Understanding Your Period: The Menstrual Cycle

everything you need to know about your fifth vital sign
menstrual cycle period phases
© Can Stock Photo / kanvictory

I remember when I got my first period. I was bleeding and thought for sure I must be dying. At 13 years old, it had not been explained to me, and I was horrified. Thinking about it now, it’s actually pretty incredible to know that we can bleed regularly without dying!

I know that reaching menarche—the first time you get a period—completely unaware of what to expect is not a story unique to me. Many menstruators have had similar experiences. And even if they are aware, many reach adulthood having a vague notion of monthly periods, mostly in relation to pregnancy. They have little insight into the complex systems that interact to make it all happen and how the menstrual cycle is important, even if getting pregnant is not the goal.

The Menstrual Cycle Shows How Everything Is Connected

If we’re to own our bodies and dispel the shrouds and taboos around menstruation, we need to get connected with and informed about our bodies. And equally important, we should also teach our children (of any gender) to do the same!

Your menstrual cycle can be considered your fifth vital sign. Your menstrual history and current cycle illuminates not only what’s happening in your body now but also what risk factors exist for future conditions, including osteoporosis, breast cancer, and endometrial cancer.

In addition to this, your hormonal fluctuations mean that you might feel and behave slightly differently throughout your cycle. Your sex hormones (think estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) interact with other systems in the body, such as your immune system, nervous system, and digestive system. These interactions mean that you may notice slight ups and downs in energy levels, mood, sleep, digestion, and more throughout your whole menstrual cycle, depending on what phase you’re in. Remember: everything is connected!

Phases of the Menstrual Cycle

Each month, your menstrual cycle prepares your body for a possible pregnancy. It’s a complex system that involves communication between the brain and the ovaries, to direct your hormones to simultaneously shed last month’s uterine lining while at the same time starting preparations for a new cycle. Your period follows a monthly cycle that is broken down into two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase.

Understanding how the process works is important since you can use this information to help to either achieve or avoid pregnancy, to better manage any cyclical symptoms you are experiencing, recognize when there might be a problem, and utilize it as a framework to support yourself.

Follicular Phase

Conventionally, your first day of menstrual flow is considered day one of your menstrual cycle. This is when your endometrial lining, the lining inside your uterus, is shed. For most women, this process lasts anywhere from three to seven days. As your lining is being shed, your follicles, the sacs that contain immature eggs, begin to grow, spurred on by follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). As your follicles continue to grow, estrogen begins to rise, stimulating your endometrial lining to begin growing anew. As you approach the middle of your cycle, a surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) triggers a chain reaction as a follicle ruptures and releases an egg, signalling ovulation (if you’ve ever taken an ovulation predictor kit, LH is the hormone that it’s testing for). Ovulation is also the time when you might notice extra cervical mucus that’s kind of like egg whites.

Luteal Phase

Once the egg is released, your follicle shell is now called the corpus luteum and it begins to secrete progesterone. The corpus luteum only lasts 10–12 days unless pregnancy has been achieved, in which case it’ll stick around. Once your body realizes that pregnancy didn’t happen, estrogen and progesterone levels drop, your body will move toward your period to shed the uterine lining that had built up, and the cycle will repeat itself.

Period Tracking During Your Menstrual Cycle

We’ve never really been encouraged to pay attention to our bodies, especially when it comes to menstruation. Your flow should be cranberry red, smooth, maybe with a few tiny clots, and should last three to seven days. You might notice some darker red blood at the onset and end of your period when the quantity is less. A bit of discomfort and pressure is normal to feel, but if you’re having debilitating pain or if you’re popping multiple extra-strength ibuprofen, then it’s time to talk to your healthcare provider.

Your cycle is calculated from day one of your period flow to the first day of your next period. You may have seen a few different reference ranges for your cycle length, but somewhere between 24 to 34 days is pretty normal, with the average usually described as 28 days. No matter how long your cycle, it should be a fairly consistent length each month.

When you menstruate for the first time, your cycle can be slightly irregular as your body begins to release hormones, striving for its cyclical fashion. You may also notice irregularities during times of stress because reproduction becomes less of a priority in times of hardship! If irregularity persists, it should be investigated because it can be related to underlying hormonal, biochemical, nutritional, and lifestyle issues like polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid disorder, eating disorder, or nutritional deficiencies. You may also notice cycle irregularities as you approach menopause (and you might also want to check out seed cycling).

Are you on track?

To understand what’s actually happening in your body, tracking is the best way to identify your personal cyclical patterns and provides key information to your healthcare practitioner should you have any other health issues. Comparing changes in your health to your menstrual cycle provides practitioners with a holistic picture of your health, which helps them run appropriate testing, if necessary, and tailor a plan that works best for you.

When tracking your cycle, give it a few months to identify any patterns to be better able to see the bigger picture: did sickness or stress cause a shift in your cycle or was there something else at work? With the advances in technology and apps, it’s never been easier to track your cycles and what you’re noticing in your body and mind throughout its course. These can help you chart flow, cervical mucus, basal body temperature, and other areas like digestion, energy, and pain. If you have a health concern that seems to come and go, like sleep, mood, pain, or digestion issues, then tracking it against your cycle may be extremely enlightening! If an app isn’t your thing, then you can use a calendar or go old-school and put pen to paper. 

What is Premenstrual Syndrome?

Premenstrual syndrome is extremely prevalent with symptoms like cramping, mood swings, breast tenderness, headaches, acne, cravings, constipation, joint pain, and bloating in the week leading up to your period. These symptoms can be quite severe for many women but typically go away within a few days of the onset. Much more concerning is premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a condition that features common PMS symptoms along with other debilitating ones like depression, anxiety, anger, and decreased interest in activities. There are no blood tests to diagnose PMS and PMDD making cycle and symptom tracking vital.

Even though PMS has become the norm, a healthy premenstrual phase should be pretty mild with some changes in mood, digestion, and water retention. The way you live, eat, drink, and think all have an impact on your PMS and periods.

You can alleviate some of the symptoms of PMS by reducing your intake of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, and by consuming more fibrous plant foods like leafy greens and antioxidant-rich fruit like berries. Managing stress levels and slowing down at this time is also key.

For more on relieving PMS symptoms naturally, visit ecoparent.ca/natural-PMS.

Your cycle is about so much more than your periods. Getting to know the ebbs and flows of your mood, energy, digestion, and more can tell you so much about the subtle nuances of what makes you tick. Once you know your cycle better, you can actually leverage the cyclical changes to your benefit! So learn your unique patterns, track changes, and give your body the attention and care it deserves.

You may also enjoy: Natural Advice For Your Daughter's First Period, Eco-Friendly Period Products That Are Naturally Better, and Hormone Myths of the Menstruating Woman