovulation, which can help identify the fertile window for those who are trying to conceive or those who want to avoid pregnancy. Here are some commonly used natural ovulation prediction methods:

  • Basal Body Temperature (BBT) Method: This method involves tracking your basal body temperature, which is your body’s temperature at rest, every morning before getting out of bed. Ovulation causes a slight increase in basal body temperature, typically by about 0.5 to 1 degree Fahrenheit, which can be recorded on a chart. By observing temperature patterns over several cycles, you can identify the rise in temperature indicating that ovulation has occurred.
  • Cervical Mucus Method: This method involves monitoring changes in cervical mucus throughout your cycle. As ovulation approaches, estrogen levels increase, leading to changes in the quantity and quality of cervical mucus. Fertile cervical mucus becomes clear, slippery, and stretchy (resembling raw egg whites), which indicates increased fertility. By observing these changes, you can identify your fertile days.
  • Calendar Method: The calendar method involves tracking the length of your menstrual cycles over time to estimate when ovulation is likely to occur. This method assumes a regular cycle length and predicts ovulation based on average cycle lengths. By subtracting the length of your average luteal phase (typically around 14 days) from the length of your average cycle, you can estimate the approximate day of ovulation.
  • Symptothermal Method: The symptothermal method combines multiple fertility signs, such as BBT, cervical mucus, and other physical symptoms like breast tenderness or ovulation pain, to identify fertile and infertile days. By cross-referencing these different signs, you can increase the accuracy of predicting ovulation.
  • Ovulation Predictor Kits (OPKs): These kits detect the presence of luteinizing hormone (LH) in urine, which typically surges 24-48 hours before ovulation. By using an OPK daily, you can anticipate when you are about to ovulate and identify your fertile window.

It’s important to note that natural ovulation prediction methods require consistent and accurate tracking, as well as a good understanding of your body’s signs and patterns. These methods are most effective for women with regular menstrual cycles. However, they may not be as reliable for those with irregular cycles or hormonal imbalances. Additionally, these methods do not protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so if you’re at risk of STIs, it’s essential to use barrier methods like condoms.

If you are considering using natural ovulation prediction methods, it’s recommended to learn them from a qualified instructor or healthcare provider who can guide you through the process and answer any questions you may have.

Luteal Phase (Day 15-28)

The luteal phase follows ovulation and lasts until the beginning of the next menstruation cycle. After ovulation, the ruptured follicle transforms into a structure called the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum produces progesterone which helps prepare the uterus for potential pregnancy by further thickening the endometrium. Progesterone inhibits the release of FSH and LH, preventing further ovulation. If fertilization and implantation occur, the corpus luteum continues to produce progesterone until the placenta takes over this role. However, if fertilization and implantation do not occur, the corpus luteum degenerates, progesterone levels drop, and the next menstrual cycle begins, initiating menstruation again. Common symptoms of this phase include:

  • Increased Basal Body Temperature (BBT): Following ovulation, there is a slight increase in BBT (body temperature at rest) due to the release of progesterone. Tracking your BBT can help confirm if ovulation has occurred and can be used as a natural family planning method!
  • Breast Tenderness: The luteal phase is associated with elevated levels of progesterone, which can lead to breast tenderness or sensitivity. Breasts may feel fuller, swollen or more sensitive to touch.
  • Mood Swings and Irritability: Hormonal fluctuations (particularly an increase in progesterone) can affect neurotransmitters in the brain and contribute to mood swings, irritability, or heightened emotional sensitivity during the luteal phase.
  • Bloating and Water Retention: Some people may experience bloating, abdominal discomfort or a sensation of fullness during the luteal phase. This can be because of fluid retention caused by hormonal changes.
  • Fatigue: Feelings of fatigue or low energy are common during the luteal phase. The increase in progesterone can contribute to a sense of tiredness and may affect sleep quality.
  • Food Cravings and Increased Appetite: Hormonal fluctuations during the luteal phase can trigger food cravings, particularly for carbohydrates or sweets. Some women may also experience an increased appetite.
  • Acne Breakouts: The rise in progesterone levels during the luteal phase can lead to an increase in sebum production, which may lead to acne breakouts.
  • Heightened Sensitivity: Some women may experience heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli during the luteal phase. This can be in the form of increased sensitivity to smells, sounds, or even pain perception.

Some symptoms associated with the luteal phase can overlap with PMS and not all women will experience these symptoms (and may vary from cycle to cycle). Keeping track of your menstrual cycle, noting any changes or symptoms, and practicing self-care strategies can help manage and alleviate discomfort during the luteal phase. If symptoms significantly impact your daily life or become severe, it may be beneficial to consult with a healthcare professional.

Perimenopause & Menopause

As women age, their bodies undergo significant hormonal changes that can have a profound impact on their physical and emotional well-being. Two crucial stages in a woman’s life that mark this transition are perimenopause and menopause. For more information on perimenopause and menopause in women, check our article right here.

Conclusion & Menstrual Cycle Resources

Menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase collectively regulate the menstrual cycle and prepare the body for potential pregnancy. While the duration and characteristics of each stage may vary among individuals, they represent fundamental milestones in the reproductive journey. By comprehending the intricacies of the menstrual cycle, individuals can gain awareness of their fertility, monitor their reproductive health, and make informed decisions regarding contraception, family planning, and overall well-being. Here are our favorite menstrual cycle resources:

More Resources

Resources From Dr. Brooke Stuart / Let Go & Grow®

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