Your monthly cycle is more than having your period every month. There are changes in your body that manifest both visibly and invisibly, affecting you more than you may realise.
Your mood, behaviour, even your physical appearance are slightly altered depending on where you are in your cycle. These cyclical alterations we experience are a result of a genetically determined biological rhythm that can be described as a continuous change in the reproductive system caused by hormonal fluctuations.
The cycle begins on the first day of the period and lasts for an average of 28 days, but the length of cycle may vary from 21 to 35 days. Dramatic events and changes in your lifestyle can hasten or delay your period by a few days, and women using hormonal birth control experience milder periods or no periods at all. If you experience drastic, unexplained changes in cycle length, period pain, or bleeding intensity, see you doctor, as these may indicate an underlying medical condition.
The following is a run-down of the average 28-day cycle.
Progesterone levels drop. The uterine mucous membrane—the endometrium—gradually sheds, and is pushed from the uterus. Your period has begun.
Menstrual bleeding signals the first day of your cycle.
Bleeding continues for an average of 3-5 days, although periods ranging from 2 to 7 days are also considered normal. You may experience pain in the lower abdomen or back, headaches, nausea, bloating, irritability, and fatigue, especially during the first two days. Rest is advised.
Bleeding has stopped or is coming to an end—discharge tends to be a dark brown at the end of the period. The cervix narrows, and forms a mucus plug. The ovaries start to produce estrogen, and the development of a new endometrial layer in the uterus begins.
As estrogen levels rise, serotonin levels also increase, contributing to wellbeing and happiness. You feel more energetic and open. You may notice yourself smiling more often. You will likely have little or no discharge in the days immediately after your period.
Estrogen levels peak. Your hair looks great, your skin glows, and you feel this might be the time to take that new outfit for a spin. You are more likely to flirt and socialize as the fertile stage of your cycle approaches, and you may notice people paying more attention to you.
You are quite literally more attractive during this time in your cycle.
The mucus plug leaves the body along with vaginal discharge, which, at this point, is clear and sticky, resembling an egg white in consistency—this helps make sexual intercourse more pleasant and is designed to facilitate the sperms’ journey toward the egg cell.
In the days just before ovulation, the body’s basal temperature drops slightly. If you are planning for pregnancy, this is the time to have sex. The fertile window opens two days before and closes two days after ovulation.
If you do not intend to conceive, take extra care with contraception at this time.
Ovulation occurs when one of the thousands of ovarian follicles ruptures, allowing a mature egg cell, or ovum, to drift out of the ovary. The empty follicle becomes a corpus luteum, or “yellow body” in Latin because of its colour.
If a sperm cell reaches a mature egg cell, it may become fertilized. The fertilized ovum, or zygote, begins a four-day journey through the fallopian tube to the uterus.
Typically, an unfertilized egg survives between 12 and 24 hours, but this varies from cycle to cycle. If the egg is not fertilized, it dissolves.
Post-ovulation, the ovaries produce more progesterone. The endometrial lining grows into a thick, blood-rich layer.
Your vaginal discharge is now white or off-white and clumpier or creamier in consistency.
At this stage, your breasts may become slightly swollen and more sensitive due to water retention.
If no egg is fertilized, the ovaries gradually decrease production of progesterone and estrogen.
If a fertilized egg reaches the uterus it implants itself into the uterine wall and begins to grow. During pregnancy, the endometrium does not shed, the ovarian follicles do not release any new egg cells, and menstruation does not occur.
You may experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, or PMS—mood swings, irritability, fatigue, sadness, and a tendency to see things in a negative light. Your breasts may be tender and you may crave certain foods. The intensity of these symptoms varies from person to person.
Lower levels of estrogen also lower your pain threshold, so you may become more sensitive. Painful procedures may be harder to bear at the end of the cycle and during menstruation.
Estrogen and serotonin levels are low. You may experience an increase in appetite, and cravings for foods rich in sugar and fat. Your metabolism also works a little faster.
If no egg has been fertilized at the end of the cycle, the corpus luteum is reabsorbed. Progesterone levels fall sharply.
Prostaglandin levels rise and stimulate uterine contractions that evacuate menstrual discharge. This process can be painful, and presents itself as menstrual cramps. If necessary, pain relieving medication can be used.
Understanding your monthly cycle can help you anticipate and prepare for the changes in your body. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but once you learn to work with them, not against them, you will be much better equipped for both the highs and lows.
You can track your cycle using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now: