Published on: 11 March 2021. Written by: Jo Usmar.
Many of the choices you make will be affected by the phases of your menstrual cycle – and yet so few of us are aware of them. Here’s what you need to know.
If you are one of the 800 million people in the world who menstruate then chances are you’re aware that at certain times of the month you feel differently – both physically and mentally. This is entirely down to the hormones released during your cycle.
‘Whether you’re greatly affected by your periods, or they don’t trouble you at all, they do quite literally, rule our lives,’ Maisie Hill, author of Period Power: Harness your Hormones and Get your Cycle Working for You, says. ‘Your energy, mood, appetite, sleep, sexual desire, creativity, productivity, ability to focus, interest in socialising, and need for movement and rest are all hugely affected by where you’re at in your cycle.’
Learning how your cycle works and how you respond to the hormone-dance going on inside your body each month means you can be at your best more of the time – handy considering you’re likely to have more than 400 periods during your life. Here’s what you need to know.
First up, understanding menstruation and ovulation
‘There are two pivotal moments [or events] in your menstrual cycle: menstruation, the discharge and movement of blood; and ovulation, the release and motion of an egg,’ Hill says. These two moments dictate the start and end of the two phases of your cycle: the follicular phase and the luteal phase.
Menstruation: Day 1 of menstruation is the first day you begin to bleed. It is caused by the blood and tissue lining the uterus (womb) breaking down and leaving the body. This lasts, on average, from three to eight days.
Ovulation: When an egg is released from the follicle attached to your ovary, which then travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus.
The length of a cycle can vary dramatically person-to-person, but the ‘textbook cycle’ is 28 days. The disparity in cycle length is down to how long it takes someone to ovulate – ie, how long phase 1 lasts. Phase 2 is usually fixed at 14 days. So, what are the two phases?
Phase 1: The follicular phase – menstruation to ovulation
The follicular phase starts with menstruation and ends with ovulation. Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) – ‘The boss of your cycle,’ Hill says – prompts the pituitary gland to release the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH). These, in turn, prompt the ovary to produce around five to 20 fluid-filled pockets called follicles, which each contain an egg.
However, from about day 5 to day 7 (based on a 28-day cycle), one follicle wins the egg-making race while the rest are absorbed back into the ovary.
Meanwhile, oestradiol (a form of oestrogen) is released, encouraging the lining of the uterus to thicken. ‘I like to think of oestrogen as the Beyoncé of hormones – confident, alluring, sensual, fertile,’ Hill says. ‘She makes your features appear more symmetrical, clears your skin up, makes you feel good, changes your walk into a sassy strut, demands attention and is ready to conquer the world.’
Phase 1 culminates when the egg bursts out of the follicle that housed it – this is known as ovulation.
Phase 2: The luteal phase
Ovulation initiates phase 2. The egg has been released to start living its best life in the fallopian tube, waiting to be fertilised by a sperm. The ruptured follicle that housed it stays on the surface of the ovary for the next two weeks, transforming into something called the corpus luteum (hence the phase’s name).
‘The corpus luteum is a temporary gland that releases progesterone,’ Hill says. ‘The hormone that runs the show in the second half of your cycle.’
Progesterone maintains the thickened lining of the uterus, waiting for a fertilised egg to implant. ‘Progesterone is quiet, calm and introspective,’ Hill says. ‘It slows you down and makes you want to stay in and eat comfort food – the Kristen Stewart of your reproductive hormones.’
If the egg isn’t fertilised, the corpus luteum dies (usually at around day 22 to 24), causing a big drop in progesterone levels which, in turn, causes the lining of the uterus to break down. This leads to – you guessed it – menstruation. And so the cycle continues.
But have you heard of the seasonal cycle phases?
Scientifically, your cycle is split according to the two events – menstruation and ovulation – the two ‘official’ phases of your cycle. However, the behaviour and influence of your hormones actually go through four stages, and this is why Maisie Hill decided to chart your cycle, according to the influence of your hormones, as winter, spring, summer and autumn.
This means, as well as knowing when you’re ovulating and menstruating, you can also tune in to when you’re likely to feel (and look) your best, be most productive, sociable and generally boss life, versus when you’ll feel your most introverted and more ‘meh’ about the world.
The winter phase: menstruation
‘The days around the start of your period are when your hormones collapse to their lowest levels,’ Hill says. ‘You may feel overwhelming fatigue, emotional vulnerability, teariness, anxiety and an unsettled spirit.’ Winter can be a period of important self-reflection. Here’s how to look after yourself best:
- Set boundaries, say no and take it easy
You’ll have less energy at this point in your cycle and will need to rest. Say no to activities that demand too much stamina, delegate arduous tasks at work and cut yourself some slack for needing to turn your energy inwards. Swap out high-intensity exercise for something gentler: walking instead of running, yin yoga instead of strong vinyasa, and gentle cardio instead of HIIT.
- Check in with yourself
‘Freewriting is a great way of using 10 minutes to dump accumulated mental chatter and release pent-up feelings,’ Hill advises. ‘It’s where you write continuously without pausing to pay attention to spelling, grammar, or topic. If you run out of things to say, just write, “I don’t know what to write” repeatedly until something else comes up.’
- Have an orgasm
‘Orgasms are one of my top recommendations that I give clients for relieving menstrual cramps,’ Hill says. ‘They relieve tension, aid sleep and boost feel-good brain chemicals. Although some people like intimacy during their period, I commonly find it’s a time when clients prefer to masturbate.’
Spring phase: pre-ovulation
Spring starts when your period ends, and increases in oestrogen make you feel more energised, motivated, positive and sociable. This is therefore the ideal time to:
- Join an exercise class
‘The playful nature of this season, your sociability and willingness to take risks, makes it the perfect time to finally sign up to a class like CrossFit or yoga,’ Hill says. ‘You’ll have a higher tolerance for endurance and pain, your uptake of oxygen is increased and you can recover better. Make sure you focus on form as you get closer to ovulation, as high levels of oestrogen make you more prone to injury.’
- Start a new healthy habit
‘Between your period and ovulation, there’s a perfect window to form a new habit,’ Hill says. ‘After ovulation, new habits are harder to maintain [see below], so do the groundwork here, where change is easier, and you’ll be more likely to keep it up.’
Summer phase: around ovulation
Summer is the time just before and during ovulation when your body is essentially raring to get pregnant. To this end, you’ll be looking and feeling your best: sexy, sensual, energetic and confident.
- Say yes to bedroom opportunities (if you feel like it)
The oestrogen high you’re on and the increase in testosterone (‘which is not a male hormone,’ Hill affirms) means you’ll be feeling at your most attractive, flirty and, yes, horny. Now’s the time to activate that app or book a date-night in with your partner. However, be warned: this is also the time you’re most likely to contact an ex. If you find dating or socialising difficult, this sudden pheromone peak can be disconcerting. In which case, focus instead on learning to:
- Say yes to professional opportunities
Take advantage of how productive, capable and brave you feel by nailing your professional to-do list. You’ll be able to achieve a lot more than other seasons, and your communication skills will be on point, so you’ll be at your most diplomatic. Take the lead on a project at work, finally handle that awkward situation with a colleague, book yourself onto that course and ask for that long overdue pay raise.
- Speak up for others who may be overlooked
Your biological need to connect and communicate right now makes it the perfect time to speak up and support others. Try the ‘amplification’ strategy made famous by female White House staffers: when someone who’d usually be talked over or disregarded in favour of louder types shares an idea, repeat the point and give them credit for it. Whether it’s during a business meeting or at a social event, it’s about bolstering confidence and creating a level playing field.
Autumn phase: premenstruum
This is the week or so before your period starts. When ovulation ends and oestrogen levels dip, you’ll notice either a subtle or dramatic shift in how you feel and behave. ‘I can’t emphasise enough how charting this one day [of ovulation] – which may fluctuate in each cycle by a few days – will mean you move from meltdowns and misery to compassion and dignity,’ Hill says, flagging up how we tend to be most unkind to ourselves at this point, not understanding why we suddenly feel so different. Instead of beating yourself up:
- Embrace your need to nest
Rising progesterone can produce a nesting feeling – ‘nature’s way of getting you ready to drop your responsibilities, so you can go to ground in some way when your period arrives,’ Hill says. Cleaning, organising and tidying will soothe your mind.
- Trust your instincts
‘This might sound woo-woo to you,’ Hill says, ‘but it’s backed up by scientific research which demonstrates that your first response – your gut instinct – is astonishingly accurate 90% of the time. Autumn is a time of great personal insight and you’ll have the clarity to make a decision you’ve been mulling over for a while.’
Read more about how to exercise during your cycle here.
Period Power: Harness your Hormones and Get your Cycle Working for You by Maisie Hill, published by Green Tree, £12.99 is available now, as is her new book, Perimenopause Power: Navigating your Hormones on the Journey to Menopause, Green Tree, £14.99.
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