Know Your Cycle
I never had “the talk.” My family dynamics didn’t really allow for it, and if you’re anything like me, the sex education you received in fifth grade was barely adequate. I’m ashamed to admit that I lived most of my adult life not fully understanding my own cycle. It wasn’t until my husband and I were having trouble conceiving that I took my knowledge – and therefore power – into my own hands.
I started by reading a book called Woman Code by Alissa Vitti. It helped put things in perspective and let me know that I was not alone. I also seemed to have an insatiable appetite for googling terms and phrases, and finding information that way. I even found one of my old nursing school textbooks and devoured the information at hand. Speaking with friends who had similar experiences was the most helpful. I was also able to seek out online communities of women experiencing the same difficulties. By nature, these types of communities tend to be extremely encouraging and helpful, but are more opinion and experience based.
I already knew how incredible human bodies are - I see it everyday in my patients. Learning about human bodies, especially female bodies, was so enlightening. We are perfectly evolved and complex beings. I’d like to outline the monthly cycle that our bodies go through. This outline can be interpreted as needed – to conceive, to prevent conception, or just to know your own body a little better. It’s important to know that this is only a rough idea and prediction of cycles, and your cycle probably has slight variations.
The cycle begins on Day 1 – the first day of your period. This also begins the first phase: the menstrual phase. The lining of your uterus, in the absence of a fertilized egg, breaks down and sheds. It’s caused by a sudden drop in progesterone levels. Hormone fluctuations play a huge part in your cycle, your symptoms, and your energy levels throughout the month. The menstrual phase can last anywhere from three to five days, with variations person to person on flow and symptoms.
We then enter the follicular phase, in which our bodies prepare for ovulation. This lasts from the end of your period until ovulation. Another hormone, the follicle stimulating hormone, stimulates the ovaries to produce a mature egg. The process of the egg maturation causes the production of estrogen to prepare the uterus to receive the egg in case of pregnancy. As the estrogen levels rise, you may feel more energetic and less moody. You may also notice a thin clear or white discharge.
The third phase is ovulation, which typically occurs two weeks before your menstrual period. This phase is initiated with a surge of luteinizing hormone, which begins ovulation - this is the hormone that ovulation prediction kits look for. Ovulation occurs when the egg is released into the fallopian tube, leading to the uterus. If the egg happens to meet sperm, it is fertilized. These days are your most fertile, and are therefore the most important days to use contraception if you aim to prevent pregnancy.
The last phase, the luteal phase, occurs when progesterone levels surge. Progesterone builds and thickens the uterus lining. When the egg is not fertilized, both estrogen and progesterone levels drop dramatically. The withdrawal from these hormones cause symptoms that you may recognize as PMS. When your period begins, your cycle restarts.
Textbooks will tell you that a typical cycle is 28 days long. I have found, however, that many women have completely regular cycles that are not 28 days long. My cycles are typically 32 days long; my best friend’s cycles are 25 days long. Figuring this out was revolutionary for me: I don’t ovulate on day 14, I ovulate on day 19. This was like an epiphany! Every body is unique and different, and this doesn't mean less functional or broken.
Many things can interfere with your cycle, as well. For example, any abnormality in your thyroid stimulating hormone can affect the hormonal cascade. When I consulted with my gynecologist about our troubles conceiving, we checked my thyroid first. My TSH level was technically normal, but on the very high end of normal. This meant I had a mildly under-functioning thyroid, and I was placed on oral synthetic replacements. Environments can wreak havoc on hormone levels, too. Preservatives, chemicals found in plastic, and many other things can disrupt estrogen and progesterone production. This was the second thing my doctor checked - hormones. It turned out that I wasn't ovulating, and my progesterone levels were abnormally low. I was diagnosed with "unexplained infertility." It was a hard pill to swallow, but just knowing what the obstacles were felt like relief.
The bottom line I’d like for everyone to walk away with is this: every human body is different. Some women don’t menstruate, and this does not make them less female or less empowered. Some women have irregular cycles, some have long cycles, some have sporadic cycles. As long as you know your body and cycle, you have the power. You can team up with your doctor, naturopath, and/or therapist for optimal wellness. There are many apps you can use to track your cycle and get to know yourself better - my favorite was Glow, and I have friends who used Eve. Knowledge is power, and being familiar with your own body is paramount for maintaining your health!