Growing up I was never taught the intricate and beautiful details that is the symphony of hormones our bodies produce every single month. Sure, I was taught that mitochondria are the power house of the cell, and our traits are genetic BUT I was never shown how to look at my menstrual cycle as a monthly report card of my health. Until my 30’s I was never fully able to appreciate how having a regular cycle, not regulated by hormonal contraceptives, helped me gauge how other systems in my body were functioning. Sidenote ladies: hormonal contraceptives do not regulate our hormones, they suppress them. I will never forget that 'wtf' moment I had when reading this in Period Repair Manual by Lara Briden.
The menstrual cycle is both complicated yet beautiful. Let's now take a dive deep into one regular cycle, with the hope that you begin to view your cycle and subsequent period as a report card on your current health. A report your body gives you each month for free, and one to be embraced with open arms. Those painful, heavy periods are a sign of something that has gone off track my friend and being able to notice these signs is an integral first step!
When one phase of our cycle takes on irregularity due to factors such as stress, toxic exposure, inflammation, blood sugar dysregulation (think sugar cravings and energy crashes), poor diet (how much of your food comes in a package?), or even over exercising, it can have far reaching affects into the next phase! Keep this in mind if you ever discover a less than optimal “cycle report”! You may need to look back as far as 100 days to figure out what could have thrown you off! So let's get nerdy for a few...
Master Conductor and It’s Feedback Loop
Your HPO-Axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, is responsible for the development and maintenance of your menstrual cycle. Your hypothalamus is considered a master conductor of your cycle symphony! This part of your brain is the starting point for hormone release and must be willing to communicate to your pituitary what hormones to release as well as listen to hormones produced by your ovaries saying “we got your signals, we hear your, and we did what you wanted!” A great communicator and listener! Isn't that what we are all searching for anyways?
Let’s start with your master conductor, your hypothalamus! During different points in your cycle your hypothalamus should be releasing a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone or GnRH for short. This hormone should be relseased at varying frequencies to signal to the next in the chain of command to release their hormones. The hypothalamus communicates with your pituitary to release either Luteinizing Hormone (LH) or Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH) based on the pulse the hypothalamus sends. If your pituitary receives a high pulse from the hypothalamus it will begin releasing FSH causing the ovaries to begin maturing 6-8 follicles in hopes that one will reach ovulation. If on the other hand your pituitary receives low frequency pulses, it will begin releasing LH.
Phases of Your Menstrual Cycle
You cycle is broken down into a follicular phase and a luteal phase, both coming together to make up one full menstrual cycle. The first day of heavy bleeding of your cycle is considered 'cycle day 1' or CD1. This is the beginning of your follicular phase. During these 7 to 21 days (depending on your unique cycle and anything that might shorten or lengthen this phase), 6-8 follicles that started their journey to ovulation months before (around 100 days ago), begin their final days. Each follicle houses one egg that is hoping to become the dominant egg in this cycle and get to be released during ovulation for subsequent fertilization. The follicle that produces the most estrogen receptors during this time will be chosen as the dominant follicle for ovulation!
Estrogen begins to mount during this phase, then signaling the surge of LH 1-2 days before ovulation. This is why using OPKs can be a useful tool to determine when you could possibly ovulate! Many women are under the assumption everyone ovulates on day 14, but this could not be farther from the truth. While ovulation certainly does occur on day 14 for some, it does not for all! This could mean completely missing your best chance of conceiving if you are not keeping track of your own personal hormone symphony (or wrongly believing you are in your 'safe days' if not trying to conceive)!
Alright Y’all, hang in there!
So, let’s say we have had great communication from our hypothalamus, wonderful estrogen production, and a beautiful LH surge! Now our dominant follicle has released one amazing egg from its sac and we have achieved ovulation! Now what?
Enter the Luteal Phase!
This is when the emptied follicle will now reconstruct itself into a progesterone-secreting gland we call the corpus luteum. This phase of our cycle will typically last between 10 and 16 days in a healthy cycle and either end in pregnancy or with the start of our next period. Our corpus luteum is the final stage of the dominant follicle’s 100 day journey and produces increasing amounts of progesterone, which help prepare the uterus for possible implantation and is required to sustain a healthy pregnancy. It is imperative to remember, anything that could have affected our health in the last 100 days before this, could show signs of imbalance now! Stress, inflammation, food sensitives, toxin exposure, poor diet are the main offenders but being deficient in nutrients such as magnesium,zinc, selenium, B vitamins, and vitamin D can also cause some issues!
If pregnancy does not occur, progesterone will drop, the corpus luteum will not survive, FSH will be signaled to rise again preparing more follicles in the race to ovulation, your next period will begin and everything circles back around!
While there are certainly a lot more intricate details that go into every cycle, this is the main gist and still far more than I was ever taught growing up!
How do you know if you are experiencing both a follicular and luteal phase with healthy ovulation?
The use of OPKs will help you determine if and when your body is gearing up for ovulation. These work by detecting your LH surge! It is important to note that you cannot confirm ovulation with OPKs, and those with PCOS could see positives at more than one point in their cycle due to their condition.
Tracking your basal body temperature. You will take your temperature first thing in the morning, ideally at the same time every day, before getting out of bed. By tracking your BBT, you will notice a rise in temperature after ovulation that is generally sustained until your next period. The minimum days to confirm ovulation is 3 consecutive days of a higher temperature than the previous 6 temperatures. You should also take note of illness, increased stress, and alcohol consumption as these will have an effect on your temperature also. Tracking your BBT will not however tell you when you are going to ovulate. It will only be helpful in confirming ovulation after it has occurred.
Honestly you all, I think that is quite a doozy of information for today! What grade does your cycle receive? A+? C at best? No matter where you currently stand, there are plenty of ways to help improve your cycles, most of which are things you can incorporate into your life today! You are not doomed, not broken, and can take control over your period health.