As a woman you’ll have noticed the changes you experience throughout your menstrual cycle – some days you may be too burnt out and bloated to even want to get out of bed, and other times you are full of vigor, smashing personal bests all over town. So what gives? The fluctuations of hormones, of course!
In this post we share extracted content from Total Body Beautiful explaining the hormonal fluctuations you’ll experience each cycle and how they may impact your mood and energy.
So what actually happens during your period? The average length of our menstrual cycle is 28 to 29 days, but this can vary between women and will start to change in regularity as we age. Technically, the length of your menstrual cycle is calculated from the first day of your period to the day before your next period starts.
With such a short period of time of complex hormonal fluctuations, it’s no wonder we are so complex. Monitoring your period can help you gain insight into your experiences and actually know where you are physiologically each month. Your exercise routine can take on a whole new meaning when you synchronize it with the hormones that govern the symptoms.
Below we’ll explore each phase of the cycle so that we really understand what’s going on inside the female body. As shown below the four main phases of the menstrual cycle include the following:
- Follicular phase
- Luteal phase
Phase 1: Menstruation
Menstruation, also known as a period, occurs from the time bleeding starts to the time it ends. A period is the normal shedding of blood and endometrium (the lining of the uterus) through the cervix and vagina. A normal period may last up to 8 days but on average lasts about 5 or 6. It is the most familiar phase of the cycle and takes place because a pregnancy did not occur. Our period is simply our body’s eliminating the thickened lining of the uterus (endometrium) because it was not needed for an embryo. Menstrual fluid contains blood, cells from the lining of the uterus (endometrial cells), and mucus.
Hormonally, if pregnancy hasn’t taken place, your levels of estrogen and progesterone drop, then climb steadily during the week of your period. This is where things can get interesting. Research has shown that estrogen plays a giant role in mood and behavior by working in partnership with serotonin, dopamine, and other mood-changing brain chemicals. Studies also show that low progesterone levels in your body can make you less responsive to your own emotions (Champagne et al. 2012; Mayo Clinic 2020). Most of us have experienced mood swings during our cycle. Some of us catch “the grumps” before or during our period, then experience a surge of strength and energy near the end.
The takeaway? When the negative symptoms at the start of your period show up, they usually do so in the form of fatigue, moodiness, depression, body aches, and headaches. If you are experiencing heavy symptoms, we recommend doing activities that make you feel great such as walking, stretching, yoga, and meditating. Toward the end of the week of your period, as estrogen and progesterone levels increase, graduate the intensity and enjoy the shifts in strength and energy.
Phase 2: Follicular phase
The follicular phase starts on the first day of menstruation and ends with ovulation, which occurs around day 10 of a 28-day cycle, meaning that it overlaps with your period. Prompted by your hypothalamus, the pituitary gland releases FSH toward the end of the follicular phase. For most of us, the follicular phase lasts 10 to 22 days, but this can vary from cycle to cycle. This hormone stimulates the ovary to produce 5 to 20 follicles. Each follicle houses an immature egg. Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg, and the others disintegrate. The growth of the follicles stimulates the lining of the uterus to thicken in preparation for possible pregnancy. During this time, the hormone estradiol begins to rise. The estradiol rising in the body can help shush the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Your levels of estrogen and progesterone are in high supply and about to reach their most saucy levels, so it’s likely that you will feel energized.
This is definitely the time to cater to your social desires and enjoy the benefits of your energy for a more intense workout. You will likely feel motivated and strong, and studies even suggest that you may crave healthier foods (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 2021; Mayo Clinic 2020).
Phase 3: Ovulation
Ovulation is the release of a mature egg from the surface of the ovary. This usually occurs midcycle, around two weeks before menstruation starts. Ovulation divides the two phases of the ovarian cycle (the follicular phase and the luteal phase, around the 14th day of your cycle). Unless the egg meets a sperm during this time, it will perish. Do not be surprised if you feel sexier and experience an increased libido during this time. And while you are feeling all swanky, know it’s because the developing follicle causes an increase in the levels of estrogen and testosterone. Research shows that many women are very focused, optimistic, and motivated during this time, but others show signs of anxiety. This is also a stage when your hormones make you more pain tolerant and you have peak strength.
The Journal of Consumer Psychology found that during ovulation, women were more likely to buy clothes, makeup, and other items that support appearance (Durante et al. 2011). So now you understand why your shopping bags are full at that time. Ovulation is obviously very important when trying to conceive. You can improve your chance of getting pregnant if you know about ovulation and the fertile window in the menstrual cycle when you are most likely to get pregnant.
Phase 4: Luteal phase
Mainstream ignorance and stereotyping of the hysterical woman with PMS has been played hard. It doesn’t allow for much understanding of our hormonal experience, so we’d like to explain. Luteal phase is from ovulation (around day 14) until the start of your next period. Once ovulation occurs, the follicle that contained the “little egg that could” transforms into something called the corpus luteum and begins to produce progesterone as well as estrogen. Progesterone levels peak about halfway through the luteal phase (around day 21). If an egg is fertilized, progesterone from the corpus luteum supports the early pregnancy. If no fertilization occurs, the corpus luteum will start to break down between 9 and 11 days after ovulation. This results in a drop in estrogen and progesterone levels, which then cycles you back to your period.
Progesterone during the luteal phase can make you feel bloated and moody, and we don’t blame you. You literally have hormones coursing through your body and thickening the uterine lining for a job that may not happen. Then it sheds for a period of time, with another onslaught of hormone fluctuation. Progesterone helps the body to make cortisol, a hormone that doesn’t help things if you are stressed. If cortisol levels are already elevated because of your life’s demands, the progesterone can actually cause an extra scoop of cortisol. As your brain looks for ways to boost energy, it may send out messages to eat sugar, which is why the bowl of ice cream seems so tempting.
Although the unpleasant symptoms of the luteal phase can be hard to deal with, leading research says that you can do a great deal to control them. Eating junk food, drinking too much alcohol, and ditching solid sleep can all seriously disrupt the body’s hormone levels, making premenstrual symptoms much harder to cope with. Some ob-gyns think that if a woman with balanced hormones is having severe PMS, it’s due more to lifestyle choices than hormones.
Learn more in Total Body Beautiful.
Total Body Beautiful
Andrea Orbeck,Desi Bartlett and Nicole Stuart
Header photo by Sora Shimazaki