Breaking Down Menstrual Cycles
Self care is not another task for the to-do list. True self care is about honoring your needs as they present themselves. And you cannot do that well if you’re oblivious to the rhythms of your body and spirit, as is often the case with people whose bodies reset every 28 days, instead of every 24-hours. In other words, people with menstrual cycles. What we learn about menstrual cycles is far from comprehensive and combines myths with truths. If this sounds like your experience, prepare to learn some essential info. It can help you enjoy life more, have better relationships, and may even blow your mind.
Human Hormone Cycles
Humans experience cycles driven by their hormones. One pattern driven by testosterone follows a 24-hour rhythm, while the ebbs and flows of estrogen and progesterone follow a roughly 28-day rhythm. This latter pattern is called the menstrual cycle. It is driven by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland which act on the ovaries and female reproductive hormones.
Each cycle is distinguished by a unique balance of hormones going through phases that impact energy, exercise and stress tolerance, confidence, mood, strength, immunity, and verbal ability. Our desire and need for food, nutrients, affection, sex, and conversation, and even abilities with certain tasks may vary with phases in the cycle.
You can probably see that our society’s schedules for work, rest, eating, socializing and intimacy are built around on the phases of the 24-hour rhythm. The latest energy and sleep research is focused there too! But learning about the mostly ignored menstrual rhythm can be empowering and practical and can foster understanding between people sharing lives and living quarters.
What Happens on Each Day of the Menstrual Cycle
A menstrual cycle will often last 28 days but does not need to be 28 days long to be healthy.
Phase 1, the Menstrual phase. Menstruation lasts from day 1 until day 5, give or take some days. Menstruation, also called the period, takes place if pregnancy doesn’t occur. Menstruation involves shedding the uterine lining and the blood that nourishes it. Day 1 is marked by seeing period blood for the first time in that cycle, but a real period and bleeding in a period-like way are not synonymous. It is possible to bleed on schedule every 28 days, yet have no egg ripen and thus not be fertile at all. Proper periods happen after ovulation. That means that a bleed that happens without ovulating first is not a real period.
Phase 2, the Follicular phase. From day 6 to day 13, or between the end of the menstrual period and ovulation, follicles develop eggs and the uterine lining (also called the endometrium) prepares for the possibility of impregnation by thickening and enriching itself with blood and nutrients.
Phase 3, the Ovulatory phase. Ovulation is the release of an egg from one of the ovaries. A healthy menstrual cycle with regular ovulation is an important indicator of overall health. Ovulation usually occurs on day 14 but does not have to occur on day 14 to be healthy.
Phase 4, the Luteal phase. Days 15 to 24 the chosen egg will journey down a fallopian tube to the uterus. If sperm are present in that tube at this time, the egg may get fertilized. If so, it will attempt to implant when it reaches the uterus. Day 25-28 If the egg in the fallopian tube is impregnated by a sperm within the first 24 hours of this phase, the corpus luteum continues producing progesterone to support pregnancy and the endometrial lining. Unless the egg is fertilized, the pre-menstrual phase begins, the egg disintegrates and the progesterone that the corpus luteum was making disappears, signalling the endometrium lining to shed. When the uterus stops retaining its endometrium, menstruation will begin.
Strategic Planning Around the Menstrual Cycle
If you’ve ever judged yourself for day-to-day inconsistencies, I am here to give you permission to eat a certain way, do breathwork, hit PRs at the gym, or journal only when the time feels right for you!
Days 27 - Day 2 You may choose to set aside the first two days of your period and the ones just prior for rest. You may prefer to be solitary or spend time together not talking. Prostaglandins helping you to shed your uterine lining now may also cause weakness, loose stools and a higher sensitivity to pain, so avoid intense HIIT workouts, heavy lifting or hair removal. Eating fewer inflammatory fats all month long could help these symptoms and may make perimenopause easier later in life, too.
A wise woman once said, “a period should be an inconvenience at worst”, and contrary to popular thought, a person in the period phase can feel positive, upbeat and even chatty. From a hormonal standpoint, rising estrogen and serotonin should improve PMS symptoms, low mood, irritability, or low energy. If you cannot function due to pain, inflammation, or diarrhea on your period, you may have especially high levels of inflammatory prostaglandins. These are the compounds that trigger labour contractions, so the cramps they cause can be intense! Probiotics and fiber may stabilize the digestive situation. Ferritin+, a plant-based iron supplement from Flora, is the ideal supplement if you require iron because a single capsule is usually enough and it won't constipate or irritate your digestive system.
Along with endometrial tissue, losing 3 tablespoons of blood is average, but reports vary from just a spot to over two cups (540ml)! Flow with the energy and release things with no purpose; declutter a drawer, sort through last month’s photos and emails, or weed your garden. Or chill out, use a clarifying face mask, journal, and reflect. Getting more iron all month is helpful, and warming, iron-rich foods are especially needed this week. Blood loss can cause iron levels to drop, causing deficiency symptoms such as poor concentration, cold hands and feet, irritability, fatigue or headaches.
If your flow is heavy, your quality of life could be vastly improved by the diagnosis and treatment of iron deficiency. Sometimes, you want to consult a licensed health care practitioner. A period that is both heavy and clotty can be connected to an overly high estrogen to progesterone ratio, and heavy menses can cause life-threatening anemia. Even in the absence of anemia, studies have found that folks who menstruate are often low in iron and deficient in ferritin. If you feel fatigued, check your iron levels. Anyone with a menstrual cycle can supplement with an easily absorbed form of iron in a safe low dose (such as Flora Iron) and experience benefits.*
Day 3 – 6 Estrogen production and serotonin increase. This should lift mood and reduce food cravings, making it a great time to eat lightly and healthfully! You’re bleeding less heavy now, but you should still support yourself with colorful, anti-inflammatory plant foods and engage in self care rituals or replenishing activities. Nourish yourself. This a creative time that can be spent with children, following artistic or creative pursuits, or gathering ideas or emotional and spiritual inspiration. Yoga for an hour each week has been shown to reduce period pain, but high serotonin can make connective tissue more vulnerable, so careful not to overstretch this week and next when you’re in that forward bend.
Day 7 - 13When you are in the Follicular phase you feel great. Estrogen, serotonin and energy rise as the pituitary gland directs the growth of an egg in one of the ovaries, making you fertile from days 9 to 14. All these hormones can be a little dehydrating though, so keep eating produce and stay well hydrated. Enjoy broth, fruits and vegetables. Week 2 is a time of confidence and verbal fluency, ideal for auditions, job interviews, writing persuasive essays or recording podcasts and videos. Use your positivity and social warmth to encourage a team through a challenge or bring things up and move things forward. Schedule physical outings, daring adventures, social activities, or dates this week and take advantage of plentiful energy, easy conversation, and a higher libido.
Day 14 Ovulation marks the release of an egg from an ovary and estrogen and testosterone peak. You consequently feel tough, powerful and upbeat. These are ideal days for aiming high, competing, closing sales, negotiating a salary increase, completing work, executing on projects and bringing matters to fruition. You can lift heavy, run fast, and achieve goals. It is also the easiest time to get pregnant, so depending on your goals, act accordingly! Your appetite is revving, and your digestion is forgiving, so eat a wide variety of raw and cooked foods, adding more fat, healthy carbs and plenty of protein to your diet to keep yourself fueled. Make sure to get nutrients like iron to build your endometrium, and prep extra servings of healthy carbs, since in a couple of days you’re going in crave them!
Day 15– 24Shortly after ovulation, you may experience an energetic and emotional withdrawal. On day 15 your serotonin, estrogen and testosterone drop off a proverbial cliff and take your mood and confidence with them. Progesterone, meanwhile, is climbing. As your body clears the old unused hormones these abrupt shifts affect your digestion, elimination, and the way you use your brain. In week three, rising progesterone can make it easier to sleep deeply but falling levels of serotonin can also create a need for comfort, a bigger appetite, cravings and a desire for lazing about.
While you probably want comfort carbs, support your body’s processes of cleansing and elimination with cruciferous veggies (or a green supplement or Flor·Essence) too. Give your body easily digestible, cooked foods right now. Adding oats, rice, goji berries or cherries to the menu can feel soothing - they make it easier for your body to sustain levels of serotonin and melatonin, and consequently, your mood.
Day 19-20We feel more introverted and passive now as our progesterone peaks. This can cool our libido and make us calm, rational and analytical. However, it can also slow our thinking, make it hard to think quickly or relate emotionally. This can be a good time to spend alone, methodically prepping food, reflecting inwardly, setting intentions, and problem solving. If breasts are tender, try avoiding caffeine.
Day 25-28In terms of the effect of hormones on the body, this is the premenstrual phase. We often feel fatigued and unattractive now as drains on our ferritin levels cause low energy, weakness, light-headedness, and brittle hair and nails. Higher levels of progesterone can lower the energy level, too, decrease the desire for touch and increase water retention in the breasts, making them sore, and in the throat, making the voice sound a bit warbled and unsure. Ease up on the expectations you have of yourself and others right now.
In the pre-menstrual phase, estrogen is low and so is mood and patience. If you can, delay discussions with loves ones for another week. Your verbal or emotional processing may be slow, making it frustratingly hard to express your feelings. Don’t be surprised if you cancel plans to go out for the night. If you’re feeling a bit low, try using music or nature to lift your mood. If you feel picky and critical, use it to advantage on tasks such as copyediting or reviewing your spending habits!
Ways to Manage
Some people get mood swings or feel irritable or sad. It is also common to have sore breasts, bloating, acne, cravings, or thirst. But, these Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) symptoms, and high levels of pain, are not healthy, necessary aspects of having a menstrual cycle. It is wise to treat severe pain as a wake-up call rather than as something to simply accept as a normal part of menstruation. Inflammation can lead to pain and it is also linked to worse iron absorption.
If you feel a lot of pain, weakness, headaches, grumpiness, or fatigue on or before your period, it can be in part the result of modifiable factors. Inflammation for example, can be worsened by eating too much sugar; however, it can be offset with a nutritious, low-inflammatory diet. Likewise, healthy iron levels can be maintained with iron-rich foods or gentle iron supplements such as Flora Iron and Ferritin+.
A high level of pain with menstruation is associated with much higher levels of inflammatory prostaglandins and a disruptive and uncomfortable transition into menopause later. Eating more green and cruciferous vegetables and more fiber from all sources is associated with less frequent and less severe PMS, and an easier perimenopause. Getting more fiber may also reduce the incidence of hormonal acne.
Referring to the Menstrual Cycle
Asking someone “where they are in their cycle” means what phase they are experiencing within the span of their entire cycle, which can be anything from 21 to 35 days. We may refer to a phase by name, or ‘day 14’ or ‘week 3’, but keep in mind that phases are not perfect calendar weeks!
You cannot tell if someone has a menstrual cycle from looking at them. Most people who have a cycle are young adult cisgender females, but that description is not inclusive of all menstruators. Though not everyone in this group menstruates, absent or irregular periods, severe pain or PMS can indicate other, deeper health concerns, so it is essential to understand the underlying causes.
The menstrual cycle is a sensitive creature. It can be affected by iron levels in the body, exercise (and any changes to its intensity, frequency, or type), food choices, reductions in calories or carbohydrates, gaining or losing a significant amount of weight, travel or other stress or disruptions to one’s daily routine, moonlight and the moon’s gravity, illness, or taking The Pill or other medication. Even exposure to scented cleaning, bath and beauty products or human pheromones can impact the cycle in a major way.
In a menstrual cycle, waves of hormones from the brain, ovaries and uterus create the possibility of reproduction, but people with menstrual cycles are not fertile or impregnable every day. They are not even fertile for 3 out of 4 weeks, or most of the time! They are fertile for a handful of days each month; the day they ovulate, and the 5 days prior. (This window is usually marked by the appearance of a very viscous and slippery, clear cervical mucus similar in consistency to egg whites.)
The term ‘child-bearing age’ refers to the years that people have menstrual cycles - from menarche (when the menstrual cycle begins) to menopause. Although it can vary, menarche typically occurs around age 12. The cycle becomes regular by the late teens, and generally stays that way unless something interferes with the cycle or someone is or was recently pregnant. Then it becomes irregular again (called perimenopause) by the late forties. When a person has not had a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months, they are considered to have entered menopause, usually soon after age 50.
Knowledge is Power
Hopefully this article helps you to understand yourself or the impact of each phase in a menstrual cycle. The big takeaway here should be that while we cannot expect to feel or perform consistently through our menstrual cycles, we can learn to anticipate our tendencies. We can expect to feel good enough to continue with most aspects of our lives throughout the month, especially if we are ensuring that we are meeting our nutritional needs, avoiding inflammatory foods and engaging in physical activity.
We can use information to alter our eating and activities to get more out of life with less frustration. The next step, should you choose to investigate further, would be to track your own experiences. Simply note the start and end of your period along with some details of your cycle on a calendar or with an app, describing any changes in mood, pain or other symptoms.
Over several months you will see irregularities or patterns in your cycle. This can be wonderfully enlightening. Because symptoms can be linked to modifiable factors, such as excess inflammation or deficient iron, this knowledge gives you a chance to make powerful lifestyle or nutrition changes that may improve the way you feel in all phases of your cycle over time, and could set you up for an easy midlife transition as well.
Holistic nutritionist Dana Green Remedios, RHN, RNCP has a passion for helping other break through their blocks to greater health, wealth, and happiness, working with transformational mind-body tools. The Vancouver-based educator and coach answers your questions in English, French, and Spanish as a specialist working in the product information department at Flora, and is a regular contributor to the Flora Healthy Blog.