Between puberty and menopause, periods are a fact of life for most women, but many of us actually know very little about the behind-the-scenes process our bodies go through each month. In truth, this is largely due to a lack of education about reproductive health in our younger years, but it’s never too late to learn about the menstrual cycle phases or our ovulation process, no matter our age. Whether you’re trying to get pregnant or simply want to keep track of your flow for health or personal reasons, understanding what’s going on between your periods is vital information.
Thanks to the internet, there are plenty of period trackers out there to help you stay in the know about ovulation, plan vacations around the time when your old Aunt Flo isn’t coming for a visit, or just stay on top of your general menstrual health. Even though most people don’t think about their periods much unless they’re trying to get pregnant or experiencing menstrual issues, knowing what your menstrual cycles are and when they’re occurring can be empowering.
Bodies are incredible (and sometimes a little weird), and the more you know about your own specific cycle, the easier it is to advocate for your health. No matter what stage of life you’re in — from trying to conceive to prepping your child for their first period to navigating the early stages of menopause — knowing what your body goes through before, during, and after your period is powerful knowledge to have.
Ready to discover the four phases of the menstrual cycle? Read on for everything you need to know about this natural, but often times all-too mysterious process.
Menstrual Cycle Phases
The Follicular Phase
As your period begins, a new phase of your menstrual cycle kicks in. During the follicular phase, your pituitary gland releases the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) that’s responsible for letting your ovaries know it’s time to start prepping eggs for the month ahead. Each month, your ovaries produce between 5 to 20 tiny sacs known as follicles. (The follicle is where eggs grow.)
In turn, these follicles release estrogen which signals endometrium to begin thickening in preparation for a fertilized egg. All total, this phase lasts an average of 16 days, although the exact number of days varies from person to person.
The Ovulation Phase
For women who are trying to get pregnant, the ovulation phase can feel like the most crucial phase of them all. This is the point in your cycle when an egg is released from the ovary. Prior to the release, your body produces the leutenizing hormone (LH), which sends a signal to your ovaries to let it know it’s time to release the egg it has been prepping.
Each month, an egg travels through your fallopian tube to your uterus where it awaits fertilization. Generally, if a person has a 28-day cycle (not everyone does) this occurs around day 14, and if the egg isn’t fertilized, it will dissolve in about two days. During this time, you may notice a thicker than usual clear vaginal discharge, and your basal body temperature may rise.
The Luteal Phase
Remember the follicle that housed the egg prior to ovulation? Well, its work isn’t quite done yet. During the luteal phase, the follicle becomes a structure known as the corpus luteum, which is responsible for releasing hormones like progesterone and estrogen. Initially, these hormones keep your uterine lining thick in case of a pregnancy, but if one doesn’t occur, the corpus luteum will shrink and be reabsorbed by your body.
This step coincides with a decrease in estrogen and progesterone, which in turn triggers the start of your period and the shedding of your uterine lining. Basically, this is the stage responsible for your PMS symptoms including, but not limited to:
- Trouble sleeping
- Tender or sore breasts
- Mood changes
The Menstruation Phase
Finally, the body swings back around to the phase you’re likely the most familiar with: the menstruation phase. At this point, your body sheds its uterine lining, including blood and other fluids. For most people, this stage, known as your period, lasts between 3 to 7 days, although the length varies from person to person. It also comes with its own collection of uncomfortable symptoms including cramping, back pain, and irritability.
But interestingly, on day one of your period, your body is already starting the whole cycle over again with the follicular phase. While we may primarily focus on ovulation and our actual periods, every step of the menstrual cycle is unique and fascinating. It truly is astonishing what’s going on behind the scenes in your body every month, and the more you know about the process, the easier it is to be in the know about every stage of your reproductive health.
What causes a menstrual cycle to change dates?
Menstrual cycles are sensitive and may change based on your myriad factors. Here are a few that may cause a shift in your cycle:
- Birth control. Many women use birth control to have shorter and lighter periods. But, there are some brands that can stop you from getting your periods on a monthly basis.
- Eating disorders. People who struggle with anorexia or bulimia may become so underweight, their periods stop or become irregular.
- Stress. A hormone called cortisol is released when you become stressed. It can affect your cycle and cause irregular periods.
- Breastfeeding. After birth, you can expect a bit of irregularity when it comes to your period. When breastfeeding, it can lead to lighter periods or stop them all together. The body produces a hormone called prolactin, which allows you to make milk, and affects your period. However, once you’re done breastfeeding, your period should return to its regular cycle.
Why is my menstrual cycle getting longer?
Everyone’s cycle is different, but if you find yours is a bit longer than the typical 28 days, no worries. A lack of regular ovulation is usually the cause of it. Progesterone causes you to bleed during your period. However, if follicles don’t ovulate, that progesterone won’t release. As a result, a woman’s uterine lining will continue to build, making her cycle longer.
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