It often baffles me how little women actually know about their body, reproductive hormones and individual menstrual cycle. Understanding your personal menstrual cycle is so important as it affects every aspect of your body and physicality.
So, let’s start at the beginning – here is your guide to the importance of your menstrual cycle, the stages you should be aware of & how to identify any underlying issues…
Why is your menstrual cycle so important?
We all know that your menstrual cycle is important for pregnancy, but if you’re not wanting to have a baby yet – it can present as a damn nuisance.
However, the menstrual cycle should be cherished.
Why? Well, natural and healthy menstrual cycles are how women make oestrogen and progesterone which are essential for general women’s health. In fact, it’s actually the cycle that is so important, not the actual bleed.
Our cycle is an elegant and balanced system. Whether we are aiming to have a child or not, ovulation is integral for the beneficial hormones that help us thrive as a woman.
Let’s begin to gain an understanding of these hormones so that we can respect our cycle and learn how to best support it.
The Menstrual Cycle Phases
Our monthly cycles may be a little more complicated than you originally thought. Essentially there are two main cycles that are occurring at the same time – the ovarian and uterine cycles. These are outlined below.
Stage 1: Menstruation
The initial part of our cycle describes the phases pre-ovulation, encompassing:
- The follicular phases of the ovarian cycle and
- Menstruation and proliferation in the uterine cycle.
The first day of our cycle is often marked by a bleed, indicating healthy shedding of blood and the endometrium lining in our uterus. Generally speaking, this lasts between 3 to 8 days.
Hormonal changes: Oestrogen is at its lowest point however begins to steadily climb. All other hormones are low as well.
Feeling: When all hormones are at their lowest point, you may feel more fatigued, quiet and home-bound.
Stage 2: The Follicular Phase
Technically, this occurs from the time of menstruation and the proliferation of the endometrial lining where the brain signals to the ovaries to prepare an egg that will be released.
Hormonal changes: After menstruation, oestrogen continues to rise whilst testosterone begins to rise during the latter part of the week.
Feeling: Increased oestrogen and testosterone leads to clearer thinking and better coordination.
Stage 3: Ovulation
At approximately day 14 of your cycle, ovulation occurs as an egg is released from a follicle in the ovary into the fallopian tube. This occurs providing the egg has not been fertilised.
Hormonal changes: A dramatic increase of luteinizing hormone is stimulated once oestrogen has reached high enough levels – this is what causes ovulation. Oestrogen and testosterone are at their peak just before ovulation.
Feeling: Higher oestrogen levels increases your mood, energy and confidence levels. You may feel more up for adventure, new experiences and thrive in social situations. The spike in testosterone tends to make you more daring, impulsive and boosts your libido.
Stage 4: Luteal/Secretory Phase
The final stage of the cycle post-ovulation marks:
- The luteal phase of the ovarian cycle and
- The secretory phase of the uterine cycle.
After the occurrence of ovulation, the leftover follicle that held the egg turns into corpus luteum (luteal phase). The corpus luteum produces progesterone and estrogen, with progesterone peaking around the midway point of this phase. Providing fertilisation has not occurred, the endometrium thickening is halted in response to rising progesterone levels in preparation for menstruation.
Hormonal changes: Progesterone and estrogen levels rise, with progesterone peaking around the midway point of this phase.
Feeling: The rise in progesterone may make you feel quieter, physically fatigued and emotionally sensitive. An imbalance of estrogen and progesterone (due to failed implantation and thus a period) may bring on strong premenstrual symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, depression and mood swings.
3 Major Signs of Female Hormonal Imbalances
Hormonal imbalances for women may be more common than you think. There are so many factors in our environmental, personal and nutritional factors that can influence this.
So how do we know if something is not quite right?
1. Irregular or Absent Period
Every now and again, it can be normal that your period may come a few days early or late or even skip completely. However, if this is occurring consistently or you miss numerous cycles, it may be a sign that there is an underlying issue.
Common syndromes that cause irregular or absent periods include polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), hypothalamic amenorrhea, the presence of an eating disorder, general undernourishment and more.
2. Heavy Flow Periods
Another sign that your hormones are imbalanced are extremely heavy flow periods. This can be defined as bleeding for more than 7 days in a cycle or bleed more than 80ml (or approximately 16 full regular tampons).
Potential known causes of abnormally heavy bleeding include fibroids, endometriosis, some medications, hormonal disorders, polyps, infections and particular forms of contraceptive methods.
3. Extreme Pain
Some pain is completely normal within the normal phases of your menstrual cycle. However, this pain should not be severe or affect your quality of life.
Pain within your menstrual cycle becomes a concern when the severity of the pain is disrupting your day-to-day functioning. Endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, IUD use, fibroids and polyps may all be causes of this.
What to do now?
Learning and respecting your menstrual cycle is essential to your overall health and wellbeing as a female. Through identifying the stages of your menstrual cycle, the hormonal changes and changes in your energy and mood, you can start to work WITH your cycle. This means that not only will you feel better, you will also be more productive, use your energy more efficiently and continually learn about your own body.
If you are experiencing any adverse or abnormal symptoms during your period, it is important to book in with a health professional to identify the underlying cause. Book into an Initial Nutrition Consultation to optimise your period and identify the root cause of your period abnormalities if relevant to you.
Clinical Nutritionist (BSc).