Writing and Illustrations by Tara Presnell
You know that thing where you pretty much understand something, and you’d be down to explain it as long as no one had any follow up questions? That was me pre-extensively researching the menstrual period. I got the general gist, but often had to phone-a-friend when I found myself wanting to know something more specific. As much as I love being the Know It All in a room, I think it’s important to be educated about our bodies so I present to you, The Menstrual Cycle: Deconstructed.
Firstly, let’s start off with a little bit of trivia. Did you know that there are approximately 5,000 euphemisms for “period”? It’s hard to choose a personal favourite with options like Le semaine Ketchup, French for “ketchup week”, and Ins rote Meer stechen German for “entering the red sea”.
Anyway, *in my best YouTuber voice* let’s get right to it!
Here’s the lowdown, every month the endometrium (the mucous membrane that lines the inside of the uterus) thickens with blood vessels in preparation for pregnancy. If a fertilized egg doesn’t appear, part of the endometrium sheds away causing menstrual bleeding—aka your period. This marks the beginning of your menstrual cycle. If roughly the same amount of time goes by between the start of each period, your menstrual cycle is considered to be regular. The average cycle is 28 days, however, it’s super normal for it to be longer or shorter—particularly during adolescence and as you approach menopause (more on this later).
Ok, so let’s break down what actually happens during the cycle.
The menstrual cycle is divided into 4 different phases: the menstrual phase, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. In terms of exact timing and duration for each phase, keep in mind that not only is everyone a little different, but also that your own body can vary from time to time due to a range of things like stress or hormones.
Menstrual phase: Day 1-5(ish)
As mentioned briefly above, this is where the thickened lining (made up of blood, endometrial cells and mucus), sheds away from the uterus through the vagina in the form of menstrual fluid. The amount of fluid lost during each period varies between individuals, and from one cycle to another. Menstrupedia consider 10ml to 80ml the normal amount of fluid loss for each period. Your period can last anywhere from 3-7 days. The “flow” of fluid can be heavy or light and generally changes throughout the duration of your period. The colour can vary from black, brown, or dark red, through to bright red or pink. If you feel like your period’s abnormally prolonged or heavy, download a period blood loss chart and track what’s going on so that you can chat with a healthcare practitioner, and figure out why you might be experiencing this.
Follicular phase: Day 1-13(ish)
The follicular phase begins at the same time as the menstrual phase, but continues on after your period ends until you ovulate. On the first day of your cycle, your body’s estrogen and progesterone hormone levels are low. In reaction to this, the hypothalamus (a portion of your brain responsible for linking the nervous system to the endocrine system) sends a message to the pituitary gland (a pea-sized master gland that secretes hormones and controls other hormone glands) which then releases follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH stimulates the ovary to produce 5 to 20 follicles (cysts containing immature eggs known as ova). Usually just one follicle matures into an egg (ovum), with the others breaking down and being reabsorbed into the body. The follicles produce estrogen, causing the thickening process of endometrium. In addition to this, the rise in estrogen causes the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) which causes the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH). The rise in LH triggers ovulation.
Ovulation: Day 14(ish)
A mature egg is released from the ovary and then travels through the fallopian tube towards the uterus. Ovulation generally occurs approximately 2 weeks before the next period, however, it can be earlier or later depending on the length of your cycle. A typical egg has a maximum 24 hour lifespan to be fertilized by a sperm, otherwise it disintegrates. Although the egg’s lifespan does not exceed 24 hours, sperm can survive for around 2 to 3 days inside the body. Taking into account these lifespans, the *best time to conceive is the 5 days before ovulation, and on the day of. These 6 days are called the “fertile window”.
*Important to note best, not only: if you and the sperm producing individual you’re having sex with aren’t looking to have a baby, aim to avoid conception with thorough conTRAception. The key word here is “aim”, as apart from abstinence, no method is 100% effective. Synthetic condoms (which, did you know aren’t all vegan) are the recommended foundation as the reduce chances of conception and importantly, chances of transmitting and contracting STD’s. Research and discuss your choices to find out if condoms or a combination is what’s going to work best for you.
Luteal phase: Day 15-28(ish)
During this phase, the corpus luteum (the follicle that held the egg) collapses and produces progesterone and oestrogen. This helps further thicken the uterine lining to provide a place for a fertilised egg to implant. If this doesn’t occur, the corpus luteum breaks down and stops producing progesterone. You’ve then come full circle back to the menstrual phase where you begin your period and the whole process all over again!
Alrighty, question time: What’s all the other discharge/mucus throughout the month?
Before ovulation, cervical mucus has a clear, thin, slippery, and elastic consistency. This is called “fertile mucus” as it occurs when you’re most fertile. Fertile mucus acts to assist and nourish sperm travelling up the vagina to the cervix (hence why it’s theoretically an ideal time to conceive). After ovulation (during the luteal phase) rising levels of progesterone cause cervical mucus to become cloudy (usually white or yellow) and thicker.
What else happens to your body? Also what’s PMS, when does it occur?
Throughout the menstrual cycle, changing hormone levels can result in a number of different physical and psychological symptoms. For example, fatigue during the first day of your period due to low estrogen, rising testosterone increasing your libido at end of the follicular phase, or cramps resulting from the uterus contracting to help shed its lining. Those that occur during the luteal phase and that repeat each cycle are referred to as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Common symptoms include depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, insomnia, fatigue, changes in libido, changes in appetite, changes in skin, breast tenderness, bloating, headaches, abdominal pain, and gastrointestinal symptoms (constipation or diarrhea).
I’m lazy so this might not happen, but what are the pros of tracking your menstrual cycle?
By recording details and changes experienced during your menstrual cycle, you can predict when you’ll get your period, as well as become knowledgeable about what is normal for you. There’s a bunch of super great apps that make tracking pretty simple (Refinery29 compiled a lil list here).
Hmmm ok, I probably should have asked this earlier, but what exactly happens to all this menstrual fluid—do I have to do something?
If free bleeding isn’t for you, there are a number of different products you can use to absorb your period. If you’re unsure what’s in the brand of product you’ve chosen to use/currently use, I recommend you give it a goog. Here are some options:
Pads/sanitary napkins/panty shields
These are an external product that line your underwear. They come in a variety of sizes, styles and materials to cater for different absorbencies, needs (overnight, sport etc.), and preferences (disposable or reuseable). Pads need to be changed regularly, though exact time limits depend on the amount of menstrual flow, and the absorbency capacity of the individual product.
Another external product—basically if your regular undies and a pad had a baby, this would be the result. Designed to eliminate the need for a pad, menstrual undies are manufactured with absorbent, leak-proof materials. Depending on brand and style, they can hold varying amount of fluid. Like your regular undies, they are designed to be washed and reused, and as a result have a minimal impact on the environment and your hard-earned cash in comparison to disposable products.
These are an internal product which is inserted into the vagina, and then pulled out via the string attached at the base of the tampon. Tampons can be inserted with or without an applicator depending on personal preference. Like pads, they come in a variety of sizes designed for different absorbency needs. Depending on the brand, they are made from different materials. Tampons are not reusable and need to be changed regularly. Fun fact: the average tampon-using American women will buy more than 11,000 tampons in her lifetime!
Similar to a tampon, menstrual cups are an internal product and come in a variety of sizes. However, rather that absorb the fluid, menstrual cups collect it. They’re a reusable product, as once full, they can be removed and washed. Another benefit of their non-absorbent nature is that they don’t disrupt your vagina’s bacteria balance by absorbing the protective fluids it naturally produces to self-cleanse. In comparison to a tampon, they can hold more fluid, therefore you don’t have to empty them as regularly as you have to change a tampon—for example, the Diva Cup can be left in for up to 12 hours.
Will I get my period forever? jk I know about menopause but don’t really know, enlighten me please?
The word menopause is derived from the Greek words “menos” meaning month and “pause” meaning to cease. It refers to the last menstrual period (fyi, the first is known as menarche, with “arche” being Greek for beginning). Menopause consists of three stages.
During this stage, changes in the levels of progesterone and testosterone, and particularly oestrogen, can result in menopausal symptoms including hot flushes, night sweats, changes in the frequency and heaviness of menstrual periods, memory difficulties, mood changes, sleeping problems, and urinary incontinence.
This naturally occurs between the approximate ages of 45-55 years old. Premature menopause (before the age of 40) or early menopause (before the age of 45) can be induced through surgery, or occur as the result of medication.
You are considered to be postmenopausal after 12 consecutive months without experiencing a period.
There’s a lot more info on the things discussed in this piece via the hyperlinks throughout, but here’s some additional material for your perusal if that’s not enough.
Past, Present, Periods: A Historical look at that unmentionable time of the month, People For Periods
Video: This Is Your Period in 2 Minutes, Glamour Magazine (2016)
Can You Get Pregnant On Your Period?, American Pregnancy (2016)’
Your Contraception Choices, The Royal Womens Hospital
Why International Travel Messes with Your Menstrual Cycle, Jessica Pan for Broadly (2016)
Scientists May Finally Have Found What Causes Severe PMSm or PMDD, Sarah Hagi for Broadly (2017)
Why You Have So Much Diarrhea When You’re on Your Period, Bethy Squires for Broadly (2016)
Why Your Breasts Can Feel So Painfully Sore Before Your Period, Sirin Kale for Broadly (2017)
I Spent a Week Testing Out Tampons, Pads, Cups and Period Underwear, Alyssa Hubbell for Teen Vogue (2016)
Cumulative Exposure and Feminine Care Products, Safe Cosmetics
Does Handing Out Sanitary Pads Really Get Girls To Stay In School?, Nurith Aizenman for NPR (2016)
Prisons that withhold menstrual pads humiliate women and violate basic rights, Chandra Bozelko for The Guardian (2015)
Do Women Need Periods?, Michaeleen Doucleff for NPR (2016)
British girls are missing school because of they can’t afford tampons, Ellen Scott for Metro Co UK (2017)