Can you remember back to health class? When I was in 6th grade, they separated the boys from the girls for health. I have no idea what they taught the boys, but for us girls, it was just the very basics. Mainly that we got a period every 28 days unless we got pregnant. I remember Lynette raising her had to ask, “how does the sperm get to the egg in the uterus?” The teacher seemed a bit taken by surprise and said, “that’s a question for your mother!” I still laugh thinking back to the moment as the rest of us snickered knowing the answer was SEXUAL INTERCOURSE, and obviously, her mother hadn’t clued her in on that one yet!
Women’s cycles are so individual, just like personalities. But there is some basic physiology that we all experience.
The Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is more than just a period because it is just the first phase of the cycle. The menstrual cycle starts from the first day of the period until the start of the next period. The average length of the menstrual cycle is 28-29 days, but varies from cycle to cycle and may also change over the years. Many things can disrupt a regular cycle such as stress and travel.
Here’s your basic Health class explanation of your monthly cycle.
In each menstrual cycle, an egg develops and is released from the ovaries, and the uterine lining builds up. If pregnancy does not happen, the uterine lining sheds during the menstrual period. Then the cycle goes on again. This is a complex cycle and is controlled by many different glands and hormones. The brain, ovaries, and uterus work together and communicate through hormones to keep the cycle going.
Let’s get a little deeper than 6th grade health class and break down the cycle into its phases. The menstrual cycle is divided into four phases:
- menstrual phase
- follicular phase
- ovulation phase
- luteal phase
The first stage of the menstrual cycle is when you get your period. This starts when an egg from the last cycle is not fertilized. The thickened uterine lining (endometrium) is eliminated from the body through the vagina because pregnancy has not taken place. The levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone drop. Our menstrual fluid contains blood, tissue from the uterus, and mucus. An average length of a period is between three and seven days, but some can be longer.
This phase of the menstrual cycle starts on the first day of the period and ends with ovulation. The hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone prompts the ovary to produce around 5 to 20 small sacs called follicles that house an immature egg.
Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg while the others die, but on rare occasions, two eggs may mature. The maturing of the follicles stimulates the uterine lining to thicken in preparation for a possible pregnancy.
Ovulation happens when the ovary releases a mature egg.
The rise in the level of estrogen during the follicular phase prompts the pituitary gland to produce a high level of luteinizing hormone (LH) and FSH.
Within two days, due to the high levels of LH ovulation is triggered. The egg travels through the fallopian tube toward the uterus to wait to be fertilized by sperm within 24 hours or else it will dissolve or die. Ovulation happens mid-cycle at around two weeks or so before menstruation starts.
During ovulation, the egg is released from its follicle then is transformed to corpus luteum. This structure starts releasing progesterone and some estrogen, which maintains the uterine lining, while waiting for a fertilized egg to implant.
If an egg gets fertilized and implants in the uterine lining it produces hormones that will maintain the corpus luteum such as human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), the hormone that is detected in urine tests for pregnancy.
But if pregnancy does not take place, the corpus luteum shrinks and dies. This causes the drop in progesterone and estrogen levels that leads to the uterine lining falling away, thus menstruation happens. Then the cycle repeats.
Estrogen and Progesterone
We have mentioned two hormones that are responsible for the occurrence of the menstrual cycle but these two sex hormones are also responsible for various changes in female bodies. These hormones are secreted from the ovaries.
Estrogen, a steroid hormone, carries physiological messages to body organs and systems.
The primary function of estrogens is the development of the female body and secondary sexual characteristics. These include breasts, endometrium, regulation of the menstrual cycle, etc. It helps decelerate heigh increase in females during puberty, accelerates the burning of body fat, and reduces muscle bulk. Estrogens reduce bone resorption and increase bone formation.
Progesterone is a hormone produced primarily in the ovaries, but also in smaller quantities by the adrenal glands, and in the placenta of pregnant women. The hormone helps regulate menstruation, prepares the body for pregnancy, and aids in nourishing the uterine environment to support the implantation of the fertilized egg, as well as the growth of the placenta.
Progesterone promotes normal cell death in the breast which is important in the prevention of cancer. While estrogen decreases the rate of bone breakdown, progesterone stimulates bone osteoblasts. Osteoblasts are responsible for making new bone to replace old bone. Low progesterone levels can lead to weight gain.
Peri and Post Menopausal Stage
Around the age of 45, for most women, the monthly cycle can start to get a bit wonky. Yep, that’s a real term when it comes to menopause. Meaning, cycles can get really long, menstruation duration can change and, the worst is getting more than one period per month. I’ve seen it all with my patients. And, wonky is normal.
With decreasing levels of estrogen and progesterone, your monthly cycle starts to change. The common issues, along with varying cycles are hot flashes, poor sleep, poor memory, brain fog, irritability, low sex drive, weight gain, vaginal dryness, and muscle loss. It can be a very tough and emotional time for women as their body changes.
Menopause doesn’t have to be miserable. There are several options to ease the symptoms and help you transition through menopause. For more solutions and support, just visit my website at www.healthcoachdonna.com.
It’s a shame, but women don’t openly share their experiences about menopause. Who wants to have cocktails and talk vaginal dryness? Not very appealing. There are groups out there where you can ask questions freely and get insights from others who have been there. I do host a Facebook group where I share tons of info and resources as well as offer support and answer questions. Just search for peri/menopause relief on Facebook.com to join my group.
I truly believe that every 10 years women enter a different cycle and with that, you need to make lifestyle changes that are supportive. Embrace each transition and be willing to let go of old ideas about who you are and what you do to maintain health and you’ll sail through womanhood with ease and grace.