Here, Gynaecologist and fertility specialist Dr Natasha Andreadis, helps simplify what to expect from your cycle.
How many stages are there in a menstrual cycle?
There are four key stages of your menstrual cycle:
- The Follicular phase
- The Luteal phase
Menstruation is the stage most commonly known as your ‘period’ and involves the elimination of the thickened lining of the uterus from the body, through the vagina. A period usually occurs over the course of three – seven days.
The Follicular phase starts on the first day of menstruation and ends with ovulation. During this phase, follicle stimulating hormones are released encouraging the growth of ‘follicles’ by the ovaries. Each of these follicles house an immature egg, where usually only one will mature.
Ovulation occurs about halfway through your cycle, or roughly two weeks before menstruation. During ovulation, a mature egg will travel down a woman’s fallopian tubes, where fertilization may occur. Once the egg is released (ovulated), it has 24 hrs to fertilise, hence it’s best for sperm to be waiting in the fallopian tube to maximise chances of pregnancy.
The luteal phase occurs after ovulation and before menstruation, during which your ovaries will produce the hormone progesterone. Progesterone is essentially telling the lining of your uterus to grow, in preparation for pregnancy. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, this lining sheds bringing the start of menstruation.
What are the most notable signs of each stage?
- Pelvic or abdominal cramping
- Mood swings
- Bleeding from the vagina
The Follicular Phase
- Increase libido
- Boosts of energy
- Rise in basal body temperature
- Thicker discharge
- Vaginal spotting
The Luteal Phase
- Mood swings
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in libido
- Weight gain
Should you tailor lifestyle factors (i.e., sleep, exercise, food) around where you’re at in your cycle?
Every woman’s cycle is different, and as such different lifestyle factors will affect the different stage of your menstrual cycle. For example, many women often have issues with their sleep a week or so before their period. You may want to account for this and allow for some extra time to rest.
A lack of sleep can also be due to the source of irritability and moodiness. I like to use my Fitbit Versa to track sleep for this reason and understand how much I’m actually getting during the different phases.
For many, exercises such as yoga and pilates during menstruation does much to manage pain caused by cramps and improve your overall blood flow in the body. This again may help to reduce bloating, improve your mood, and assist with sleep.
Diet plays a key role in the quality of menstrual cycles and period pain. Do you eat lots of junk? Processed foods? Dairy? Gluten? Alcohol? Caffeine? Reducing these or eliminating them completely may help make your cycles less problematic.
I recommend a great book called Healthy Hormones by Belinda Kirkpatrick, Naturopath. She discusses not only diet but useful supplements too. Supplements can be very effective, provided you take the right ones for the right reasons.
Is it normal for your cycle to change month to month?
The regularity of your menstrual cycle is a good sign of gynaecological health, while non-existent or irregular periods can indicate underlying issues. This also applies to the heaviness of your period. Although it’s not uncommon for your menstrual cycle to change somewhat month to month, there should not be dramatic changes.
What influences this?
Cycle irregularity can be caused by a variety of factors including over exercising, stress, low body weight or poor nutrition. Additionally, irregularity could also be the signs of conditions such as Polycystic ovarian syndrome or ovarian insufficiency or the beginning of menopause.
Heavy periods (80mls of blood or more) can be due to structural issues such as fibroids, polyps, adenomyosis, endometriosis, or normal hormonal changes such as the perimenopause.
What’s the best way to track your cycle?
As your cycle can sometimes fluctuate over days and months, it’s useful to wear a Fitbit which has Female Health Tracking to ensure you’re in sync with your body and understand where you’re at in your cycle. The added benefits of Female Health Tracking are that data is collected over time, helping users predict when their period is due or estimate when their fertile window will occur.
What is considered the ‘norm’ when it comes to women’s cycles?
Again, there is no such thing as ‘normal’ when it comes to menstrual cycles as every woman’s body is different. A common cycle usually involves menstruation taking place anywhere over the course of three to seven days once every three to four weeks. Typical blood loss levels are between 10-35ml. Additionally, although pain during your period is common, pain levels should NOT be intolerable.
If yours is off track, what should you do?
If you’ve noticed your cycle is off track or irregular, a really useful first step is to see how your lifestyle choices over the month have differed from months prior. Another really useful feature of Fitbit’s Female Health Tracking is being able to see the impacts of things like diet, exercise and sleep on your menstrual cycle. This could highlight the need for a healthier diet, a more regular sleep pattern, or more (or less) exercise.
Of course, if you are ever concerned about your cycle, speak with a Gynaecologist. Tracking your cycle can even help them with diagnosis.