Many women go through a menstrual cycle each month thinking it only lasts for about one week – when they’re bleeding. But a menstrual cycle is much more complex and dynamic than simply bleeding each month.
Following up on my previous post about why you should track your period cycles, I knew it was necessary to dive deeper into how menstrual hormones affect our female bodies during the month.
Did you know a menstrual cycle actually consists of four distinct phases? These four phases together last approximately one month in total (or one menstrual cycle). The phases are strikingly similar to the four seasons of the year. Just like the four seasons repeat each year, the four menstrual phases repeat each month – for as long as menstruation lasts. Research says that’s approximately 450 menstrual cycles in a woman’s lifetime!
Menstrual cycles create complex and dynamic shifts in our bodies each month. Many of my clients have initially stated they are concerned, frustrated, and some even infuriated by feeling a lack of control during their menstrual cycle. They express feeling “hormonal.”
While the term “hormonal” is technically accurate, in our society there is often a social stigma attached to it. I’ve witnessed how this social stigma (or lack of understanding) can further fuel concern and frustration in my client’s relationships, workplace, and daily life.
I support my clients to gain awareness and understanding of how their hormones are affecting their bodies throughout the full menstrual cycle. Once they have an awareness and understanding, the phases and fluctuations make more sense. From here, we look at how to make healthy dietary and lifestyle choices to sync up with each phase, so they can feel their best all month long!
Hormones are the drivers of each of the four phases within the menstrual cycle. The hormones from each phase can affect a woman’s body, mood, energy and exercise levels, sex life, and the foods she should consume in order to support her health.
Now, let’s take a deeper look into:
how hormones change in each phase;
how the phases match the seasons;
what it really means when you’re feeling “hormonal;”
and how you can feel your best all month long.
First Phase: Menstrual
Duration: 3-7 days
Body: Your hormone levels are at their lowest point, which triggers menstruation. The menstruation cycle begins on the first day of your period (when you begin bleeding). A period is the regular discharge of the blood and mucous from the inner lining of your uterus through the vagina. The lining of the uterus has built up in preparation for conception and pregnancy, and is no longer needed, so it sheds. This process is healthy and normal and should last 3-7 days.
Mood: Your energy is low and you may feel like you want to “hibernate” like a bear in winter. This is a time of inner reflection as your intuition is heightened. Schedule in some alone time to rest and reflect.
Exercise: As energy is low, opt for very low intensity exercise like light walking and yin yoga (yoga tip – you may want to avoid inversions). Curling up on the couch is perfectly acceptable, too, but try to get in some light movement to boost your mood. It is important to listen to what your body needs during this time.
Sex: Sex is great if you feel in the mood or want to help ease cramps. This is a personal choice for each woman (and her partner) during menstruation. If you and your partner feel comfortable, go for it! You can put a towel down or opt for sex in the shower. If not, don’t worry – focus on cuddles, light massages, and comfort.
Nutrition: Your body is working hard during this phase – fuel it with healthy proteins, low sugar vegetables and fruits, fiber-rich foods, and zinc to re-mineralize your body.
Second Phase: Follicular
Duration: Lasts 7-10 days
Body: Hormone levels are at their lowest and begin to increase during this phase. A hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates your ovaries to produce a matured egg. You are producing more of the hormone estrogen and may notice some white discharge, which is perfectly normal. This increase in estrogen will cause the uterine lining to thicken with nutrients and blood, which an egg needs for a healthy pregnancy.
Mood: Springtime is filled with fresh, blossoming buds, so your mood will likely feel light and fresh. Your creativity is high at this time, and it’s a great opportunity to get out and try something new.
Exercise: Your energy levels are building, so try to incorporate dance and movement into exercise.
Sex: It’s a great time to be playful, experiment with different forms of arousal, and try something new.
Nutrition: Focus on eating fresh, light foods – think salads and veggies, lean proteins, and quality grains for long-lasting energy.
Third Phase: Ovulation
Duration: 3-5 days
Body: During the ovulation phase your body is the most fertile, and here’s why: the hormone testosterone surges and increases your sexual desire. In addition, the hormone estrogen causes the body to further thicken the uterine lining. Furthermore, a hormone call luteinizing hormone (LH) stimulates the follicle to release a mature egg into the fallopian tube where it further travels to the uterus. The egg can survive for 12-24 hours. If the egg comes in contact with sperm during this time, it can be fertilized (i.e. you can become pregnant). Keep in mind that sperm can survive in the uterus up to 5 days.
If you’re not planning to become pregnant, be extra-vigilant about prevention near and during the ovulation phase. If you are trying to get pregnant, then this is the best time for sex to increase chances of pregnancy. I encourage my clients to consult with a medical professional for advice both on fertility and pregnancy prevention.
Mood: During ovulation you may feel very collaborative and that communication is flowing more easily for you. A great time for socialization and group projects.
Exercise: Your energy is higher so interval training, hot yoga, and group exercise are great choices.
Sex: Hormones are high and cervical fluid is flowing, which increases pleasurable sex. Like summer – it’s a great time to get hot and steamy! Just be sure to use protection as needed. If you’re not having sex, it’s a great time for dates and social activities.
Nutrition: Opt for high fiber fruit and veggies for easy digestion and to help flush out estrogen.
Fourth Phase: Luteal
Duration: 10-14 days
Body: Your hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) reach their peak at the start of the luteal phase, then begin to fall to their lowest levels.
Progesterone is an important hormone now, as it peaks in this phase in preparation for the body to accept a fertilized egg. If conception does not occur (egg is not fertilized), progesterone levels drop, which begins menstruation. If conception does occur (the egg is fertilized), the body continues producing progesterone to support the growing fetus.
Mood: Towards the end of this cycle you may feel yourself become moody and easily irritated (i.e. PMS). Be sure to schedule some self-care time and listen to what your body is telling you. Having healthy boundaries around your personal needs is ideal now.
Exercise: You’ll likely have more energy at the beginning of the luteal phase, which will taper off. Strength training and endurance exercise in the beginning of this phase can feel great, while low intensity walks and yin yoga may better suit your lower energy levels towards the end of this phase. Again, tune in to your body’s needs.
Sex: Your sex drive may still be high at the beginning of the luteal phase, and may lessen as menstruation nears toward the end of this phase. You may need a bit more stimulation both physically and emotionally (i.e. feeling romantic and setting the mood can lead to more pleasure).
Nutrition: Eating root vegetables can help flush out extra estrogen. Avoid sugar and processed foods to keep cravings under control. Increasing your intake of plant proteins can aid in digestion.
Awareness of the dynamic hormonal shifts throughout your menstrual cycle is fundamental to understanding what it means to feel “hormonal.” As women, we’ll be experiencing this hormonal cycle approximately 450 times in our lives! Knowing how these hormone shifts affect each of our female bodies every month can truly help us women to maintain balance.
Just as I encourage my clients, I would encourage every woman to get to get to know each phase of her cycle intimately. Knowing your body in this way can empower you to make healthy dietary and lifestyle choices for your body, and feel your best throughout the month.