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All About The Menstrual Cycle – Understand The Basics

All About The Menstrual Cycle – Understand The Basics

The menstrual cycle is such a huge part of women. It pretty much defines us as we become women when we hit puberty and bringing children into the world was made our primary role as beings by someone much greater than us.

Yet even though we usually get our period every month, and some of us are trying to conceive, do we really know all about the menstrual cycle? You do not have to be embarrassed to say no, because in reality many of us do not know the details, until we realize that there may be irregularities and/or we can not fall pregnant.

Today, women are having fewer children because culture has changed: women are more career oriented and financially it is also more difficult. One thing is for sure though, when we want children, we WANT them badly and we stress over getting pregnant and worry when we can not conceive.

It is common for women to try all different types of methods to calculate their ovulation period through body basal temperature, cervical mucus, ovulation kits and many phone applications that exist today.

I have shared with my followers in the past, that I have ammenorhea (lack of period) as a result of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which means I will not be able to get pregnant naturally. I know that even though I will never have the opportunity to calculate my ovulation days, I understand how stressful it can be, wanting to conceive and feeling like it may be out of your control.

So I want to explain all about the menstrual cycle so that you really understand the different phases, the roles of each phase and any associated symptoms we may have during our menstruation. This in turn will help you, when you would like to get pregnant, or avoid getting pregnant and/or recognize any issues in your cycle.

The Menstrual Cycle

As a basic explanation, the purpose of our menstrual cycle prepares the body to conceive each month. The lining of our uterus wall thickens with blood vessels, preparing for a ferilized embryo to be implanted.

At the end of the cycle, if the female did not conceive, the lining is “shed”, meaning that the blood vessels bleed out. This is what we call our period. The length of this bleeding period differs for each female, but can last anywhere from as short as 2 days to as long as 8 days.

The whole menstrual cycle, for a “normal” cycle, is 28 days. The shedding of the uterus starts at day 28, which means the 28 day cycle starts again from day 1 of when we start bleeding.

Some women are very regular but for many, there is a slight deviation from the 28 days and these women can get their period every 21 to 35 days.

This menstrual cycle is made possible due to hormones which are controlled by the brain, specifically the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, and the reproductive system, specifically the ovaries.

The Phases of the Menstrual Cycle

 

Mentrual-Cycle-3-Phases

Each of the 3 phases described below. will take place for every female but remember, the exact length or number of days for each phase may differ between women. This is why the numbers in the above diagram do not match the number of days in the phases described below.

If you have a PERFECT 28 day cycle, then the days of each phase will most likely match the days (duration) as described below. But if your bleeding period lasts only 2 days for example, your follicular phase may not be 14 days long.

A cycle that lasts between 21 and 35 days is still considered in the normal range so we do not need to worry.

The Follicular Phase – Days 1 to 14

You can identify day one of this phase easily, despite the length of your cycle, because day 1 is when we start bleeding.

The last day of this cycle would be 14 days later and it is when OVULATION begins. But again, this may differ depending on the total length of your cycle.

What happens between day 1 and 14?

So although the beginning of this phase is meant to release the uterus lining because pregnancy did not take place, this phase also prepares the body for another round of ovulation, and therefore the possibility to conceive.

How does the body prepare for ovulation?

The pituitary gland (in the brain) releases the hormone called the Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH).

As the name states, the FSH initiates the release of follicles in the ovaries.

Each of these follicles contain an egg, but only one of these follicles will develop to maturity and the rest of the follicles will shrink. An exception to this is when someone conceives twins or more because this is when more than 1 follicle develops but as we know, this is not as common.

The mature follicle then produces estrogen and the levels of estrogen rise throughout the follicular phase and are at its highest level the day before ovulation.

Due to estrogen rising, the following happens:

  • Uterus wall (bleeding is now over) starts to get thicker again with blood.
  • The production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) takes place by the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is also part of the brain and it is considered the “boss” off the pituitary.

The GnRH has the role of stimulating the pituitary gland to release another hormone called the luteinizing hormone (LH).

Just 1 or 2 days before the end of the follicular phase, (days 12 to 14), the levels of FSH and LH rise (as well as estrogen) and this causes the mature egg to be released by the follicle.

You can notice that usually around this time, you will also feel more sexually aroused, because simultaneously, testosterone will also be secreted, increasing your sex drive.

The Ovulatory Phase – Day 14

The egg that was released in the ovulatory phase, enters the fallopian tube where fertilization may take place, if sperm is present.

The egg disintegrates after 24 hours if it is not fertilized – therefore the window of opportunity to get pregnant is quite short, and that is why many women want to know their exact day of ovulation to maximize their chances.

The follicle that released the mature egg seals over and has been termed the corpus luteum.

The Luteal Phase – Days 14 to 28

Ths levels of FSH and LH decrease after release of the egg.

If fertilization took place: The corpus luteum produces progesterone to prevent the lining of the uterus to shed. The fertilized egg then travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus, where it will implant in the uterine wall.

If fertilization did not take place: the corpus luteum disintegrates which means progesterone levels drop, causing the lining to shed and the body starts to bleed again, returning back to phase one, the ovulatory phase.

How Do You Track When You Are Ovulating?

There are different methods which we will discuss, and regardless which method we use, keep a written journal to track all the visible changes.

Written down everything, such as 1st day of bleeding every month, length of bleeding and record the premenstrual symptoms you feel before bleeding and how long they last before the 1st day of bleeding.

What are typical premenstrual symptoms? Write your symptoms, the days they took place and how long they lasted.

– abdominal bloating and/or pain

– acne

– low energy

– low back pain

– food cravings, especially sweets

– constipation and/or diarrhea

– headaches

– tender breasts

1. Cervical Mucus Testing

You may not think we know what this is, but all us women have noticed the mucus that is excreted from our vagina. In fact, you may unconsciously know when you ovulate it is during this time when the cervical mucus is most visible.

Where does this mucus come from?

The mucus helps the sperm travel to your mature egg that was released. The sperm must travel your cervical canal to get to your ovaries and therefore this mucus lines your cervical canal, and increases in thickness and consistency closer to day 14, the day of ovulation.

When we are most fertile, the mucus will be clear, abundant, and stretchy. To give we an idea of how thick this mucus should be when we are about to ovulate, is that is should be as consistent as an “egg-white” from an actual egg.

2. Basal Body Basal Temperature

thermometer-body-basal-temperature

Basal body temperature is when we are the “coldest”, or our body temperature is the lowest. This is as soon as we open our eyes after sleeping and therefore it will immediately start rising once we get out of bed.

It is therefore recommended having your thermometer and a notebook right by your bedside, and to measure our basal body temperature before we even move. (You need a special type of thermometer for this)

In order to have most accurate measurements, and a clear picture of your body’s cycle, we must:

  • Measure body basal temperature over a few months;
  • Take measurements after a decent night sleep of minimum 6 hours;
  • Take the measurement at the same time each morning, even if that means setting an alarm.

Why are we taking our basal body temperature?

Mentrual Cycle-Body Temperature

Due to hormones changes in the body preparing for ovulation, our body temperature rises.

Before ovulation our body temperature is usually between 36.2°C and 36.5°C.

Just after ovulation (the next day) our temperature will increase by at least 0.5°C and will stay at that temperature until we bleed.

If we have irregular periods, this will help with detecting when we are ovulating. It can also help determine if we are not ovulating when we do not see changes in basal body temperature.

3. Ovulation Prediction Kits

Each of these kits comes with different instructions so be sure to follow them precisely.

The premises of these kits is to measure the level of the Luteinizing Hormone (and some even estrogen) that we discussed in the ovulatory phase, because it is at its highest level just before ovulation and can be detected in the urine.

Are You Pre-Mentrual Symptoms Difficult To Handle?

Woman-Crouched-Sad-Not-Well

Some women suffer with extreme physical menstrual symptoms that it really affects quality of life.

For instance, we may skip work or school, avoid social gatherings, feel very depressed, emotionally over eat, feel less productive and argue with your spouse and family.

If you feel that your symptoms are causing too much stress in your life, consider speaking with your doctor to discuss options, especially if you are not trying to conceive.

What Can Be The Cause Of Missed Periods Or Lack Of Period?

We know that hormones play a huge role in the body and any imbalance in our hormones will most likely cause health issues.

The hypothalamus plays a critical role in our menstruation cycle by producing GnRH in a pulsing fashion and this is what allows the pituitary to produce and release LH and FSH in the appropriate amount and at the appropriate time to facilitate ovulation.

So anything that effects balance of these hormones, by affecting the function of the hypothalamus is called hypothalamic ammenorhea. Some of these factors are:

  • Psychological stress
  • Physiologic stress
  • Chronic disease
  • Excessive exercise
  • Excessive weight loss

Is Your Menstrual Cycle Consistent?

Doctor-Written

It is important to have a regular cycle, because this means that your hormones are balanced and your body is in a healthy state. There are variations between women in terms of the length of the menstrual cycle, but if your cycle is consistent, that shows that the hormones are getting triggered and released at the same time and everything is synchronized and working.

Even if we are not trying to get pregnant, it would be important to understand absent periods or ammenorhea because there may an underlying health concern such as PCOS.

Typically with unbalanced hormones comes a cascade of other health issues. It could also be that we are physically and/or mentally exhausted or even close to having a burn out due to too much stress.

If you notice that your periods are irregular, seek your doctor’s advice to determine if your hormone levels should be tested.

I know I never did this and instead, I just went on the birth control pills for many years to regulate my cycle. Only when I wanted to have children, at age 36, did I learn that I have PCOS and will not be able to have a baby naturally. Do not wait until we want a child and/or we have other health issues.

Leave your comments below ladies:)

4 thoughts on “All About The Menstrual Cycle – Understand The Basics”

  1. This is very helpful information to help a person to understand the menstrual cycle and all of the different phases. Today’s modern apps can easily show a person this information (and somewhat predict the dates of each cycle), but one first needs to have a basic understanding of what each of the cycles actually means. Thanks so much for sharing this important insight.

    Reply
    • Thank you Aly so much for taking the time to read my article and for commenting. 

      Yes you are absolutely right. In today`s world, we do depend on the technological applications for sure. But a machine is exactly that – a machine. It can not be a one-size-fits all, for a complex system of hormones.

      Understanding the basics and learning about the true symptoms and physical changes you should feel and be able to measure and quantify on your own I feel is important. 

      Thank you again:)

      Reply
  2. Cynthia, as someone with experience in anatomy and physiology, thank you very much for putting this educational post together. I have seen many attempts to breakdown menstruation on the biological level and many have difficulty identifying the relationship hormones like gonadotropin play in influencing the menstrual cycle. Above all, you also discuss the pre-menstrual symptoms many women deal with and recommend discussing extremely difficult symptoms with a doctor to ameliorate them. Altogether, an excellent article. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hello JaysonGP,

      Thank you for visiting my site and for reading my article. I also really appreciate the feedback as I want to ensure that my posts are really serving to educate people and also guiding them in the right direction to better their health. 

      I really take a lot of time to really gather the best information I can find. I want to make it easy for someone to find all they information they need in one post. It seems like my post reflected this and I am very happy.

      Thank you again for your support.

      Reply

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