Guest post by Emy Crinklaw-Bunch, Health and Wellness Coach
Do you ever wonder why PMS happens? Or what causes some women to have debilitating period pain and a crazy heavy flow while others live life as though nothing is happening?
Your menstrual symptoms can give you an idea of your overall health.
Cycles are known for giving us insight into what our hormones are doing—but, our cycles can paint a bigger picture of our overall health. Once you begin to listen to and understand what your body is telling you, you can start making the necessary, positive changes to improve your well-being.
There are more than a dozen hormones associated with the female reproductive system3, but for simplicity we’ll only be discussing estradiol and progesterone.
Estradiol -- the most potent of the estrogens and is responsible for building the lining of the uterus in preparation for a possible pregnancy1. Estradiol is produced in your ovaries by the follicles3.
Progesterone -- is produced by the corpus luteum after ovulation3.
Follicles -- sack-like structures within the ovaries that contain one egg1.
Corpus luteum -- forms from the remains of the follicle that has released the egg that cycle3.
The Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is generally broken into two phases: follicular and luteal. Follicular starts with the first day of bleeding and ends the day of ovulation. Ovulation occurs roughly halfway through the menstrual cycle. The luteal phase begins after ovulation and lasts until the day before the next bleed.
I like to think of the menstrual cycle in four phases: period/bleeding, follicular, ovulatory, and luteal.
Each phase has distinct hormone patterns that contribute to how we feel and experience our bodies and the world around us.
The concept of different phases of the menstrual cycle being associated with the seasons as well as the moon’s phases comes from pre-technological cultures, where there is a heavy reliance on the changing seasons.
Let’s dive deeper and learn more, starting with the period or bleed phase, which is what we tend to be most familiar with and is considered Day One when charting your cycle.
The Bleeding Phase
The bleeding phase is associated with the season of Winter and lasts 3-7 days. Like Winter, this is a time for clearing away what is dead in order to make room for future growth. It is a time to be quiet and introspective. A time to cozy up with comfy clothing and comforting food. Some nurturing and comforting foods that support our bodies and spirits during our bleed are roasted root vegetables and stews2. It’s a wonderful time to rest, take walks, and do slow restorative movement. Evaluate the past month and think about how you would like to show up and what you would like to accomplish in the upcoming month.
At the beginning of the bleeding phase, all of our hormones are at their lowest levels3. The uterine lining is being shed in preparation for the next phase. Period blood should be a bright red with a few small clots2. Pain should be minimal, last only a few days, and not interfere with daily life1. If pain is severe and lasts several days, this is an indication of a deeper issue worth investigating1.
You do not have to suffer through your period. Please seek further help, even if you have been told “it’s normal or nothing to worry about.”
The Follicular Phase
The follicular phase is associated with Spring and is 7-10 days. Think of a warm fresh breeze, the lengthening days, and plants beginning to emerge from the ground. You feel optimistic and more energized. This is a time to look ahead and start taking action on projects.
Estradiol, your happy hormone, is rising and causing your uterine lining to thicken1. Follicles are moving towards maturation, hence the name follicular phase. Follicles are the organs that contain an egg or ovum. Follicles take 100 days to mature1. The quality of your period is largely determined by the health of the follicle of these previous 100 days1. We’ll see why when we get to the ovulation and luteal phase.
The Ovulation Phase
The third phase, ovulation, is associated with Summer and lasts 3-4 days. Expect to feel bright, warm, sexy, ready to mingle and party! This is when a follicle in one ovary has reached maturity and releases an egg. If you’re trying to conceive, this is the time to do it! If not, use a barrier method like condoms or diaphragms.
Estrogen peaks just before ovulation and begins falling during ovulation1. A follicle from one ovary has reached maturation and releases an egg, which is then swept into the fallopian tubes. The egg will either be fertilized by sperm present in the fallopian tubes or it will dissolve within the next 6-24 hours3.
The Luteal Phase
The luteal phase is associated with Fall and lasts 10-14 days. This is the time to get work done. Think of the Fall harvest and preparing for the long Winter months. It is also a time of calm after the excitement of Summer and tying up loose ends.
Back in the ovary, the burst follicle is quickly closing up and becomes known as the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum produces the hormone progesterone, which is responsible for keeping the uterine lining intact and a feeling of calmness1. Recall that this structure originates from the follicle, which takes 100 days to mature. Your health and overall wellness during those previous 100 days determines the health of the follicle and therefore the health of the corpus luteum and how long and how well it will produce progesterone1. A luteal phase that is less than 10 days is indicative of deeper health issues3.
Approximately halfway through the luteal phase, estradiol is rising again, to complete the thickening of the uterine lining1.
The closer we get to seasonal Winter, the closer the stark reality of the need to prepare becomes apparent.
Time is not to be wasted. You may notice a similar feeling as you approach the end of your luteal phase. As progesterone and estradiol decline rapidly in the few days before your bleed1, it is normal to feel slightly less tolerant and more irritable.
You may feel a bit anxious and maybe annoyed by things that didn’t bother you earlier in your cycle. Your brain chemistry has been changing throughout the whole cycle and your perspective shifts2. When you understand that, you can use these predictable changes in outlook to maximize your potential and feel more confident and capable instead of frustrated. A significant shift in mood and ability to cope is an indication that hormones are out of balance and the cause is worth investigating.
You do not have to suffer through this part of your cycle. Charting your cycle can help determine where to start looking and what to look for.
The corpus luteum should produce progesterone for about 10-14 days1. As the corpus luteum completes its life cycle, progesterone starts to drop, and the uterine lining will begin to shed. If you chart your waking temperature every day, you will notice a drop associated with the lack of progesterone3. The lower temperature is an indication that your bleed will begin that day.
If you are tracking the details of your cycle, you and your healthcare provider can begin to pinpoint where and when things are starting to run amiss, so you can determine the appropriate testing and interventions. Many times, it’s as simple as a change in nutrition, stress management, and exercise. Sometimes it can be more serious, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), thyroid dysfunction, and more. But now you have the information to address the root problems and potentially solve the issue.
If you’d like help living in sync with your cycle and understanding the messages your body is sending you, health coaching with me may be a great fit. I’d love to offer you a sample session so we can get to know each other!
For further reading:
Period Repair Manual by Lara Briden, ND. Dr. Briden opens with an approachable description of anatomy and physiology, followed by an explanation of what a normal period should look like, and then several chapters on common period and hormonal issues, and how to identify and fix them.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. A novel about Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob from the book of Genesis. A celebration of womanhood and menstrual cycles!
Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. The definitive guide to female fertility and charting your cycle. A must have reference guide.
- Briden, L. (2018). Period Repair Manual: Natural treatment for better hormone and better periods. GreenPeak.
- Vitti, A. (2020). In the Flo: Unlock your hormonal advantage and revolutionize your life. HarperCollins.
- Weschler, T. (2015). Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The definitive guide to natural birth control, pregnancy achievement, and reproductive health. Collins.
About the author:
Emy Crinklaw-Bunch studied Health and Wellness Coaching at Maryland University of Integrative Health. She specializes in helping women listen to their bodies by tracking their menstrual cycle and using it as a monthly indicator of overall health. Emy guides women in leveraging the cyclical nature of their energy and emotions to plan their lives, projects, and business ventures in a way that will support and energize them. You can find her at https://linktr.ee/crinklebunch