Period 101: Understanding your Cycle in 3 Easy Steps
When we understand what’s going on and figure out what a “normal” period looks like for us (read: everyone experiences it differently!), we can then identify when something is off and take proactive action to correct if needed.
That’s why I put together this quick and dirty Period 101 article for everyone. I’m taking you back to grade school sex education to talk about the three phases of your menstrual cycle, what your hormones SHOULD be doing throughout the month, and how you can start tracking your cycle like a pro.
I sometimes take for granted my medical background and genuine interest in hormonal health. I tell ALL my female patients it’s important to understand what’s going on in your body - especially when it comes to your hormones and tracking your cycle.
Your period consists of three phase:
The follicular phase
The luteal phase
The Follicular Phase:
Named appropriately for the the act of follicle maturation during this phase of the cycle. Your ovaries house little sacs, or follicles, which contain one egg. It takes 100 days of a follicle to fully mature, and they enter their final race to maturation before ovulation on Day 1 of your period. Your pituitary gland releases a hormone called FSH, follicle-stimulating hormone, which triggers 6-8 follicles to begin their final stages of maturation and they begin releasing estrogen in the form of estradiol. This increase in estrogen is what stimulates the thickening of our uterine lining in preparation for a baby, as well as secretion of fertile mucous prior to ovulation.
Fertile mucous is that wet, slippery, “egg-white” discharge you might see midcycle about 2-3 days before you ovulate. The quality of this mucous is perfect for conception as it allows the sperm to travel up into the uterus within 4 minutes in order to await an egg to fertilize. If you are taking progestin-containing birth control you may notice a lack of this fertile mucous, which is one way this method of birth control works to prevent pregnancy.
The increase in estrogen during this time is crucial for proper triggering of ovulation. Proper levels also help to improve sleep, skin and bone health, and vaginal lubrication.
It’s a common misconception that ovulation occurs for every woman on Day 14. In fact, ovulation can occur as early as Day 7 and as late as Day 21 depending on the length of your follicular phase. Ovulation is triggered by a surge in luteinizing hormone (LH), which causes the most mature follicle from the follicular phase to swell, rupture and release its egg for fertilization.
The Luteal Phase:
Unlike the follicular phase, the luteal phase has a strict 14 day timeline for everyone - if we see this part of the cycle shortened it is due to low progesterone and can greatly impact our fertility. The ruptured follicle from our ovulation becomes a progesterone-secreting gland called the corpus luteum - in less than 24 hours! This final step in follicular development is vital, as it becomes our body’s main source of progesterone during the last phase of our cycle. Things like hypothyroidism, insulin dysregulation, and nutrient deficiencies can halt the corpus luteum’s formation. Progesterone is here to help balance out our estrogen - it is the yin to estrogen’s yang. It is present to support pregnancy if it’s achieved, but also works to calm the nervous system and support the production of a calming neurotransmitter, GABA. Your corpus luteum will only survive 14 days without pregnancy, and once it begins to break down we see a drop in our progesterone which triggers menstruation.
Then the cycle repeats itself!
If you haven’t already taken my hormone quiz, click here to download it now. This handy tool is your first step to understanding what your hormones are trying to tell you.
The symptoms you checked off on your quiz are little clues that this cycle isn’t balanced - clues that your hormones are not fluctuating appropriately. This is why tracking your cycle is so important.
If you suffer from debilitating PMS; including anxiety or irritability prior to periods, cramps, bloating, breast tenderness, cyclical migraines or you have heavy periods, spotting between periods, difficulty sleeping or trouble conceiving you may be suffering from low progesterone.
If you experience significant brain fog, mood swings, depression and are easily brought to tears, notice a red discolouration of your face, have issues with your gallbladder, and heavy periods then you may be suffering from high estrogen.
If you notice poor memory, night sweats, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, insomnia and central weight gain then you may be suffering from low estrogen and you need to read this blog about navigating perimenopause and menopause, naturally.
If you notice an increase in hair growth on your back, neck, face and arms, darker skin in your armpits, acne on your face, back and chest, greasy or thinning hair, and longer menstrual cycles then you may be suffering from high testosterone.
I like to have my patients download an app called Kindara - it’s user friendly and you can track everything from PMS symptoms, to vaginal discharge and even basal body temperature.
Do you track your cycle? If not here’s some basic tips to get started:
Day 1 is when your bleed starts - do not count light spotting beforehand
Count how many total days of bleeding (also good here to track how many times you’re changing your pad, tampon or menstrual cup to get a gauge on flow)
Track your mucous changes - is it dry? Sticky? Wet? Slippery? White? Clear? Yellow?
What symptoms are you experiencing around ovulation and into your luteal phase?
Bring this info to your ND and they can help you decipher what areas of your cycle need to be addressed either through diet, acupuncture, supplements or herbs. If you’d like more information, book your complimentary meet and greet to see how we can get your cycle back on track!
Dr. Kelsey Duncan, Naturopathic Doctor
Dr. Duncan is a Naturopathic Doctor in Guelph passionate about balancing women's hormones, optimzing thyroid health, and helping women get pregnant naturally. You can find her at Natural Choice Medical Clinic evenings and weekends. Call 519-265-8035 or click here to book your appointment.