The beginning of your period marks the beginning of a lot of things: cramps, mood swings, chocolate cravings, and your menstrual cycle. A lot of women know about their period, but to understand it fully, we also have to take a look at the rest of the phases in your cycle, because your menstrual cycle is more than just your period. 

What is Menstruation? 

Between the ages of puberty to menopause, women get their periods roughly every month. This recurring period is your body shedding old lining in the uterus to prepare for new lining that could eventually house a fertilized egg. If you don’t get pregnant that month, you don’t have a need for this thick lining, so your body sheds it. 

If you do get pregnant, you won’t go through this process. A fertilized egg will implant itself in the uterus and the pregnancy will start, so your body won’t need to shed the lining. 

Phases of the Menstrual Cycle

There are many different hormones produced in your body that act as messengers that carry certain triggers to other parts of your body. There are four hormones that play a big factor in your menstrual cycles, and help your body move from phase to phase. There are four phases of your menstrual cycle:

The menses phase: (around day 1-7)

Your menstrual cycle begins on day one of your period, or your menses phase. Again, if you aren’t pregnant, your body sheds thick uterine lining and blood which leave your body through your vagina. The symptoms of this phase are the most obvious (and are usually the most annoying) of all the phases. Bleeding, mood swings, cramps, breast tenderness and even nausea are all common during your menses phase. 

The follicular phase: (around day 1-14)

The follicular phase overlaps with the menses phase. This is the time when the follicular- stimulating hormone (FSH) starts working to produce eggs that have the potential to become fertilized. In the follicular phase however, these eggs are not yet mature, and are called follicles. The follicles secrete the estrogen hormone that tells your body to thicken the uterine lining to prepare for pregnancy. 

In this phase, the symptoms aren’t as obvious as those in the menses phase. A lot of women report feeling the most calm and most like themselves during this phase. As you continue towards the end of the follicular phase, you might feel more energized and in a better mood than you usually would. 

Ovulation: (around day 14)

Ovulation is the shortest phase, only lasting between 12-24 hours. This is the only time of your cycle that you are fertile and that you have the possibility to conceive. During this phase, a mature egg is making its way down the fallopian tubes and into the uterus. If it becomes fertilized, it will stay there for the remainder of the pregnancy. 

It is important to mention that although a woman is only fertile during these 12-24 hours, pregnancy can still happen outside of this time as a result of sex right before ovulation. A man’s sperm can live inside of a woman’s vagina for up to 5 days and still be viable. Meaning that if you have sex with your partner 5 or less days before you start ovulating, you could become pregnant. 

A lot has gone into understanding women’s fertility, and what researchers have discovered is that women change a lot during ovulation. Their skin clears up, their hormones are fairly balanced, their vaginal discharge becomes clear and slippery and they have an increased sex drive. Also, women find their partner more attractive, and men find women more attractive during this time. Your body is trying to conceive!

The luteal phase: (around day 14-28) 

The luteal phase starts with ovulation, and overlaps as the follicular phase does with the menstrual phase. If you become pregnant at ovulation, this is the time when your fertilized egg has nestled into the thick uterine lining and will stay there for the remainder of the pregnancy to grow. If you don’t become pregnant, your body is preparing to undergo the menses phase again, and you will notice this with bloating, mood swings and cramping. 

What Is a “Normal” Length for My Cycle To Be?

The average menstrual cycle length for women is typically around 29 days, ranging anywhere from 21 days to 35 days. If your cycle is shorter or longer than average, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong. There are some factors that can cause changes to your period from time to time, such as:

  • stress
  • hormone changes
  • medications
  • illness or other health conditions 

Irregular Periods Explained

There tends to always be some slight difference in the length of your cycle every month, so don’t worry if your period is a couple of days late, or heavier or lighter than last month. This is still considered regular. An irregular period varies significantly and is very inconsistent between months. This may look like a big difference in timing, length or symptoms of your period. Here are some examples of what to look for in an irregular period:

  • missing three or more periods in a row
  • bleeding that is either much heavier, or much lighter than usual
  • periods with bleeding that lasts more than 7 days
  • periods that are less than 21 days, or more than 30 days apart 
  • the length between two periods varies more than 9 days 
  • bleeding or spotting that happens during times that are not your normal period

If your period is more than a couple of days late, or if it has stopped completely, there is a potential you could be pregnant. To confirm or rule out pregnancy, it is important to take a reliable and accurate pregnancy test. PRC of Grand Rapids offers free pregnancy tests for women who believe they are pregnant. 

If you are not pregnant and your periods are still irregular, it is a good idea to seek help from your doctor. They can assist you in getting a diagnosis, resources and treatment plans to help your period become normal.

Tips for Battling PMS

PMS, which stands for Premenstrual Syndrome, refers to the physical and emotional symptoms that pop up before and/or during your period. Every cycle is different, and every woman is different, so something that works one month might not work another month. While over the counter medications offer a nice temporary pain relief, there are still some things that you can do that will give you more relief for the pain. 

Get regular exercise throughout the month – while exercise might sometimes feel like the last thing you want to do when you’re on your period, making sure you get some regular activity in during the month can help with some PMS symptoms, such as irritability and fatigue.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep – it is hard to be in a good mood when you are tired, let alone when you are tired and on your period. Getting enough good quality sleep will help you handle your symptoms better. 

Replenish your iron – heavy prolonged bleeding can cause you to lose a lot of iron. Taking iron supplements during or right before your period can help keep your iron at a healthy level. Additionally, eating iron rich foods can help you battle anemia. Foods like red meat, seafood, spinach and quinoa are all good sources of iron. 

Destress – it is easy to get overwhelmed and impatient when you are on your period. Preparing yourself for your period can help you feel less stressed when the time comes. Do laundry or run any errands the week before your period so you don’t have to while you’re on your period. Get ahead on your work or homework so you can feel prepared. Choose a night to stay in during your period so you can have time to yourself to watch a movie, take a bath or go to bed early.

Drink lots of water – even when you’re not on your period, staying hydrated equips your body to better manage physical discomfort (including menstrual cramps). It also helps to prevent bloating and increases your energy levels.

No matter how you choose to stay comfortable during your period, there is relief in knowing that the symptoms are completely normal and most often temporary.

Benefits of Understanding Your Cycle

Chances are there were a lot of gaps in your sex education when you were younger, and these topics surrounding your cycle were never covered. Understanding what is happening to your body throughout the month has so many benefits. By tracking your cycle and becoming more aware of what is normal, you can:

  • understand when you are most and least fertile (which can help if you are trying to get pregnant, or if you’re trying to avoid it)
  • be more in tune to what is expected during each phase of your cycle, which can help you catch any health issues if they arise. 

There are so many resources such as apps, calendars and journals available these days that can help you to track your menstrual cycle (many of which are free!). At a minimum, it’s great to have a basic understanding of your menstrual cycle and to be aware of the approximate time of month when you might expect it to start. 

Be sure to contact your doctor or gynecologist if you have any questions or concerns about your own menstrual cycle. 

If you have missed your period or your period is late and you think you may be pregnant, PRC of Grand Rapids offers free pregnancy testing to help you know for sure. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.