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How Well do You Know Your Cycle? Why it’s Not All About Your Period

When we think of menstruation, we tend to think of those blood-soaked days accompanied by cramps and cravings – but this is only the beginning of the menstrual cycle. Your period makes up just one quarter of the stages of the menstrual cycle – let’s take a look at the other stages and what they mean for your health.

There are 4 phases involved in the menstrual cycle, including:

  • The menstrual phase
  • The follicular phase
  • Ovulation
  • The luteal phase
Image credit: Grace Martin

 

Most people will have their first period between the ages of 10-15 and their last at some point in their 40s or 50s, with the average span of a cycle being 28 days – though this will vary depending on the individual. Now, we typically think of the period phase of the cycle as the major event, but there is so much more to unpack. Let’s dive into the 4 phases of the menstrual cycle.

The menstrual phase

This is the first phase of your menstrual cycle, and it typically lasts around 5-7 days, though there will, of course, be variation for each individual. It’s the phase you refer as your period, and involves the shedding of the uterine lining – this is the blood and fluid that is released during your period.

Let’s take a look a little deeper into what’s actually happening here: during the menstrual phase, there is a change in hormones. Your estrogen and progesterone levels drop, while your body release hormones known as prostaglandins. It’s the former hormones – estrogen and progesterone – that are responsible for the bleeding that takes place during menstruation, as the lining is no longer needed if you’re not pregnant.

Along with the bleeding that occurs during this phase, you might experience some of the following signs:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Pelvic pain
  • Bloating
  • Acne breakouts
  • Breast tenderness
  • Mood fluctuations

Note: Intensely painful cramps – or even moderately painful cramps – along with pelvic pain, heavy flow can all be signs of more serious conditions, like uterine fibroids, endometriosis or even clotting issues. Many of us put up with extreme pain under the guise of it being “normal”, but with around 10% of those with periods afflicted by endometriosis and up to 70% experiencing fibroids at some stage in their life, too many women, non-binary and trans individuals are not getting treatment that could significantly reduce their pain and increase their quality of life. So, don’t hesitate to flag any issues with your doctor, even if you – as is especially common for women – are used to downplaying or brushing your pain off as “normal.” Part of this is due to the messages ingrained in us from childhood, in education and even in popular media – how many movies have you seen with characters clutching their stomachs and groaning in agony? – along with the fact that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s, with one study showing female medical patients were perceived to be in less pain than their male counterparts, despite reporting identical pain ratings. The result of undermining women’s pain is the further development of diseases that would have been treatable if caught early, along with the societal attitudes that cause so many to hide or downplay their own pain.

Take a look at some of the other symptoms worth flagging:

  • Skipped periods
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Unusually short or long periods
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Breast pain

The follicular phase

The second phase of the menstrual cycle is known as the follicular phase, and it actually overlaps with your period. This is because it starts on day one of your period, but it lasts a little longer that the latter – usually around 10 to 16 days. The hormones released during this phase include Follicle-Stimulating Hormone, which is what signals the ovaries to create follicles; the sacks which contain immature eggs. What happens next is a bit of competition between the follicles whereby one will come out victorious as the strongest egg – this is the one that will be capable of fertilisation, while the other follicles simply get reabsorbed into your body. As you can see, there’s a lot going on while we’re unaware – between a gladiator-esque competition and a party of hormones, it’s all happening!

Fun fact: The follicular phase is the longest of all four phases of the menstrual cycle.

Ovulation

Ovulation is a short-lived phase, usually only lasting around 12 to 24 hours. It usually starts around a week from the last day of your period, which should be around day 14 of the cycle – this will of course depend on the length of your own cycle. That victorious follicle from the previous phase – the follicular phase – matures and is then released during this stage. What happens next plays a major role in fertility and reproductive functions – the egg travels from the ovary into the fallopian tube, and this us when it can be fertilised by sperm.

Note: There tends to be a 3-5 window inside and outside the ovulation phase where pregnancy is most likely. This is due to the fact that sperm can live in the body for around 5 days – so if you’re trying for a baby, keep this in mind.

The signs of ovulation include the following:

  • A discharge of clear, slippery fluid – which has been compared to that of an egg white – is released during this stage.
  • Mittelschmerz, which quite literally translates to “middle pain”, may occur. This is a lower abdominal pain which is usually one-sided and may be dull or sharp.
  • An increased libido may also accompany ovulation.

 

The luteal phase

The final phase of your cycle is known as the luteal phase, and it usually lasts around 14 days. Here’s what’s happening: if you’re not pregnant, then that victorious egg that we mentioned earlier will now turn into a mass of cells known as corpus luteum – hence the name –and these are responsible for making progesterone. This hormone then results in the thickening of the lining of the uterus to prepare the body all over again for a possible pregnancy.

Take a look at some of the signs of the luteal phase – these usually occur around day 12 of this stage and tend to overlap with some of the menstrual phase signs:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Mood fluctuation
  • Bloating
  • Headaches
  • Poor sleep

Note: During this phase, you have a faster metabolism, so you may need to up your caloric intake by up to 300 calories to make sure you’re meeting your needs.

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