Understanding Your Cycle

At some point in your life, your period becomes repetitive. You feel the cramps start, you notice yourself becoming a bit more impatient, and you have a deep hankering for something sweet. After a couple of cycles, it’s easy to notice the telltale signs that your period will start soon, and you know it’s time to check the cabinet to see if you have enough tampons and pads to get you through the month. Even though you know the symptoms of your period, do you really know what’s happening in your body?

What is Menstruation? 

Even though most women experience their period regularly, not everyone understands what is actually happening to their body. Most of us get the gist- uterine lining is shedding, I’m not pregnant, an egg has not been fertilized. But for something that happens so often, it is amazing how little we know about it.

From the time a young girl starts puberty around age 11 until menopause hits around age 51, menstruation is a very normal part of her life on a (usually) regular cadence. And it’s a good thing! As painful and annoying as periods can be, it’s a sign that your body is healthy and operating the way it should be. A woman’s ovaries are constantly producing hormones that act as messengers to the rest of the body. Some of these hormones, the estrogen and progesterone, send messages to the uterus to build up lining to get the body ready for pregnancy. A woman’s uterus houses eggs that without sperm, are unfertilized. These unfertilized eggs are not needed, so your body gets rid of them every month to make room for a newer, younger, healthier egg to be produced. It takes about a month for the lining to build up and then to shed itself, which is why your period happens about once a month.

You’ll often hear that a missed period is one of the earliest signs of pregnancy. If the lining of your uterus doesn’t shed (ie, your period doesn’t start), it’s a pretty telling indicator that a fertilized egg may have implanted in the uterus and pregnancy has started. 

Phases of the Menstrual Cycle

Understanding your period is one thing, but to really dive into the nitty gritty of it all, we also need to understand the other phases of your cycle. Remember, your cycle refers to the WHOLE month (or about 24-35 days), not just your period. There are 4 phases of your cycle that are all controlled by the fluctuation of hormones in your reproductive system. 

The menses phase: (around day 1-7)

The start of menses is the start of a new cycle. This is your period. If pregnancy has not occurred, this is when you shed your uterine lining through your vagina. This phase often comes with very obvious symptoms and indicators, such as cramps, mood swings, increase in appetite and lots of bleeding. 

The follicular phase: (around day 1-14)

The follicular phase overlaps the menses phase. It also begins on the first day of your period, but ends at ovulation. During this phase, your uterus is growing immature eggs called follicles. One follicle will become healthier than the rest, and that is the one that will mature into an egg. This follicle is producing estrogen that is causing a build up and thickening of the uterine wall. Interestingly, your body temperature should be pretty low during this time, and women tend to report being in a better mood during their follicular phase. 

Ovulation: (around day 14)

Ovulation is the shortest phase of your cycle, and it lasts only 12-24 hours. This is because you are only truly ovulating when your egg is coming down the fallopian tube. While you are technically only fertile during this window, it is important to remember that sperm can live for up to 5 days in your body. Meaning if you had sex 5 days before you ovulate, the sperm can still fertilize your egg during that window. 

This is the only time of the month that you are able to conceive, so if you are trying to get pregnant, it is important that you start looking into your cycle and paying attention to the signals your body is trying to tell you. Leading up to ovulation, your cervix will soften, you will have a higher sex drive, and your cervical mucus will increase and start to look like egg whites. 

The luteal phase: (around day 14-28) 

The luteal phase starts with ovulation, and overlaps as the follicular phase does with the menstrual phase. After the egg is released during ovulation, it travels down the fallopian tube and into the uterus. If the egg is fertilized, it will become implanted into the uterine lining and the pregnancy will continue in the uterus. It is common to feel stressed and anxious during this phase, as the increase of progesterone can cause your body to experience a lot of mood swings. You may also experience a strong desire for binge eating, tender breasts, back pain and bloating. During this time, your cervical mucus will change from the egg white consistency, to a more thich, white, tacky consistency. 

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

If your period tends to be off a day or two every month or is a bit lighter or heavier than usual on occasion, this is still considered to be a “regular” period. These slight differences are usually caused by stress, and are not a reason to worry. However, your period might be irregular if it is inconsistent in timing or length. Additionally, if any of your cycle phases are longer or shorter than expected, it is considered an irregular cycle. Below are some examples of what may be considered 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 late or has stopped, the first step is to confirm or rule out a pregnancy. If you have reason to believe you could be pregnant, Community Pregnancy Clinic can help you confirm or rule out a pregnancy with our free pregnancy testing.

If pregnancy is ruled out, and your periods continue to be irregular, it is important to go see a doctor. An irregular period can be caused by any number of factors. A doctor can help determine your exact cause of irregularity, and begin you on the necessary treatment to help regulate your periods.

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. While every woman is different and will experience their period differently, there are some tips that can help a wide range of women. Of course, some pain relief medicines will help, there are also things you can do to minimize your pain. 

Get regular exercise – while exercise might sometimes feel like the last thing you want to do when you’re on your period, studies show that exercising on your period can relieve cramping pain. It certainly does not have to be lifting weights or an intense HITT workout. Even just the movement of a brisk walk can relieve pain.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep – lack of sleep is actually linked to depression and anxiety and can make PMS mood swings worse.

Choose healthy food options – During your period, your body is working hard to shed your lining, and the last thing your body wants to do is more work. Giving your digestive system a break during this time may help relieve some pain. Choose foods that are easy to digest and don’t have a lot of fiber. Think cooked fruits and veggies, lean meats and refined grains. Reducing caffeine, salt and sugar can also help reduce period symptoms.

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.

Eat Chocolate – there is research that supports that eating dark chocolate and drinking red wine can help relieve period pain. So feel free to justify that run to the grocery for extra chocolate!

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

Having some insight into what’s happening in your body on a regular basis can certainly have its benefits. By tracking and being more aware of your cycle, 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 “normal” in your body, which can help clue you in on potential medical 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, Community Pregnancy Clinics offers free pregnancy testing to help you know for sure. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.



At Community Pregnancy Clinics, we are here for you! We offer free pregnancy tests, free ultrasounds, free STI Testing, and free support during and after your pregnancy.


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