Okay, let’s talk about the basics of the menstrual cycle. I know you probably feel like we’re heading back to a high school science lesson right now, but your biology teacher only gave you half the story. I’m gonna give you the other half, the bit that nobody told you.
We kinda know that the menstrual cycle is about periods and making babies, but there’s this whole other side to the menstrual cycle that nobody has told you about. It’s this simple, but powerful way of living where you understand your body and can use the way it works to your advantage.
not just sex, periods and pms
So, let’s be clear – the whole point of the menstrual cycle is reproduction. If we didn’t have menstrual cycles, we wouldn’t have babies and we could say bye-bye to the continuation of the human race. Incidentally that is exactly why the pill works – and I’ll get to that in a second. But first, I just wanna say that this menstrual cycle lesson is not all about sex, reproduction and babies.
Like I said, the whole point of the menstrual cycle IS ultimately reproduction, but I want to show you your cycle in a way that makes much more sense to those of us who aren’t currently looking to get pregnant right now. We understand, don’t we, that the menstrual cycle is necessary when we’re looking to procreate, but when that’s not the case it can be looked at as a bit of an inconvenience. I said this in the intro episode, but I’m all about giving you a holistic look at the menstrual cycle, and showing you how you can actually start to make the most of it.
It’s all about seeing the menstrual cycle more holistically. And I don’t mean that in the woo-y way it’s often interpreted. You don’t have to start collecting crystals and pulling tarot cards. I just mean that in the sense of how your menstrual cycle plays out as a whole. So when people talk about being “holistic” in terms of health or medicine, it means that we take the whole person into account. We look at the mental and social factors at play too rather than just physical symptoms.
the pill turns off your cycle
Now, real quick – I said I would come back to the pill, because this is an important thing to note. I said if we didn’t have menstrual cycles, we wouldn’t have babies – and that’s exactly why the pill works. A lot of people are under the assumption that the pill can be used to regulate the menstrual cycle – and that’s simply not true. The pill is often used to try and regulate irregular bleeding, but it’s not regulating or fixing your cycle. What the pill actually does, is to sort of shut off the menstrual cycle. No menstrual cycle means no babies. Which is ultimately why you don’t get pregnant on the pill.
When you hear me talk about the menstrual cycle, I mean a true menstrual cycle. If you’re taking hormonal contraceptives, some of the things I talk about might not ring true for you. And that’s okay. By all means, if that’s you – still listen in because I think it’s important for you to understand what the menstrual cycle is and how it works even if you’re not experiencing it right now. I will do an episode around contraceptive choices, because it’s a big topic with a lot of talking points, but for today we’re just looking at the basics of the menstrual cycle,
the 4 cycle phases
Let’s dive right in with the 4 phases of the menstrual cycle. Often when we talk about the menstrual cycle – we think of our periods. But your menstrual cycle is happening all the time. Whether you’re bleeding or not. In fact, your period is just ONE of the four phases.
The other three phases are called pre-ovulation, ovulation and the premenstrual phase. They all have an important role to play in reproduction, and they all have an important role to play in the everyday happenings of your life – IF you understand how to use them. We’ll get to that shortly.
So, phase one of four is menstruation, or your period. This one is fairly obvious to us because there’s at least one physical symptom that comes along with it. The blood. There may also be cramping, period poops, fatigue and a whole host of other things too. It’s obvious to us because we can see and feel all these things happening.
Your period is the first phase of the cycle, and it happens because you’re not pregnant. This is the one part of the cycle I’m sure you understand and are familiar with, so I’m not gonna spend too long talking about this one. There’s a whole lot more that you probably don’t understand in the other phases of your cycle.
The second phase of your cycle, the pre-ovulation phase, is the time from when you stop bleeding, up until you ovulate. If you’re not sure about ovulation, hang tight, we’re gonna get there. What’s happening through the pre-ovulation phase is that your oestrogen levels are rising.
This rise in oestrogen helps to prepare and mature an egg within the ovary. So it’s a super important part of the reproductive cycle. If we didn’t produce the oestrogen we wouldn’t be able to produce mature, healthy eggs. So, super important for baby making, but it also can have a huge effect on your mood too.
Oestrogen and serotonin are linked to one another. Serotonin is the happy hormone. It gives you feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Which is why you might notice a considerable increase in your mood as you come out of your period.
That might play out as just feeling happier, more ready to be out in the world after being on your period. You might find you’re more social, more productive, and generally just in a better mood.
The chances are that you’re aware of this on some level, but you’ve never really linked it to your cycle before. You probably know that you’re feeling crappy on your period and will feel better once it’s over. But haven’t made the connection between your mood and your hormones. It’s a neat idea, right? And it doesn’t just happen in pre-ovulation.
Phase 3 of your cycle is ovulation. This is when the egg that’s been maturing is ready to be released. Some people actually feel this happen in a phenomenon known as Mittelschmerz, which is German for middle pain. Named because it hurts, and it happens right around the middle of your cycle.
Ovulation is that sweet spot when your oestrogen levels reach a peak. There is more than oestrogen at play here, but I’ll keep it simple. There’s no point knowing all your hormone fluctuations if you don’t understand how they affect your everyday life. Your hormone levels are essentially what causes the menstrual cycle to do it’s thing, but – like I said – they can have other effects too. So, if oestrogen is peaking around the time of ovulation, you can bet that serotonin is too.
At this point in your cycle your happiness and wellbeing hormone is running high. You’ll probably notice that you feel super happy, and that you have more confidence too.
An energy surge is not uncommon here either. You’ll probably feel more able to get things done. To go harder for longer in whatever it is you’re doing. Let’s not forget that the menstrual cycle is there for baby making though. You might also notice a surge in libido right around this time. Both of these are thanks to a surge in testosterone.
So, it’s ovulation, your egg has been released. This is the prime time for actually getting that egg fertilised. So it makes sense that Mother Nature wants you getting jiggy with it at the time that you’re most likely to become pregnant. That energy and libido increase is absolutely linked to your menstrual cycle.
You’ve got this high energy, super confidence thing going on. So ovulation is really all about moving, shaking and baby making.
Mine is Mooncup, a silicone reusable funnel shaped menstrual cup.. It’s economical, eco-friendly and it completely change the way I feel about my period.
I feel like pre-ovulation and ovulation often get glossed over when we talk about the menstrual cycle in this way, because for most people they’re the best bits of the cycle. There’s often nothing of particular interest to note, because there’s not many physical symptoms or negative points that crop up here.
In comparison to PMS and your period and all the more obvious things that show up with them, pre-ovulation and ovulation can feel less noteworthy. We are, after all, programmed to remember trauma. So the negative parts of life, and our cycles, tend to stick in our minds more than the positive.
the premenstrual phase
So, until this point, oestrogen has been the main star of the show. But once ovulation is over, you then move on to phase 4 of the cycle. The premenstrual phase. I know full well that this one has gotten a bad rap. It comes with this idea of women “acting crazy” (I say that with inverted commas, because we know that’s not true), or of being hormonal and emotional.
Let’s talk about what’s actually going on in your body in this phase though and how that links in with our moods. Instead of oestrogen being the main attraction here, another hormone called progesterone takes centre stage. The role of progesterone is to prepare the womb and to support the potential pregnancy that’s incoming. Progesterone, literally means pro-gestation.
Unlike oestrogen, progesterone isn’t linked with serotonin, so as your oestrogen levels drop off, you might see your mood take a bit of a dip after ovulation too. You might be less patient, more prone to anxiety or find you’re suffering with brain fog. These are all coined as classic PMS symptoms. And they usually worsen as progesterone increases the closer you get to your period.
I will make a point here that, although I use the word “symptoms” – I don’t necessarily like to think of PMS in terms of a disease or condition. I used to suffer really badly with mood swings and irritability in the premenstrual phase. I was absolute hell to live with. I would start arguments for no apparent reason. I would feel really angry and not really know why. I’d be mid argument and literally be thinking “why am i doing this?” but feel totally unable to stop.
So I’m not saying that the effects of PMS aren’t real – because they absolutely are. But these changes in mood aren’t a disease and they don’t mean there’s something wrong with you necessarily. When you understand the part your hormones have to play in affecting your mood, you can see why you might be feeling this way as you draw closer to your period. For me, this is where I’ve seen the holistic nature of the menstrual cycle play out the most.
Progesterone is said to have a calming effect and it can make you sleepy. I know that sounds like the total opposite of what you might feel when you’re PMS-ing. Just try telling that to anyone who is suffering from premenstrual rage. But most of us live a lifestyle that doesn’t allow for slowing down as our hormones change throughout the month.
What your body really wants to do when it produces progesterone is to take a bit more chill time. Your 9-5 doesn’t just stop because you’ve used up all your ovulation energy. Your kids are still going to want to be looked after whether you’re premenstrual or not. But, for me, a lot of the frustration and anger I felt in the premenstrual phase came down to not feeling able to look after myself properly.
In this phase, your body is crying out for you to slow down, grab a little more me time, and do what you can to relax. At this point, your body is hoping there’s a little bundle of joy developing inside you. Whether or not there is remains to be seen, but as far as your body is concerned, it’s a very real possibility.
Your body wants to keep you and your potential pregnancy safe. What better way to keep you safe than by giving off cues that you should be doing less and chilling out more. We might have moved on from caveman times, but as far as Mother Nature is concerned, it’s time for you to slow down, retreat back into your cave and do what you can to avoid getting eaten by a bear. Again, it’s that holistic nature of the cycle at work.
I’m convinced that in my case, and probably is the case for many others too, that the anger and frustration I felt in the premenstrual phase, stems from a frustration in my body not being able to function the way it did a week or so before. You go from having all this energy and feeling really positive, to having less energy and feeling more negative.
Think of it this way. It’s like putting an ice cube tray into a fridge and expecting it to create ice the same way a freezer does. There’s nothing wrong with the fridge, it’s not broken. It just doesn’t work the same way as the freezer. That’s what’s going on here. You’re not broken in the premenstrual, you’re just different than you were at ovulation. So in my case, it was a lack of understanding for what my body is doing and how I should be looking after it that led me to feeling this way.
That frustration comes from trying to do the opposite of what your body is asking for. There’s a reason you feel more tired. Or get snappy more quickly. If you learn to recognise those feelings and lean in to them instead of trying to push through them, you can release some of that tension.
When you start to learn what your body is doing, and how that impacts on your mood and energy levels, you can start to have a bit more compassion for yourself.
It’s not just me though. I’d been chatting to my friend Karly not so long ago about premenstrual anxiety. I asked her “is it enough to just understand what’s going on with your cycle? Like, does that actually help with the anxiety?” She said that it absolutely does. That knowing when it’s going to come up not only helps her better prepare for it, but that also in understanding that it’s largely related to her cycle, she can rationalise it more easily.
This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say a holistic look at the menstrual cycle. It’s not just blood, sex and babies. There are so many other ways your cycle can play out.
So that’s your premenstrual phase in a nutshell. If you’re not pregnant this cycle, you’ll come back round to that first phase again, your period. So, what’s happening with your hormones at this point?
Progesterone has been rising in the premenstrual phase, and often there’s a lot of tension and irritability that comes with that. Once your body realises that you’re not pregnant, your hormones take a total nosedive.
So there’s two things that happen here. First off your energy levels will hit the floor. You might even feel like you’ve been hit by a truck the first two days of your period. I know I do. And that’s due to that hormone drop.
The other thing (and this one is slightly more positive) is that the tension you’ve been building in your premenstrual phase suddenly melts away. I’m sure we’ve all felt that. Ever been really emotional or really ratty, not really knowing why and then two days later your period shows up and you feel much better? That’s what I’m talking about here.
That tension release can actually feel really good. Letting go of all the shit from your last cycle is such a weight lifted. It’s almost like letting go of a bad day after a good night’s rest. And there’s other good points that come with your period too. I know, sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Although you’re probably tired, if you allow yourself the time and space to rest on your period, your thinking can become much clearer. I am such an advocate for resting while you bleed, and I do it almost every cycle. Days 1 & 2 for me are just a no-go zone. I do the bare minimum that life requires of me on these days and let me tell you, it is glorious.
One thing I know I’m super good at here though, is ideas. In fact this podcast episode is an idea that came to me while I was resting on my period. I find I have so many ideas popping into my head when I bleed. I will literally lay on the couch with my hot water bottle and things will come to me. I’m constantly just going “Siri, take a note”.
I put this down to 1) the premenstrual brain fog finally lifting and allowing me to think, and 2) giving myself the time and space to rest means that my head is not overwhelmed with the busyness of life. I actually have room in my brain to think about things other than my hectic schedule.
I know resting on your period is not going to work for everyone. Like I said before, you probably still have a job to go to or a family to look after. Resting on your period doesn’t have to look like sitting on your couch for your whole bleed. Although, if you’re in a position to do that I would highly recommend it. Even 5 minutes of quiet calm when you’re bleeding can feel really good.
When I say I do the bare minimum that life requires of me when I bleed, I don’t necessarily mean I sit and do nothing. It really depends on what’s happening that day. If my kids are at school, I will do the school run and not much else. I realise this is easy for me because I work my own schedule which is deliberately centred around my cycle. But if you have to work on your period, consider asking someone else to cook dinner, or grab a ready meal on your way home from work. All I’m saying is, don’t try to be a superhero on your period. It’s okay to let some shit go.
Menstruation is all about taking it easy, pre-ovulation is about emerging out of the period cave, ovulation is about making the most of that really high energy, and then the premenstrual phase is all about winding down back to Menstruation.
So, that’s a bit more of an in-depth look at your menstrual cycle. A more holistic approach to how that plays out in your life. I could go into much more detail about all of this but I said this was going to be a “Back-to-Basics” lesson. I’ve probably gone one long enough now and you’re probably a bit mind-blown taking in all this information so I will leave it there for today.
Let’s keep the conversation going, hit me up on Instagram (@cherrelleslaney) and tell me what’s been your biggest takeaway from this blog.