Menstrual education has been sorely lacking in ovary-owner’s lives. At the onset of puberty, we’re handed some pads, tampons, misconceptions, and an unhealthy dose of shame and off we go into the world of being a menstruator.
There is so much lacking from how menstruation is talked about in the mainstream, and let’s be honest, it’s mainly negative. It’s either all about periods, PMS, or maybe if you’re trying to get pregnant you may mention ovulation, but rarely do we talk about all four stages of the menstrual cycle in a positive light - and we really need to. You’ll find that menstruators are not unpredictable at all, we simply work to a different rhythm that you can learn and use to your own benefit.
Your cycle influences nearly every part of your life and not knowing why may make your feel like you’re on an endless rollercoaster with no way off. I promise that is not true. Menstruators are cyclical beings and learning how the cycle affects you is a journey of self-discovery and healing. It is completely individual because everyone has different bodies that are influenced by genetics, illness, climate, medication, and lifestyle. So, take this as a preliminary guide to open the discussion within yourself and start to pay compassionate attention to your body and mind in each of the four phases.
Now I know that science-talk can be a little inaccessible, so I love to draw upon an analogy of “inner seasons” to describe the cycle: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. In turn, these refer to the follicular, ovulatory, luteal, and menstrual phases. Our associations with the seasons are really helpful in understanding (and remembering!) how changing hormones may affect us.
SPRING: Follicular Phase
Due to falling hormone levels our brain triggers the rise of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) which develops the follicles in our ovaries to grow and prepare for ovulation. Follicles are fluid filled sacs that contain the undeveloped ova (egg). You may know that an average of one ova is released each cycle to be fertilised, but in fact several follicles compete for maturity and the ones that fail degenerate. As they grow, the follicles excrete oestrogen which triggers the thickening of the endometrium lining in the uterus to prepare for potential pregnancy. Oestrogen reaches a peak as the dominant follicle grows to the size of a grape and produces 90% of the body’s total oestrogen within the cycle. The pituitary gland then produces an influx of LH (luteinising hormone) which triggers the next phase.
Much like springtime, the follicular phase is all about new growth as the body starts to awaken due to increasing oestrogen. You might feel more energetic and extroverted as you feel more confident in your ability to grow and thrive. This can present in all aspects of your life, but especially when it comes to social situations. Now is a great time to start new projects, seek high energy fitness, and seek more intense sensations in your sex life.
SUMMER: Ovulatory Phase
The LH has now surged and triggered ovulation a day later. The enzymes in the follicle cause the breakdown of its barrier and release the ova to travel to the fallopian tubes. The endometrial lining is now thick and healthy and waits for the ova now travelling down the fallopian tube. It has between 12-24 hours to be fertilised by sperm before reaching the uterus otherwise it will die. This is a very short window of time, however the felt effects of the increased hormones last up to a week.
This is your most fertile time and studies have shown that ovulation has an impact on subtle signs of attractiveness from the symmetry of the face to body oder. Subconsciously your hormones will be influencing you towards sex. Your libido will skyrocket, and your mood will be high. Things that might annoy you at other times of your cycle will pass by unacknowledged as you actively seek the positive, so your relationships might be more smooth sailing at this stage. People will also be drawn to your confidence, so this is an amazing time to arrange important speeches, social events, and work hard.
AUTUMN: Luteal Phase
The ruptured follicle now starts to develop a lining called the corpus luteum which grows to fill the shrinking follicle before it degenerates. The corpus luteum is what produces progesterone and a lowered dose of oestrogen. Progesterone further thickens the endometrium lining and stops contractions that may reject eggs. The corpus luteum’s function is to provide support to potential early pregnancies before the placenta takes over progesterone production. When no egg is fertilised, FSH and LH is shut down, causing the corpus luteum to degenerate and therefore overall oestrogen and progesterone levels decrease. The lack of hormones protecting the endometrium lining triggers menstruation.
Autumn is a time where everything starts going a bit slower, the days get shorter, energy starts to decrease, and you want to stay indoors a little bit more. Progesterone is a more introverted hormone, and your focus will be more internally reflected. This can result in amazing insights about how your life is going and places to improve. However, emotional sensitivity and destress can be an indicator that you are not honouring the seasonal cue to start winding back and preparing for winter. Or that more broadly something in your life or body is out of balance. Of course, if symptoms of depression are severe, see your doctor about PMS and PMDD to make sure nothing is wrong.
WINTER: Menstrual Phase
Reduced progesterone and oestrogen levels in the bloodstream trigger the shedding of the inner layer of the uterus through the cervix and vagina. Prostaglandins are produced and help control the contractions of the uterus to help shed the lining and cause a cramping feeling. Excessive pain should always be met with medical attention as it may be a more serious issue like endometriosis. The Uterine discharge is a mix of blood, cervical mucus, and endometrial cells and usually lasts between 3-5 days. During this phase the body is working hard to shed the lining, and a lack of hormones means decreased energy.
Winter is a time for hibernation and self-care. Resting up and receiving care is paramount in learning to enjoy this phase so grab some tea, answer some emails from bed, and take it easy. As it is the most demonised part of the menstruation cycle, and you may already have a negative relationship with it. However, many people report feeling more connected to the greater whole and the earth, leading to bleeding being regarded as spiritually significant. You may find that meditation, yoga, and walking outdoors will help you feel more grounded and at rest within your own body. And as a bonus, orgasmic contractions help the process of menstruation and can relieve tension and the rush of happy chemicals can help boost your mood while oestrogen is low. Eventually, the low hormones trigger new production, and the cycle starts anew.