If you’re anything like us, your memories of sex ed probably revolve around cringing, as your science teacher put a condom on a banana, rather than actually understanding the ins and outs of the amazing process that women go through every month. You aren’t alone if your only knowledge of the menstrual cycle is that it exists, involves blood, and can cause PMS.
If you wish that a text message could let you know that you weren’t pregnant, rather than a host of bodily changes, you aren’t alone either. This process isn’t as openly discussed as we need it to be and we are certainly not taught to value it. But your cycle is actually really important (and awesome). Moreover, knowing how it works is a crucial piece to understanding your overall health.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists even declare the menstrual cycle as a vital sign (meaning it’s right up there with your heart rate and blood pressure). By having a “pulse” on how your reproductive system is functioning, you can gain valuable insights on any issues that may be affecting you as well as how to further optimise anything that could be working better. This is also pretty empowering, as it puts you in the driver’s seat to take charge of your own health and wellbeing.
What is considered a ‘normal’ cycle?
A ‘normal’ menstrual cycle is anywhere between 21-40 days. It includes two main phases, the follicular phase (first half) and the luteal phase (second half), as well as two important events, which are menstruation (when you bleed) and ovulation (when your egg is released). Compared to some other bodily processes, the menstrual cycle is actually pretty complex, but understanding the following changes will be instrumental in understanding what the heck is going on in your body. So stick with us!
What are the different phases of a menstrual cycle?
Follicular Phase: Day 1-14(ish)
Day 1 of your cycle is the first day of your period. Your period then makes up the first five or so days of the follicular phase. First, a hormone called GnRH is released from your brain, and it kicks off the cascade of activities that make up your menstrual cycle.
Its first order of business is catalysing the follicular stimulating hormone (FSH) in the pituitary gland, to travel through your bloodstream to your ovary where it stimulates follicles to grow. One follicle gets bigger and bigger, while the others die out… kind of like Beyonce leaving behind Destiny’s Child for a solo career.
As the follicle grows it produces oestrogen, which is the star of this phase. At a certain point, oestrogen triggers your brain to produce another hormone, called luteinizing hormone (LH). LH is basically like the friend that is always trying to get the party started and catalyzes the main event – ovulation, which allows conception to occur.
The follicular phase is kind of like putting together all of the ingredients to bake a cake; getting it prepped and ready to put in the oven – so that ovulation can happen.
Ovulation: Day 14(ish)
Your period might take centre stage in your menstrual cycle, but it is ovulation that is truly the star of the show, as it is this process that allows women to conceive. Whether you’d like your egg fertilised or not, understanding ovulation can either optimise your fertility or help to avoid accidental pregnancies.
Ovulation marks the day your egg is released and is generally the midpoint of your cycle – Day 14, give or take a few days. Before it, your hormones (namely GnRH, FSH, and E2) work hard to develop an oocyte (or baby egg) inside a follicle like tiny, cellular bridesmaids getting their bestie ready for her day. A surge in LH (remember me?) then encourages the egg to break free, and make its escape down the fallopian tubes.
This egg flees the coop and makes its journey to the uterus, whereby if on it’s way, it’s united with the sperm, it sets up camp in your uterine lining and blossoms into an embryo.
Specifically, the six days around ovulation are the days in which women are fertile, and understanding this window is crucial to understanding your fertility. However, the actual process only lasts for around 12-24 hours. understanding if and when you are ovulating is one of the biggest indicators for your overall health too.
Luteal Phase: Day 14-28(ish)
Once you ovulate, you then enter the luteal phase. As your egg rides off into the sunset, it leaves behind something called the Corpus Luteum, or CL. The CL produces progesterone which takes centre stage during this time. Progesterone is a crucial hormone for both keeping a pregnancy and keeping your chill .
Once the progesterone-pumping CL disintegrates, this phase ends*. (*Bonus: Since the CL can only live for about 10-16 days, once you know when you ovulate, you can be fairly sure about when your period will arrive). Your period begins, bringing you back to the start of your follicular phase, and the whole thing starts again.
If any of these are out of sync – eg. if you are not ovulating, missing periods, having too long or too short of a phase, or feel your hormones out of balance with each other – your body is telling you something. Hertility Health tests are able to give you an insight into your hormones and reproductive health and highlight any problems.