A woman’s body carries the innate wisdom she needs to make informed choices about her body and her life. Here we outline the differences between the four phases in a monthly cycle so we can intelligently flow with our own unique fluctuations.
When we think of our menstrual cycle, it’s the bleed phase – our period – that gets all the attention, with focus on all the negatives, from snappy moods to feeling low, to discomfort. But actually there’s a lot more going on over the full cycle. Our incredible hormones are working around the clock on important functions that control our sleep, moods and fertility (whether we’re trying to get pregnant or not); they affect our sex drive, our skin health, energy levels and gut health.
So what if we can harness them and use that knowledge as an asset? What if we could roll with the physical and emotional changes, and use to their full power to know when we’re our most confident selves, when we are energised, we are critical, when we are loving? What if we could employ a greater understanding of each month’s hormonal journey to optimise our performance in everything from work to working out, from sticking to a diet to intensifying our orgasm?
The great news is: we can. Being more closely in touch with our bodies can not only vastly improve our experience of our periods and lessen PMS, but also enable us to make the most of the different strengths and characteristics brought out by different hormone levels. Building a relationship with our cycle begins with understanding each of the different phases, the essence of which can be mapped out below, based on studies and research. But the most accurate research? The one you do yourself. If you log how you feel, your symptoms and moods, then over time you can spot your own patterns in your cycle. Building up a clearer picture on Project You, and helping you improve your down days and power up your best.
Please note: every woman is different – a cycle might, for example, easily stretch from 24 to 35 days – this guideline is drawn for an average length which is 28 days.
PHASE 1: MENSTRUATION
Day 1 is the first day of bleeding, a time when oestrogen and progesterone hormone levels are at their lowest and your body is shedding your endometrium (uterus lining). Oestrogen and progesterone will start to rise over the following days.
Mood and hormones: Your oestrogen and progesterone start from their lowest points, which can lead to mood changes and low energy levels. But the good news is they start to rise over the next few days (and keep going up), leaving many women perhaps experiencing more optimistic feelings, less fatigue and feeling mentally sharper as the days progress. You may want to make the most of your surge in focus and channel it into a creative project.
Sleep: Some might find it hard to sleep around this time, as metabolic changes and heightened brain activity can make it harder to switch off. If you can’t get as much sleep as you’d like, some studies have shown that slow breathing can help bring the body back to homeostasis (equilibrium of functions). This is also a good time to try to block out as much light pollution as possible in your bedroom, to aid deep sleep.
Self care: There is a possibility that you might feel a change to your usual energy levels. Have you had time for yourself this week? If not, why not find a quiet spot where you can sit to read, write or listen to some music. Having time for yourself can help you feel restored.
Good to know: Rising oestrogen can sharpen your emotional intelligence, making you more aware of others’ body language, which can be a plus at work.
PHASE 2: FOLLICULAR
You might still be bleeding, but during this phase the pituitary gland releases Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) which – the clue is in the name – stimulates the follicles in your ovaries to mature. Alongside the FSH, levels of oestrogen and testosterone continue to rise.
Mood and hormones: At the beginning of this phase levels of prostaglandin (hormone-like compounds) will have reduced, meaning you should be in less pain. Meanwhile levels of oestrogen and progesterone are in high supply and about to reach most ideal levels, so it’s likely that you will feel energised, assertive, optimistic and motivated: now is a good time to socialise, discover and learn (many find that their memory is sharper at this time). However, everyone responds to hormones differently. If you feel calmer and more centred, try to take time to recognise and enjoy it.
Exercise: An uplift in energy can cause some to want to throw themselves into physical activities.
Self care: This is a good time for self-reflection and make room for whatever self-care approach you find most calming. Be mindful of this and don't push yourself to do anything that will add extra stress.
PHASE 3: OVULATORY
The ovulatory phase happens around the mid-point in the cycle, although many factors affect the timing of ovulation so know that this can shift month-to-month. The rise in oestrogen triggers a surge in the amount of luteinising hormone (LH), which causes the dominant follicle to release its egg from the ovary.
Mood and hormones: With the continued levels of high oestrogen, it's most likely that you will still be feeling sharp, optimistic and motivated, but this could be coupled with some anxiety, brought on by your heightened emotions.
Sex: Testosterone will now begin to rise as you head towards ovulation day, which may mean you are feeling more sexual desire. However, so many factors can affect this, from relationships to health and your environment; it goes beyond just hormones.
Exercise: You might consider a little comfort to your work environment, get up and stretch your body. Depending on your mobility start with toe touches, shoulder rolls or head tilts. Be mindful of your back if you have had problems in that area before.
Nutrition: Temper bad PMS with serotonin-boosting activities such as eating complex carbohydrates (quinoa, wild rice and oats), and anything that makes you feel good.
Sleep: If you have been sensitive to the shift in your hormones, it's likely you could be feeling more reserved and insular this evening. If your energy feels lower, you may find it helpful to give your body time to rest and reset with a long night's sleep.
PHASE 4: LUTEAL
The luteal phase is named for the corpus luteum (the remains of the follicle that housed the egg which was released at ovulation). The corpus luteum produces progesterone which ripens the uterus lining.
Mood and hormones: Levels of oestrogen start to deplete, which can lead to lower moods, and you may feel low or snappy. On the positive side, some find a low mood is combined with a new-found desire for physical interaction.
Mind: It’s worth reminding yourself that in a few days your oestrogen will start to rise, and it is likely that your mood will begin to shift in a positive direction.
Nutrition: As your brain looks for ways to boost energy it may send out messages to eat sugar. Due to rising progesterone and its effect on the gut, many women often feel bloated; for some they could experience loose bowel movements while for others it’s constipation.
Exercise: How you treat your body as it moves toward the menstrual phase may affect how you experience your period: if you feel lethargic and achy, cut yourself some slack. Consider pilates or steady-state (as opposed to interval training) cardio.
Sleep: During this stage in your cycle levels of progesterone will increase, which, for many, can have a sedative effect and encourage a deeper, more restful sleep.
Good to know: Daily supplements of calcium, magnesium and vitamins D and B6 have been shown to mitigate cramps, also mood swings and food cravings. Drinking less caffeine in the luteal phase may also reduce PMS symptoms.
Need a helping hand throughout your cycle? Moody’s nutritionist Lola Ross recommends three supplements to help balance your hormones and mood:
To balance blood sugar levels throughout the month, try Chromium which helps to support mood and reduce sugar cravings
To reduce menstrual irregularities, try Evening Primrose Oil known for its hormone supporting properties