This begins a little mini-series on the female reproductive system. I will be covering a broad range of topics including our menstrual cycle, period irregularities, PMS, PCOS, endometriosis and post pill syndrome.
I’m kicking things off with the female menstrual cycle. I’m going to take you through the basics of your menstrual cycle, how the hormones interact and what their main jobs are.
I’m not even sure how I came to learn about my cycle. Mum definitely had the period chat with me. School definitely did the – if you have sex you will get pregnant chat. But in terms of actually understanding how my cycle works, I feel like I’ve just pieced it together whilst I was in the quest of learning about what was happening to my body. And this understanding was deepened during my studies. I’m going to take you back to the basics today. From this understanding we will then venture into what happens if your period is not ’normal’.
Here is a your menstrual cycle explained 101.
How do you measure your menstrual cycle?
I was surprised when I questioned a few females on this they didn’t actually know.
Day 1 is the first day of your menses or period – the day you start bleeding. The cycle lasts until you begin to bleed again. Now on average this is 28 days. Because the pill works in a 28 day cycle, everyone thinks this is the norm. However a cycle can go from 26-32 days and still remain perfectly healthy. If you fall outside this as a regular occurrence I suggest seeking some assistance as there may be some hormone irregularities happening within your body. Find out more about those here.
Out of that 26-32 day cycle we can then break it down into 4 different phases
The Menstrual Phase.
The Follicular Phase
The Ovulatory Phase
The Luteal Phase
The Menstrual Phase is exactly what you think it would be. It is the time that menstruation occurs, when you have your period. This is the process of the endometrium or lining of the uterus shedding. Now this should last about 4-5 days. The blood should be a bright red colour, with little to no clotting. This phase should actually not painful. Yep that right you shouldn’t experience period pain. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about your period I would love to bust right here. Just because painful periods are common, does not mean they are normal. I’m not talking just about lower stomach pain, I mean everything from back pain to headaches to irritability. Your period should not cause you to want to curl up into a ball and die every month.
The Follicular Phase is up next. The is the phase where the follicles in the ovaries are stimulated to begin to develop. The dominant follicle develops into a Graafian follicle becoming the Ovum – or egg. This process takes between 10-16 days. It also sees the endometrium or lining of the uterus begin to build and repair after you have shed it during your period.
After our Graafian follicle has developed we move on to the Ovulatory Phase. This is when the ovum or egg is released from the ovary and begins to travel down the Fallopian tube. This takes about 36 hours. This is when chances of contraception are at their peak.
The final 14 days are our Luteal Phase. Where the Ovum (egg) was released from the ovary a crater is formed, this is called a corpus leteum. Don’t worry so much about the name, here the thing you need to understand is that cells mix together changing the hormone released. The corpus leteum can only survive 2 weeks hence why this phase is the most stable at 14 days. The lining of the uterus begins to get nice and thick, with increasing blood supply. This is in preparation of the possibility that a fertilised egg is going to nestle itself in there. Blood equals nutrients. If we do become pregnant we need this rich source of blood to ensure we are giving our developing baby all that it requires. However when there is not fertilised egg to nourish, the corpus leteum changes again to change hormones release and the lining of the uterus sheds, we have our period, to make way for a new, fresh supply of blood.
What makes all this work?
There are 4 different hormones that fluctuate during your menstrual cycle. Two you are most likely to know are estrogen and progesterone. These two generally work opposite to each other. Estrogen is higher in the beginning part of your cycle, while progesterone is higher in the second.
The other two hormones are FSH follicle stimulating hormone and LH lutinising hormone. Males actually have both of these hormones as well, they are instrumental in the development and release of the ovum (egg) or sperm. These are generally pretty stable throughout the month with a peak around the mid part of your cycle to trigger ovulation.
In the centre of our brains we have an area called the hypothalamus. One of its jobs is to regulate the hormones in our body. It does this by talking to the pituitary gland which sits at the base of our brains. The hypothalamus releases Gonadotropin-releasing hormone which tells the pituitary to release its hormones Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Lutienising Hormone (LH). Dr Libby likes to refer to the pituitary as the Mother Gland as it organises and controls the hormones. FSH and LH actions on the ovaries and the corpus luteum contribute to the levels of oestrogen and progesterone.
Oestrogen is known for it’s proliferative action. It is this proliferative action that gives it it’s bad name, particularly with cancers and other disorders like endometriosis. Estrogen is secreted primarily by the ovaries and in smaller amounts by fat cells, the liver, the adrenals and the corpus leteum. Its the hormone that encourages the lining of our uterus to begin to regenerate and grow after we have our period. Its levels increase over that follicular phase to peak around the 12th day or just before ovulation.
It also has some other major roles in our body. The health of our vagina relies on a healthy level of oestrogen as it regulates the acidity of the vagina, ensuring that no nasty bacteria can cause us any trouble, it also stimulates mucous production, which again should increase as you get closer to ovulation to help assist with conception. When we are developing as pre-teens and teenagers, it’s oestrogen that helps develop our breasts, Outside of its reproductive jobs it also helps build the proteins our body needs as well as strong bones and even plays a role in lowering blood cholesterol.
Progesterone is important for a successful pregnancy but also for ensuring our luteal phase is long enough at 14 days, that our endometrium grows during this stage. This should be our dominant hormone in the second part of our menstrual cycle. It is secreted by the corpus leteum and also our adrenal glands. Progesterone allows our blood vessels to dilate – widen – increasing blood flow to an area. As I said earlier we need blood in our uterus to support conception if it occurs. So this is how Oestrogen and Progesterone work together. Oestrogen lays down the tissue in our uterus and progesterone stimulates blood supply to the area. As I said earlier Progesterone is mainly secreted by the corpus leteum, which only lasts 2 weeks, so progesterone declines at this stage, triggering our period to begin. However if conception occurred the corpus leteum is maintained and progesterone is continued to be secreted ensuring pregnancy is supported.
Progesterone’s other functions include anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, allowing your body to use fat as a source of energy and as a diuretic
Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) does just that – it begins the growth of the follicle in the ovary and also stimulates the ovaries to release oestrogen. As oestrogen rises FSH decreases. This triggers the pituitary to make lutinising hormone
Lutinising hormone (LH) has similar functions as FSH but it also has the important job of making ovulation happen and forming the corpus luteum. With its peak occurring just before ovulation. Communication between the ovaries and the pituitary is vital here.
That is the female menstrual cycle in a nut shell. This is important to understand, because from here we can then investigate what is happening in your body and work out where the dysfunctions are happening and look to correct them. Too much or too little of any of these hormones or an imbalance in the ratios of these hormones can cause differing problems and symptoms.
Up next we will discuss some of the irregularities that can occur within the menstrual cycle, what symptoms and signs to look out for and some of the ways you can support your body.
This blog is not prescriptive and should not to be taken as a replacement for actual advice. If you feel you need support in any area please book in for a consult with me or seek the advice of another qualified natural health practitioner.