How did you learn about your period?
For many of us, our moms explained what would happen every month for the decades to come, mostly detailing the types of products we’d have to buy to contain it. Or your teacher in health class briefly mentioned it was important for fertility. Maybe you heard some friends talking about it in middle school. Or you watched Carrie.
But the sciencey details? Nada.
If you’re not sure what is actually happening in your body during your period, you’re not alone.
Many of the menstruators I talk to share with me that they feel embarrassed or insecure that they’ve made it to their 30s without knowing how their menstrual cycle works.
You bleed, it hurts, you move on till next month, right?
That’s the gist of the education that menstruators get on their body’s reproductive system. The rest is a bit of a mystery for us to figure out on our own, and you wouldn’t dare talk about it with your friends!
Thankfully it’s becoming less of a taboo subject to discuss. We shouldn’t be stigmatized for our body’s natural process, arguably the *most* natural. It’s pretty damn amazing considering it helps us make actual freakin’ humans. How cool is that?
So if you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s — wherever you are in life — and you aren’t 100% sure what’s actually going on inside of you during your period and the rest of your menstrual cycle, I’ve got the details. Check it:
What happens in each phase of the menstrual cycle
There are two main phases of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. However, your body is more complex than that! So I like to break it down even more when explaining this to clients and focus on four stages: the follicular, ovulatory, luteal, and menstrual phases.
First thing to know? There’s something called the hypothalamus in the brain, and it’s responsible for releasing hormones.
The follicular phase
Begins on Day 1 of your period. To get the cycle moving, the hypothalamus triggers the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This phase is the beginning of your cycle, starting on day one of your period. FSH is produced and sent to the ovaries to let them know it’s time to start preparing for an egg. Follicles, located on the ovaries, are where the eggs are kept until it’s time for ovulation.
Estrogen levels are low at the beginning of this phase, but steadily rise as you near the ovulatory phase. As it rises, this helps thicken the lining of the uterus to prepare to host the egg for possible pregnancy.
This corresponds to the waxing moon, so you may feel energy building and you may feel more motivated and social towards the end of this phase.
The ovulatory phase
When estrogen hits its peak around the halfway point in your cycle, it signals to the body to release luteinizing hormone (LH), which then triggers ovulation. An egg releases from its follicle into the fallopian tube, staying there for 12–24 hours.
Estrogen and progesterone continue to increase and thicken the uterine lining (also called the endometrium). Testosterone increases at this time, too, so your libido may be feeling pretty high. That’s evolution, baby! You’re at your most fertile at the same time you want to hop in bed with your partner, stars aligning for you to make a baby (if you want to).
Note: If you are on hormonal birth control, you do not ovulate.
The luteal phase
The follicle that released the egg is called the corpus luteum now that it’s empty, and it starts to produce estrogen and progesterone that continue building up the uterine lining to make a happy home for your egg, just in case it gets fertilized and you become pregnant. Progesterone is essential for maintaining a healthy pregnancy (pro-gestation).
If conception doesn’t occur, here’s what happens next. The corpus luteum recognizes baby-making ain’t happening today, so it starts to break down and the estrogen and progesterone it was producing declines. The lining that it helped build will get ready to shed since you won’t be needing it for pregnancy this time around.
This is where PMS symptoms tend to pop up if hormones are imbalanced, and you may feel your energy beginning to wane towards the end.
The menstrual phase
The menstrual phase begins when you start to bleed. This overlaps for a couple of days of the follicular phase, but I wanted to explain what is actually happening when you’re bleeding, since that’s 99% of the reason you’re probably here.
That drop in progesterone after conception doesn’t occur causes the endometrium to shed along with the egg, blood, and other fun mucousy things. You know the drill on that end. Blood can be many shades of red, but it should be bright on most days. Check out this article from FloLiving on what the different colors may mean.
During this phase, estrogen drops to prepare for the next cycle. It’s a great time for rest and introspection, and you may notice your intuition feeling stronger during this phase.
Everything I detailed above is what happens in a healthy menstrual cycle. With hormones balanced, there should be little to no pain, cramping, or other symptoms throughout the four or five weeks. The average menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days, but it is still healthy for it to be more or less (~25-35 days), as long as it’s consistent month-to-month for you.
Even if you’re not planning on having kids, it’s still essential to take care of your fertility. Our cycles give us important clues about our health.
If you’re experiencing estrogen dominance, PCOS, endometriosis, or symptoms like pain, bloating, acne, mood swings, heavy bleeding, and more, it may be time to check in with a health practitioner to figure out what’s going on, and I’m happy to guide you along in the process. Feel free to reach out and let me know how I can help.