The menstrual cycle is one of the most natural parts of womanhood, and yet most of us don’t really know much about it other than we bleed once a month. The menstrual cycle is way more than just your period.
In fact, the period is just the first phase of the cycle. The menstrual cycle is actually made up of two cycles that interact and overlap—one happening in the ovaries and one in the uterus. The brain, ovaries, and uterus work together and communicate through hormones (chemical signals sent through the blood from one part of the body to another) to keep the cycle going.
A menstrual cycle starts with the first day of the period and ends with the start of the next period. An entire menstrual cycle usually lasts between 24 and 38 days, but the length may vary from cycle to cycle, and may also change over the years. Cycle length changes between menarche (when periods first start during puberty) and menopause (when periods stop permanently).
So why is it important that we pay attention to our cycles? Well, because they are an integral part of how our bodies function. Your period as well as the rest of your menstrual cycle can give you very good information about your overall health if you just 1) pay attention and 2) know how to understand what you’re seeing.
Understanding the menstrual cycle is important because it can impact the body from head to toe. Some people notice changes in their hair, skin, poop, chronic disease symptoms, mental health, migraine headaches, or the way they experience sex at different points in the menstrual cycle. It’s also the body’s way of preparing for pregnancy over and over again, so people having penis-in-vagina sex (the kind of sex you can become pregnant from) may want to pay attention to the menstrual cycle. Hormonal methods of birth control prevent some or all of the steps in the cycle from happening, which keeps pregnancy from occurring.
Each month during the years between puberty and menopause, a woman’s body goes through a number of changes to get it ready for a possible pregnancy. This series of hormone-driven events is called the menstrual cycle.
During each menstrual cycle, an egg develops and is released from the ovaries. The lining of the uterus builds up. If a pregnancy doesn’t happen, the uterine lining sheds during a menstrual period. Then the cycle starts again.
A woman’s menstrual cycle is divided into four phases:
- menstrual phase
- follicular phase
- ovulation phase
- luteal phase
The length of each phase can differ from woman to woman, and it can change over time. As we all know, no two menstrual cycles are going to be exactly the same.
So while the length of the average cycle is about 28 days, and the things that happens inside of the body are probably going to be similar enough, some people have longer cycles and some people have significantly shorter ones.
The order of things that happen, however, is going to be very much the same irrespective of the how long or short your cycle is.
So, buckle up, brace yourself, work out what day you’re on in your cycle – and get ready to know exactly what’s going on in your uterus right now.
It’s good to track these things, y’know?
The Four Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual phase is the first stage of the menstrual cycle. It’s also when you get your period.
This phase starts when an egg from the previous cycle isn’t fertilized. Because pregnancy hasn’t taken place, levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone drop.
The thickened lining of your uterus, which would support a pregnancy, is no longer needed, so it sheds through your vagina. During your period, you release a combination of blood, mucus, and tissue from your uterus.
You may have period symptoms like these:
- cramps (try these home remedies)
- tender breasts
- mood swings
- low back pain
The follicular phase starts on the first day of your period (so there is some overlap with the menstrual phase) and ends when you ovulate.
It starts when the hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone stimulates your ovaries to produce around 5 to 20 small sacs called follicles. Each follicle contains an immature egg.
Only the healthiest egg will eventually mature. (On rare occasions, a woman may have two eggs mature.) The rest of the follicles will be reabsorbed into your body.
The maturing follicle sets off a surge in estrogen that thickens the lining of your uterus. This creates a nutrient-rich environment for an embryo to grow.
The average follicular phaseTrusted Source lasts for about 16 days. It can range from 11 to 27 days, depending on your cycle.
Ovulation is when your ovary releases a mature egg. The egg travels down the fallopian tube toward the uterus to be fertilized by sperm.
The ovulation phase is the only time during your menstrual cycle when you can get pregnant. You can tell that you’re ovulating by symptoms like these:
- a slight rise in basal body temperature
- thicker discharge that has the texture of egg whites
Ovulation happens at around day 14 if you have a 28-day cycle — right in the middle of your menstrual cycle. It lasts about 24 hours. After a day, the egg will die or dissolve if it isn’t fertilized.
After the follicle releases its egg, it changes into the corpus luteum. This structure releases hormones, mainly progesterone and some estrogen. The rise in hormones keeps your uterine lining thick and ready for a fertilized egg to implant.
If you do get pregnant, your body will produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). This is the hormone pregnancy tests detect. It helps maintain the corpus luteum and keeps the uterine lining thick.
If you don’t get pregnant, the corpus luteum will shrink away and be resorbed. This leads to decreased levels of estrogen and progesterone, which causes the onset of your period. The uterine lining will shed during your period.
During this phase, if you don’t get pregnant, you may experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). These include:
- breast swelling, pain, or tenderness
- mood changes
- weight gain
- changes in sexual desire
- food cravings
- trouble sleeping
The luteal phase lasts for 11 to 17 days. The average length is 14 days.
Identifying common issues
The menstrual cycle, which is counted from the first day of one period to the first day of the next, isn’t the same for every woman. Menstrual flow might occur every 21 to 35 days and last two to seven days. For the first few years after menstruation begins, long cycles are common. However, menstrual cycles tend to shorten and become more regular as you age.
Every woman’s menstrual cycle is different. Some women get their period at the same time each month. Others are more irregular. Some women bleed more heavily or for a longer number of days than others.
Your menstrual cycle might be regular — about the same length every month — or somewhat irregular, and your period might be light or heavy, painful or pain-free, long or short, and still be considered normal. Within a broad range, “normal” is what’s normal for you.
Keep in mind that use of certain types of contraception, such as extended-cycle birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs), will alter your menstrual cycle. Talk to your health care provider about what to expect.
When you get close to menopause, your cycle might become irregular again. However, because the risk of uterine cancer increases as you age, discuss any irregular bleeding around menopause with your health care provider.
One way to find out if you’re having any issues with your menstrual cycle is to track your periods. Write down when they start and end. Also record any changes to the amount or number of days you bleed, and whether you have spotting between periods.
How can I track my menstrual cycle?
To find out what’s normal for you, start keeping a record of your menstrual cycle on a calendar. Begin by tracking your start date every month for several months in a row to identify the regularity of your periods.
If you’re concerned about your periods, then also make note of the following every month:
- End date. How long does your period typically last? Is it longer or shorter than usual?
- Flow. Record the heaviness of your flow. Does it seem lighter or heavier than usual? How often do you need to change your sanitary protection? Have you passed any blood clots?
- Abnormal bleeding. Are you bleeding in between periods?
- Pain. Describe any pain associated with your period. Does the pain feel worse than usual?
- Other changes. Have you experienced any changes in mood or behavior? Did anything new happen around the time of change in your periods?
What causes menstrual cycle irregularities?
Menstrual cycle irregularities can have many different causes, including:
- Pregnancy or breast-feeding. A missed period can be an early sign of pregnancy. Breast-feeding typically delays the return of menstruation after pregnancy.
- Eating disorders, extreme weight loss or excessive exercising. Eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa — extreme weight loss and increased physical activity can disrupt menstruation.
- Birth control. The birth control pill may make your periods shorter and lighter. While on some pills, you won’t get a period at all.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Women with this common endocrine system disorder may have irregular periods as well as enlarged ovaries that contain small collections of fluid — called follicles — located in each ovary as seen during an ultrasound exam.
- Premature ovarian failure. Premature ovarian failure refers to the loss of normal ovarian function before age 40. Women who have premature ovarian failure — also known as primary ovarian insufficiency — might have irregular or occasional periods for years.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This infection of the reproductive organs can cause irregular menstrual bleeding.
- Uterine fibroids. Uterine fibroids are noncancerous growths of the uterus. They can cause heavy menstrual periods and prolonged menstrual periods.
What can I do to prevent menstrual irregularities?
For some women, use of birth control pills can help regulate menstrual cycles. Treatment for any underlying problems, such as an eating disorder, also might help. However, some menstrual irregularities can’t be prevented.
In addition, consult your health care provider if:
- Your periods suddenly stop for more than 90 days — and you’re not pregnant
- Your periods become erratic after having been regular
- You bleed for more than seven days
- You bleed more heavily than usual or soak through more than one pad or tampon every hour or two
- Your periods are less than 21 days or more than 35 days apart
- You bleed between periods (either spotting or heavier bleeding)
- You develop severe pain during your period
- You suddenly get a fever and feel sick after using tampons (Symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome)
If you have questions or concerns about your menstrual cycle, talk to your health care provider.
Did this help you understand your menstrual cycle? Do you have any questions? I would love to answer them in the comments below!!
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