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The four phases of your menstrual cycle, as explained by a doctor

Group of women laughing in woodland
Find out more about how hormones affect your body at every stage of the menstrual cycle, and how best to prepare yourself for these effects.
By Dr Giada Frontino, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist
The menstrual cycle refers to the hormonal changes the body undergoes each month to prepare for a pregnancy.

While these hormones are responsible for fertility and pregnancy, they also regulate other bodily functions including your blood sugar, metabolism, sleep and temperature regulation. Working with our menstrual cycle helps us to maintain optimal health.

The menstrual cycle has four phases: menstrual, follicular, ovulation, and luteal. Each plays a part in preparing our bodies to conceive, from the follicular stage when the womb lining thickens and egg cells mature; to the ovulation phase when the most viable egg is released, allowing it to meet sperm for conception; to the luteal premenstrual phrase where the womb prepares to support a pregnancy; finally, menstruation, when the lining sheds in order to start the process all over again.

Although we often think about cycles lasting 28-30 days, anything between 23 and 35 is considered normal. Your cycle can change at different life stages, for instance between adolescence and adulthood, or when you experience pregnancy or menopause.

Menstrual phase

What is the menstrual phase?

The menstrual phase is when you have your monthly vaginal bleed, or period. This can range between two and seven days. Your oestrogen levels drop, triggering a shedding of your womb lining. This is caused by a hormonal feedback loop. Your brain has told your body you’re not pregnant, so your body prepares itself to reset for another chance to get pregnant the following month.

During this time, energy levels can fall due to a loss of minerals and nutrients, particularly iron, shed through your period. Oestrogen is at its lowest, meaning your skin and eyes might be drier and your mood lower. The libido might be reduced. You might experience looser stools due to low progesterone levels.

Sleep disruption may occur. You might have difficulty regulating your body temperature: feeling sweaty or shivery. Concentration and memory may be reduced.

Own the menstrual phase

This is a quiet time to rest and take care of yourself in preparation for the next three phases. Mood-wise, you are probably feeling more quiet and introspective than usual. Spend time alone with a good book, or with your best friend. Avoid overworking and stress.

Choose low-intensity exercise which doesn’t burn too much energy or spike cortisol levels.

It is important to eat a balanced diet, to replace the lost nutrients from monthly blood loss, like iron-rich foods like spinach, red meat, tofu, beans and pumpkin seeds. This should be paired with foods rich in vitamin C – which promotes iron absorption – such as raw greens and citrus fruit. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains help to prevent amenorrhea (loss of period) or irregular periods. Fatty acids provide the ovaries with essential building blocks to produce oestrogen and progesterone.

Follicular phase

What is the follicular phase?

This stage, which typically lasts between 13 to 16 days, is where the womb lining is growing back, preparing to welcome a pregnancy. Oestrogen levels rise, while progesterone levels rise in the latter half of this phase.

You will feel energised and positive. Temperature regulation improves, as does concentration and memory. Sex driving is rising, and you'll feel more attractive and socially confident, thanks to oestrogen.

Own the follicular phase

This is a good phase for doing strength training and cardio, like running.

It’s a good time for dating and going out with friends. Work wise, prioritise group work; delivering presentations; tackling important projects; and creative thinking.

The lifestyle changes you make now will reduce symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) later on in your cycle. Eating carbohydrate-rich snacks – particularly post workout – and regular meals (three times daily) is important, to support your ovaries.

Ovulation phase

What is the ovulation phase?

This is a very short phase: only a couple of days maximum, normally. There’s a peak in oestrogen. Testosterone also peaks, which means a boost to your sex drive. Progesterone continues to rise, supporting your mood.

Your FSH (follicle-stimulating hormones) starts egg development and increases oestrogen secretion, while your luteinizing hormones (LH) is released to make the eggs mature and trigger ovulation.

Own the ovulation phase

It's a great time for trying to get pregnant because you're highly fertile at this time.

Eating high fibre foods – oats, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit – will reduce PMS symptoms like constipation which tends to occur in the next phase. A healthy intake of lean protein will reduce sweet cravings later on.

If you enjoy high-intensity cardio or boxing, this is the best time as you are full of energy.

You might feel mentally tougher. This is a good time to ask for a pay rise.

You will sleep well in the days before ovulation, thanks to your balanced hormones.

Luteal phase

What is the luteal phase?

In this phase, which lasts anywhere from 11 to 17 days, the egg has been released and your body prepares to support the gestational sac. Oestrogen and progesterone are gradually dropping, while you have stable amounts of testosterone.

The hormonal changes trigger your skin to produce more sebum, which can lead to acne.

Your body temperature will rise. You may need more sleep than in the previous phases, as your body prepares for pregnancy.

You may experience PMS symptoms, including breast pain, bloating, and irritability or low mood. You may suffer from cramps, as your body produces a chemical called prostaglandins, which causes your womb to contract as it expels its lining.

Towards the second half of your luteal phase, the week before your period begins, you might feel quieter, lower in energy and grumpier.

You may crave sugary foods, especially if your diet has been missing wholegrains and protein in the previous weeks.

However, this may not be the case. There’s a misconception that PMS is unavoidable. Good news: if you’ve prepared yourself well during the earlier phases you might not experience strong symptoms.

Own the luteal phase

High-fibre foods will reduce cravings and support your mood.

Light aerobic exercise can soothe menstrual pain.

Work wise, towards the end of the luteal phase, you might feel more withdrawn and not as driven. It might be a good time to focus on drafting or preparing work, but not necessarily finalising anything important.

Your cycle tracker

Understand how your hormone cycle works by tracking what's going on with your body over three cycles. Pinpointing patterns and other details will help you make simple lifestyle changes to optimise your wellness every day.

Starting on day one of your period, use colours, letters and symbols to fill in one grid-space each day, and build a full picture of your cycle. 

Time to get tracking  the 11 first step towards making your hormones your ally.

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