The cycle of hormones
If you haven’t quite got your cycle phases figured out, you’re not alone. But it’s time to tune in to your body’s rhythms – so that you can move through each month with vitality.
Many of us who menstruate do so for a large portion of our lives, and often without fully understanding our hormone cycles or how they can affect us. It’s time we changed that! Let’s get back to basics and cover off what happens during the phases of our cycle, how that can make us feel, and how we can support ourselves to thrive. The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long; however, a healthy cycle can range in length from 21 days to about 35 days. The menstrual cycle is such an important indication of health that it is now considered to be the fifth vital sign of health for women, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. It’s a good idea to track your cycle using a mobile app or a journal. The easiest way to start tracking is to record when your period starts and ends, plus any symptoms you experience throughout your cycle. While it can differ from person to person, the menstrual cycle generally has four phases: menstrual, follicular, ovulation, and luteal. Here’s what you need to know about each of these phases, with the first day of the cycle marked by the first day of menstruation.
DAYS 1–5 (APPROX.)
The first stage of the cycle begins with menstruation, with a normal period lasting no longer than seven days. If pregnancy has not occurred, the lining of your uterus is shed as a period. Most women bleed for three to five days, but a period lasting anywhere between two to seven days is considered normal. Hormonally, oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest at this time, and it’s this drop that causes menstrual bleeding. Cramps and bloating are experienced by some women, while experiencing low mood and feeling fatigued is also common.
- Turmeric and ginger have been shown in clinical studies to help with menstrual cramps, with some studies showing ginger was as effective as mefenamic acid and ibuprofen in relieving painful cramps. Enjoy these ingredients in hot drinks, stews, curries, or soups.
- Opt for more non-haem iron-rich foods, such as beans, peas, soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame), and dark leafy greens as well as anti-inflammatory omega-rich foods, such as ground flaxseed and walnuts.
- Prioritise sleep, ensuring you get seven to nine hours of restorative sleep by avoiding stimulants such as caffeine (especially later in the day) as well as bright lights a few hours before bedtime. Find ways that help you to wind down, such as a warm bath, journalling, yoga, or a mindfulness exercise.
DAYS 6–12 (APPROX.)
Your pituitary gland releases a hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates the follicles in your ovaries to mature and release an egg. Oestrogen and progesterone levels start to rise, and the womb lining begins to thickenand rebuild in preparation for a fertilised egg to get implanted. This is a low hormone phase, although oestrogen continues to rise over the course of this phase until it reaches its peak at ovulation (day 14 in a 28-day cycle). Increasing oestrogen usually results in
a more positive mood and increased energy levels.
- This is a great time to set goals, be creative, and commit to healthy routines.
- Make the most of your energy levels and try higher-intensity exercise and strength training. High oestrogen levels are conducive to building lean muscle.
DAYS 13–15 (APPROX.)
In a 28-day cycle, ovulation usually occurs at day 14. Ovulation is the release of an egg from its follicle in your ovary. If tracking, you might notice a slight rise in basal body temperature and discharge that’s often described as being similar to raw egg white. Oestrogen reaches its peak at ovulation, testosterone is at its highest, and progesterone rises too. Most women report feeling confident and energetic around ovulation, as progesterone has an antianxiety effect. A higher sex drive is also common. However, changing hormone levels can result in lethargy and bloating for some.
- Energy levels are high, so it’s an excellent time to work on your goals.
- You tend to feel more attractive around ovulation, so it’s a great time for date nights and socialising.
DAYS 14–28 (APPROX.)
This phase lasts from the start of ovulation to the first day of the period. The luteal phase is usually consistent, lasting around 12–14 days.
The egg leaves behind its shell (corpus luteum), which starts to produce progesterone to help the lining of the uterus mature. If pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum breaks down around day 21 of the cycle. Progesterone levels start to increase and work, along with oestrogen, to thicken the womb lining even further in preparation for a potential pregnancy. Oestrogen and progesterone remain high and then begin to decline in the lead up to menstruation.
PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is a condition with psychological, physical, and behavioural symptoms. Many women (about eight out of 10) have premenstrual symptoms in the luteal phase that do not typically interfere with their daily activities. The most important factor to keep in mind for a diagnosis of PMS is the timing of the symptoms and if it significantly impacts your quality of life according to you, rather than the number of symptoms. These can include mood changes, menstrual cramps, breast tenderness, headaches, changes in bowel movements (either constipation or diarrhoea), stomach pain, nausea, and so on.
- To reduce bloating, opt for magnesium-rich foods, such as quinoa, nuts, spinach, cacao nibs, and wholegrains.
- Minimise ultra-processed foods, alcohol, caffeine, salt, sugar, and animal-derived foods, as these can worsen PMS symptoms like acne and anxiety.
- Include more wholegrain, complex carbohydrates, such as oats, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, and sweet potatoes. This will keep you feeling energised and reduce cravings.
- Focus on regular lower-impact exercise, such as walking or Pilates. Choose foods that are rich in fibre and plant protein to keep blood sugar levels steady.
- Make sure you get enough rest, as a raised basal body temperature can negatively affect sleep, and women with PMS often experience poorer sleep. Exposure to natural morning light can help with sleep onset and quality.
ALL MONTH, EVERY MONTH
Eating a wholefood plant-based diet that is varied and has enough calories from all the major food groups is healthful to people at all ages and stages in their lives. This also supports a healthy menstrual cycle. Enjoy a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, nuts, and seeds while avoiding tobacco, excess alcohol, and excess caffeine. Everyone who menstruates should ensure normal levels of vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iron. It is helpful to check these and make changes to your diet or supplement as needed with the guidance of a qualified health professional, ideally with expertise in plant-based diets. Ensure a regular sleep routine and consider exercise, meditation, mindfulness, community work, psychotherapy, or yoga to help manage stress levels. Spend time with loved ones and look after your emotional wellbeing. Remember that everyone’s menstrual cycle is different. What is normal for you might not be normal for someone else. Medications and surgery can be hugely helpful alongside lifestyle changes – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Always seek medical advice if your symptoms are impacting your quality of life. Getting familiar with your cycle, both in the timings and the way you feel, will help you to spot changes early and consult a doctor as needed.