The menstrual cycle is a major driving force for women’s health and well-being throughout their reproductive years and well beyond. Even so, researchers have only recently started to take periods into account when designing studies; and in every-day life we are only now beginning to distance ourselves from the stigma associated with menstruation. To reclaim periods as a normal and even empowering experience, new approaches to how we view the menstrual cycle are emerging. For example, likening the phases of the menstrual cycle to the seasons of the year.
To free women from the shame and confusion often associated with periods, now voices are comparing the menstrual cycle to the seasons of the year. This and other metaphors can help us to better understand our bodies and their needs.
The idea of comparing the menstrual cycle to the seasons of the year was popularized by author Maisie Hill in her 2019 book Period Power: Harness your Hormones and Get your Cycle Working for You. Traditional and alternative health practitioners have also suggested ways to consciously plan our lives in tune with the phases of the cycle, creating opportunities to respond more fully to what the body requires at a given moment.
We have published several articles about the monthly cycle and its different phases. The first day of your period counts as the first day of your menstrual cycle; Menstruation is followed by the Follicular Phase, Ovulation and, finally, the Luteal Phase. It is useful to learn about the cyclical changes in the body triggered by changing hormonal levels in each of these phases, but without broader context this knowledge can seem theoretical and difficult to apply in everyday life. Of course, the phases of the monthly cycle ARE everyday life for those who experience menstruation. Framing these experiences within a holistic metaphor offers a helpful context for understanding the hormonal changes and what they mean for each of us.
Authors and health practitioners who recommend this viewpoint don’t focus on the menstrual cycle as solely a vehicle for fertility. While ovulation and its essential function in creating the conditions necessary for pregnancy is undoubtedly a primary evolutionary reason for why the female reproductive cycle has developed as it has, the cycle produces various effects throughout the body and impacts a woman’s energy levels and mental/emotional states, so understanding the menstrual cycle better is beneficial for everyone, period.
This newly popular metaphor likens each of the four phases of the menstrual cycle to one of the seasons of the year, starting with Winter. (In some articles we talk about the menstrual cycle as having three phases. In this model menstruation is seen as separate from the follicular phase.)
Winter—Menstruation. In an average 28-day cycle, menstruation occupies approximately the first 7 days. Progesterone, oestrogen, and testosterone levels are all low. Energy is hard to find, you might be feeling irritable, and have to deal with menstrual cramps and headaches. As there isn’t much oestrogen in your system now, your body has fewer resources to fight pain and deal with unpleasantness.
This phase is likened to Winter when the body functions more slowly, you require more rest, and it is easier to get overwhelmed. And just like in Winter, you may feel happier staying inside and snuggling up with a hot drink. This is the time for gentle exercise and calming walks instead of high-intensity workouts.
Spring—The Follicular Phase. Once you are finished menstruating, oestrogen and testosterone levels begin to rise. Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) causes the follicles to mature in one of your ovaries. The fertile window is now open. Energy and motivation return. Your interest in socializing grows.
There are still many days ahead before your hormonal levels will drop again, so this is a good time to institute healthy new habits and turn to more rigorous exercise routines.
Summer—Ovulation. The few days surrounding ovulation is when you are at your highest. Oestrogen levels peak, lifting your spirits and offering strong protection against mental and physical pain and irritability. You are highly active and motivated.
Facing difficult tasks at work and at home, and navigating social encounters is a breeze in the Summertime. And, just like a beautiful Summer can inspire openness and connection, your ovaries are ready for romance and your sexual drive is revving. This is your whole body saying: you are at peak fertility! But as always, if you aren’t looking to get pregnant—use protection during sex, no matter how caught up in the moment you might get.
Fall—The Luteal Phase. After feeling so fantastic for a few days, if an egg has not been fertilized your cycle continues and hormone levels gradually begin to decline. There is a short second spike in oestrogen in the middle of this phase, but this is generally when most women start experiencing premenstrual symptoms. Your body becomes more vulnerable to pain—your breasts may feel tender and you might experience headaches. You also become more sensitive to emotions and emotional situations as oestrogen levels fall.
During Fall it’s time to slow down and get ready for Winter. Acknowledge your experience. Do you feel tired more quickly? Are you hungrier? When you know what usually happens during this time, you will also know if something is off. If you experience a change in your usual symptoms, or if you have severe PMS, talk with your doctor about it. Don’t write off the suffering as just another PMS symptom you have to deal with; you might be able to get relief by adopting a few relatively minor lifestyle changes or tackling more serious underlying health conditions.
The benefits of giving attention to your cycle in this way include being able to notice more quickly when something is wrong with your health and being able to plan what to do when for better results—exercise, social events, intense work, down time… If you know what your hormones are doing, you will feel more at ease with what you are experiencing.
One criticism of this approach highlights the fact that the menstrual cycle has been used to limit and exclude women for millennia. Aren’t feminism and the modern understanding that women and men are equally capable in direct opposition to the idea that periods somehow limit women or make them weaker? It might seem like acknowledging that at certain times of the month women can experience physical/mental/emotional “lows” gives credit to these archaic ideas. Well, yes and no.
These ideas can be embraced to different degrees. Some women might be attracted to a radical interpretation, leading them to plan everything—important meetings, vacation days—according to where they are in their cycles. This can be an interesting and valuable experiment but organising all spheres of life around the body’s hormonal ebbs and flows it is not really viable or even necessary.
This metaphor won’t hold true for everyone. Not everyone experiences drastic swings in energy, mood, and motivation. Those who are using hormonal birth control also won’t experience the phases of the cycle in this way, as hormonal levels are artificially maintained stable throughout the month.
And the millions of people whose periods are irregular or must contend with a condition that disrupts the cycle, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, can find such “be in tune with your inner Nature Goddess” approaches tone-deaf—not at all representative of their experience.
However, all human beings, men included, experience hormonal changes that to some extent influence their moods, their experience of pain, and their behaviour. Menstruation is just one of many things that influence our bodies. By learning to understand your unique body—and the way the menstrual cycle influences your experience—you will be better prepared to respond to its needs.
Whether or not you find the seasons-of-the-year metaphor beneficial, we highly recommend that all people who menstruate track their cycles. When you become familiar with the rhythms of your cycle, it also becomes easier to be at peace with the changes you experience.
You can track your period using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now: