How to work WITH your menstrual cycle, for a happier more balanced You all month round
Updated: May 17, 2021
Understanding what’s actually happening and how you’re likely to feel during the various phases of your menstrual cycle is a powerful way to start having a better experience, every month, for a happier more vibrant life!
In this blog I’m going to take you through the 4 phases of the menstrual cycle including what’s happening with your hormones at the various times and how you might feel during each of the phases - allowing you to plan your life around it and take back control, so your cycles can actually work FOR you not against you!
The female sex hormones progesterone and oestrogen naturally ebb and flow throughout the entire month (so long as you are not on the contraceptive pill or injection as this shuts off communication between your brain and ovaries). The ebb and flow of these hormones affects us physically, mentally, and emotionally, as well as impacting on our appetite, cravings, mood, energy, sleep, digestion, weight, and body temperature! When these 2 hormones are in healthy balance PMS experiences should be very mild, and anything more than very mild is common, but is not normal, and living your life in line with the 4 phases can help you better manage your PMS symptoms, energy, mood and more.
Let’s now look at the 4 phases of the menstrual cycle
THE MENSTRUATION PHASE
If we were to compare the menstrual cycle to the 4 seasons this would represent winter. Menstruation is day 1 of your cycle (the day your period starts) and lasts anywhere between 3 and 7 days. Your body is releasing blood from the lining of your uterus that became thickened after you ovulated in the previous cycle but no pregnancy occurred.
The shedding of the lining is a signal to slow down and stop, whilst you prepare to start anew. It's a time to wrap up, get cosy, hibernate, and go inwards. Oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest here and as a result your energy is likely to be low and your mood can feel a bit flat. This is a time in the cycle to keep social engagements, other commitments and high-energy activities to a minimum.
About half way through your period (around day 3) you should notice your energy start to rise and your mood start to improve, as oestrogen starts to rise. The menstruation phase occurs in the first part of the follicular phase and once your period finishes you then move into the next part of the follicular phase.
THE FOLLICULAR PHASE
This phase includes the menstruation phase, so technically it starts on day 1 of your period and lasts up until ovulation, which is roughly day 14 in an average 28 day cycle. The pituitary gland in your brain releases follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates your ovary to produce around 5 to 20 follicles (tiny nodules or cysts), and the growth of these follicles stimulates your uterine lining to thicken in preparation for ovulation and a possible pregnancy later on in the cycle.
It’s the spring of your cycle; oestrogen starts to rise representing blossoms starting to bloom on the trees, your energy starts to renew, your mood improves, you feel stronger, motivation starts to rise along with optimism, creativity and new ideas, you have a brighter mind, and clearer skin. You might also feel a sense of vibrancy and feel more attractive and outgoing with a spring in your step! The hormone testosterone is also starting to rise here, which boosts strength, mood and sex drive.
This is a good time to arrange those social engagements and to work on big projects that require more brain power and ideas as you’ll feel at your creative peak here.
Ovulation occurs when/if your ovary releases a mature egg after one of the follicles from the follicular phase matures into an egg. Ovulation typically occurs around day 14 in an average 28 day cycle, and lasts about 24 hours. This is the summer of your cycle! Oestrogen peaks in the lead up to it, resulting in everything about you saying “yes, yes, yes!” as oestrogen stimulates more of the ‘happy mood chemical’ serotonin.
It’s natural to feel like you have a lot of energy here, to feel much more sociable, open and outgoing, and to be smashing through work tasks, presentations and creative projects, as well as any workouts. It’s a great time to go for a personal best in the gym or in other activities you’re training for. You’ll be feeling and looking great here too with a twinkle in your eye ;-), and of course you’re more fertile here so beware!
Once ovulation has occurred (and ONLY if it has) the follicle transforms into a structure known as the corpus luteum, and this structure starts releasing lots of progesterone over the following 10-14 days (the luteal phase), along with small amounts of oestrogen.
Progesterone is our calming, soothing, anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory hormone. We LOVE progesterone, and without ovulation occurring we simply won’t make anywhere near enough of this really important hormone, and will feel the negative effects of low progesterone - hello PMS, low mood, puffiness, sleep issues, and anxiety.
THE LUTEAL PHASE
The luteal phase is the autumn of your cycle and really is a tale of two halves, starting right after ovulation (approx. day 15) and lasting for about 2 weeks in total. It ends as soon as you start your next period (which moves you back into the menstrual phase of a new cycle).
In the first week of the luteal phase your energy is still good, your mood is calm, and you're feeling grounded, as you're still enjoying the lovely effects of the progesterone you made after you ovulated, which continues during this phase.
The second week takes us further into autumn and can be likened to the leaves starting to fall from the trees as oestrogen and progesterone both start to drop. This results in less energy, lower mood, some anxiety, and you might find that you’re quite critical of yourself and/or other people and situations, and you could have trouble falling asleep and or staying asleep.
Your appetite is rising and carb and sugar cravings feel more pronounced (sound familiar?!), due to lower levels of serotonin from lower levels of oestrogen (serotonin is involved in appetite and cravings as well as mood). This is the week to pay extra attention to balancing your plate with an optimal amount of protein, good fats and fibre at every single meal as this will help to better regulate your appetite and keep your cravings at bay.
It’s also common to experience some (mild) water retention and feelings of 'puffiness' or heavier weight here too, mostly due to low progesterone. A headache or even migraine is possible at some point in this week, which is again due to low oestrogen and serotonin. In my own experience a headache or migraine is more likely if I’ve done or pushed too much at the times in my cycle when I should have been doing less.
Prioritise sleep and rest, and really manage your energy during this week-long phase, all as per the advice above for the menstrual phase, which is why I block out about 10 days (last week of luteal phase and first few days of my period) each month in my calendar where I’ll keep activities and commitments to a minimum.
Tracking your Cycle
Now that you have a better understanding of the 4 phases it’s time to start tracking your cycle! You can do this simply by keeping a note in your diary each month of when you come on your period, or you can use one of the many free cycle-tracking apps available.
You basically want to track the first day of your period each month so that from there you can know when you are likely to be in each of the above phases, so you can plan accordingly around it all.
I’m currently using the Cycles app but there are lots of other apps and most offer a paid subscription if you want all the bells and whistles, but I personally just want to be able to mark the day I start my period and from there I can keep a track of the upcoming phases.
Planning your month ahead in your diary
Always knowing when I’m next due on my period allows me to make a note in my calendar of the final week of my luteal phase (the week before I’m due on again) and I do my very best to keep those 7 days plus the first 3 days of my period as free and chilled out as possible. I say no to high-energy activities, intense workouts, social engagements, or other obligations that will just be too much during those 10 days. I say yes to plenty of down time, Netflix, restorative yoga classes, yin yoga, naps, walks in nature etc.
Your cycles are SO much more than just fertility.
We tend to see our menstrual cycle and ovulation simply as a fertility tool, when in actual fact it’s SO much more than that. Ovulation is how we make progesterone! We REALLY want to try to keep cycling (naturally) for as long as we can, and if you’re currently on the contraceptive pill or injection, and therefore not having a natural cycle, then it would be beneficial to think about coming off it so you can get as many natural cycles under your belt as you can before you reach menopause.
Why are natural and regular menstrual cycles so important?
They are how we make and use hormones. During each (healthy/ovulatory) cycle, you make a nice amount of oestrogen (oestradiol) in the days leading up to ovulation, and then an even nicer amount of progesterone as a result of having ovulated. This can only happen inside a natural cycle. These two hormones are a HUGE part of our day to day health and overall sense of wellbeing, as well as our future health including our experience of menopause and health risks associated with ageing.
The longer time/years we have making good amounts of oestrogen and especially progesterone each month (i.e. ovulating) the more we can safeguard our current and future health, our general sense of wellbeing and have a better experience of the menopause and beyond.
The important thing to understand in your 40s and during perimenopause is that a healthy menstrual cycle is, by definition, an ovulatory cycle, which allows us to make oestrogen, followed by oestrogen plus progesterone. Ovulation really is the main event, not the actual period itself! An anovulatory cycle is a cycle in which ovulation did not occur and so no progesterone was made. Your cycles can seem regular and feel pretty normal but you may not have actually ovulated (likely due to stress! See my previous blog for more info on this).
Simply put, every monthly dose of progesterone reduces inflammation, regulates immune function, supports thyroid function, metabolism, cognitive function, bones, and breast tissue.
Now I’m going to give you a nice summary of how best to manage your energy across the 4 phases as well as your exercise.
Rest & Managing Your Energy across the 4 phases
Stay close to home, rest more, take naps, get to bed earlier, practice lying-down meditations such as Yoga Nidra, take baths - CHILL!
Manage your rising energy by taking regular breaks during your day. It’s so important not to over-expend your energy here or you’ll feel it later on in the cycle, for example in the form of headaches and exacerbated PMS generally.
A good time to plan your social engagements but do be careful not to over-commit despite all the extra energy you’re experiencing! But do of course enjoy it - the energy, better mood, and increased zest for life.
During the first half/week here you can still reap the benefits of the extra energy and better mood but it’s time to think about slowing down and taking it easier, especially as you approach the second week. Be honest with yourself about how much you can do or WANT to do. Check in with your calendar and make sure you haven't over-committed for this phase, ESPECIALLY the 5-3 days before your period - if you have then get cancelling!
Exercising across the 4 phases
Gentle yoga including yin and restorative, gentle stretching, walks in nature, gentle swimming, gentle cardio.
Weight training and lift heavier, higher intensity workouts such as interval sprints, metcons, HIIT, CrossFit). BUT don’t trade these sessions in for your heavy lifting as this should still be the priority, along with your daily walks. Your body will be more tolerant of carbohydrates in this phase, as your cells are more ‘sensitive’ to the action of insulin meaning they will be better at soaking up the glucose from your bloodstream, plus you should be less inflammatory here and so workouts should feel nicer.
Lift heavy today, go for a PB! Make the most of this high energy day!
First half: gentle cardio, avoid intense workouts (met cons, HIIT, spin, etc.)
Second half (the week before next period): Slow down. Gentle yoga including yin and restorative, gentle stretching, walks in nature, gentle swimming, gentle cardio. Listen to your body! Note that we are generally in a more ‘catabolic’ state this week, which means intense exercise is more likely to cause fatigue and muscle soreness, muscle loss, fat gain, and slower recovery, plus it can disrupt sleep here too. So stick to gentle movements already mentioned here, and if you're still lifting weights this week just go lighter and less intense. This is NOT a time to go for a PB and it's definitely NOT a time for HIIT or metabolic conditioning.
I hope this blog has been helpful for you to start understanding your body and your cycle better, and to start planning your diary accordingly for a much better experience, every month!
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