Watercolour - "Go with the Flow" by Kat Grandy
Menstruation is a natural part of every woman’s life. However, it’s treated as negative, dirty, and shameful, mostly due to the symptoms associated during the days leading up to and during “that time of the month”. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it can be a wonderful thing in a woman’s life and period problems can be a thing of the past!
Hard to believe, I know. As someone who’s suffered terribly since the age of 12, I wish I had known what I now know! It’s only been in the last few years that I discovered it doesn’t have to be this way (and I could have avoided being on “the pill” for so long — but this is a topic for another time). And so, there is hope for you too.
Most women understand the basic mechanism of their period but not the nuances that can lead to vibrant hormonal health.
There are four phases to menstruation: Follicular, Ovulary, Luteal, and Bleeding phase, and each is thought of as a season (follicular, spring; ovulary, summer; luteal, autumn; and bleeding, winter).
Each phase also comes with physical and emotional effects which can help you better understand how to work with your cycle, in order to feel more energized and grounded, and simply just go with the flow!
The follicular phase is when the ovaries are preparing and ripening the eggs. As a woman’s body is always preparing to get pregnant, it’s the beginning phase of that process. During this phase, estrogen and testosterone levels are typically low and slowly increase, giving a boost in energy, mood and brain skills. This is when women feel their best: powerful, confident, extroverted, more social, willing to take more risks, and sexier, as testosterone starts stimulating the libido!
With estrogen increasing, women will see a difference in their skin, which looks and feels better during this phase. Furthermore, estrogen suppresses appetite so this is when you feel your lightest.
During the last days of the follicular phase leading up to ovulation, women are most fertile, as the uterine lining thickens in preparation for pregnancy. This is when the cervical fluid takes on a pasty and creamy look which is an important clue that a women should take even more precautions if she doesn’t want to get pregnant.
As mentioned, this phase is associated with spring, which means the body is starting the fertility process. So this is a time for:
Initiating new projects (work and home)
Undertaking important personal and business decisions
Problem-solving, strategizing, brainstorming
Strenuous physical exercise
During the short ovulatory phase (2 to 3 days), the egg is released from the ovary and is only viable for about 12 to 24 hours. Did you know that during this phase the cervix moves higher so that the sperm have to swim farther and thus only the fittest sperm “wins”? Furthermore, during this phase, the cervix becomes soft and open and the cervical fluid is fertile. It can take on a clear, elastic and viscous texture (think edge whites), which stretches if you hold it between your thumb and finger or, it can be wet and watery. No matter the texture, it is there to nourish the sperm and protect them from the vagina’s acidity.
During the ovulatory phase levels of testosterone and estrogen are at their highest, so a woman’s energy and sex drive is high. This is when a woman typically feels more attractive.
This phase is associated with summer and so this is the best time for:
High impact exercise, physical activities and group workouts
Job interviews, asking for a raise, or any important conversation
Networking, public-speaking, launching a new venture
Dating and social activities
To be optimal for fertility the luteal phase should be in the range of 12 to 16 days. This time is necessary as it takes a fertilized egg 10 days to travel from the fallopian tube and implant into the uterine lining. During this phase, the follicle that released the egg will transform into the corpus luteum, a temporary endocrine gland that produces the heat-inducing hormone progesterone, which will gradually raise a woman’s basal body temperature (BBT or BTP). This temperature rise after ovulation lets a woman know she has ovulated.
Progesterone also stimulates the growth of the lining of the uterus in preparation for pregnancy. It is responsible for transforming the cervical fluid from stretchy and wet to sticky and dry. Referred to as infertile cervical fluid it has a basket-weave texture to it, making it difficult for sperm to swim through.
This autumn season of the menstruation cycle is broken down in two halves: the first part of the luteal phase, a woman is still experiencing the effects of the ovulatory phase, and emotionally is still riding high; during the second part as progesterone production increases women find themselves starting to wind down and wanting to avoid social interactions, as progesterone is a natural sleep aid and anti-anxiety hormone.
The second half of this phase is notoriously difficult for 80% of women, who feel some emotional and physical symptoms (PMS), and for the unlucky 20% the symptoms are severe enough to seek medical help.
Symptoms women experience during the second half of the luteal phase, as the body prepares itself for bleeding are: headaches, bloating, anxiety, moodiness, cravings for carbohydrate-heavy comfort foods and of course… chocolate!
This is why it’s a good time to conserve energy in preparation for when a woman’s period begins, so it’s best to avoid big social events. The feeling of heaviness and anxiousness women experience during this phase gets released when the bleeding phase starts.
It’s normal for women to feel isolated during this stage of the cycle. Since there is so much going on in terms of hormones during this phase, physical and emotional symptoms abound. So it’s very important to ask for extra support and care, and to focus on nurturing themselves rather than continuing to push forward to help others.
This phase is a good time for:
Really good self-care (massages, baths)
Nourishing your body with healthy comfort-foods
Organizing your home or office
Taking care of your personal to-do lists and chores
Bookkeeping and accounting
Gentle exercises like yin or restorative yoga, tai-chi
Going to bed earlier and sleeping in later
For most women, the bleeding phase, which begins when progesterone levels drop, lasts about 2 to 7 days. This is when the lining of the uterus breaks down and sheds, and the infertile egg is released. If a woman has some sort of hormonal imbalance the phase can either be shorter or longer.
Women feel a sense of release when the menstruation starts, however, their energy is at the lowest and they may feel tired, withdrawn and introspective. This is a good time to take it easy and rest, take a break from normal duties, and even take a day off if possible. Even if taking a day off is not possible, there are things to do like staying quiet, taking a short walk, gentle stretching, closing their eyes and focusing on deep breathing for 5 minutes.
This last phase, being the winter of the cycle, is when the body is clearing out what’s no longer needed and preparing itself for growth. It’s a time to pause and rest, and a good time for:
Downtime (clearing schedule to spend time alone, journaling, goal setting, visioning. It’s a restorative time and it’s normal to crave peace and quiet)
Evaluating a situation or relationship (since communication between the left and right side of the brain is heightened during this phase, intuition and “gut feeling” is heightened. Good to take note of feelings that come up and set intentions for the month ahead)
Self-love and tender care (it’s a great time to get intimate with oneself or with a partner, as orgasms and physical touch produces the love and bonding hormone oxytocin, which reduces physical pain. Hot water bottle and self-massage can help headaches and menstrual cramps)
Light physical activity and gentle movement (gentle or restorative yoga poses can help cramps. This is a time to avoid stress on the ligaments that are attached to the uterus, so it is NOT a good time for extremely strenuous exercises like CrossFit, boot camp, spinning or running!)
As you can see there are specific lifestyle adjustments, activities and types of exercises that can be done during each phase of the menstruation cycle so that you are working with, and not against, the body’s physical state during each phase.
To recap, during the follicular, ovulatory and early luteal phase, it’s a great time to maximize on high levels of energy and sociability, and during the second half of the luteal and the bleeding phases, it’s time for rest, self-care and taking it easy.
With thanks to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition Inc.