The menstrual cycle is an indispensable part of every woman’s reproductive life. It’s typically associated with menstruation, but the truth is, it’s just a small part of it. 

In fact, if you’re a woman of reproductive age, you’re in the middle of one of the four menstrual cycle phases right now.

You’ll be going through this cycle over and over until menopause, so it pays to be aware of your reproductive health.  Learn about the human menstrual cycle basics and how you can have the most comfortable experience possible under each phase.

Phase 1: Menstruation

Your “time of the month” marks the beginning of menstrual cycles.

If you didn’t get pregnant from your last cycle, the blood, mucus, and endometrial cells from the thickened lining of the uterus are discharged from your body through the vagina.

The combination of these three comprises your menstrual fluid.  For most women, their menstrual period lasts three to five days. But for others, it can last up to a week.

What should you expect during menstruation?

Your menstrual period is associated with low estrogen levels resulting in a range of symptoms differing from person to person.

Even the intensity of these symptoms could vary depending on which day you are in your cycle! 

Here are a few common symptoms you may experience during menstruation:

  • Low energy
  • Dysmenorrhea
  • Cramps
  • Bloating
  • Headaches
  • Tender breasts
  • Low back pain
  • Irritability

What should you do?

Having your menses isn’t the best feeling in the world. Give your body lots of time to relax.

Get a massage, meditate, and take naps. If needed, you may also take over-the-counter medication for any discomfort.

Phase 2: Follicular Phase

Menstrual flow doesn’t just indicate menstruation. It’s also a sign that the follicular phase has begun.

Your pituitary gland releases the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) during this phase, signalling your body to prepare a mature egg cell for ovulation.

As a response, your ovary creates 5 to 20 follicles, each housing an immature egg. These follicles thicken your uterine lining in preparation for a possible pregnancy.

Only one dominant follicle will release a mature egg, while the other egg cells die.  All this happens until the beginning of the next phase.

What should you expect during the follicular phase?

Estrogen starts to surge during the follicular phase, helping your menstrual symptoms subside.

You’ll experience a mood and energy boost as a result. Your testosterone levels will be on the rise, too, stimulating your libido.

What should you do?

With this renewed energy, you can participate in more physical activities. Getting intimate with your partner is also more enjoyable now.

Phase 3: Ovulation

The previous phase is actually an elaborate prelude to this short but critical phase: ovulation.

As your estrogen levels continue to rise, your hypothalamus releases the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This hormone, in turn, triggers the release of FSH and the luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland.

Your body responds to these changes through ovulation, which occurs as your ovary releases a mature egg for fertilisation. This is carried through your fallopian tube to your uterus.

If the egg doesn’t get fertilised within 24 hours, it dies. Otherwise, it will implant to your thickened uterine lining.

Ovary and the ovulation process.

What should you expect during ovulation?

If you’re planning to get pregnant, you should know when ovulation occurs.

During the ovulation phase, your basal body temperature will dip slightly, then become a little higher than usual. You most likely won’t notice this slight change unless you monitor your daily temperature.

Your cervical mucus will also develop an egg-like consistency to help the sperm reach the egg easily (this is the concept by which the kegg fertility device works on).

Apart from these, you may also experience symptoms usually associated with menstruation, such as cramps, bloating, tender breasts, and even mittelschmerz—a one-sided pain in the lower abdomen felt during ovulation.

Phase 4: Luteal Phase

When an egg is released, the ruptured follicle stays on the ovary’s surface and becomes a corpus luteum.

With human corpus luteum secretion, your body will produce progesterone and estrogen. These hormones help retain the thickness of the uterine lining for a possible pregnancy.

If fertilisation occurs, your body will produce human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) to keep the corpus luteum and ensure that it continues to deliver the progesterone levels needed for the pregnancy.

But if there’s no fertilised egg, the corpus luteum degenerates. Estrogen and progesterone won’t be produced anymore. This will cause the uterine lining to shed, going back to phase one. You can read more about the variation in hormones over the menstrual cycle here.

What should you expect during the follicular phase?

Assuming you didn’t get pregnant, the progesterone and estrogen produced in your body will decrease.

As a result, you may experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Symptoms vary from irritability to food cravings to bloating.

Menstrual Cycle
Menstrual cycle diagram. Menstruation phases.

What should you do?

Manage each symptom as they come. For example, magnesium helps with muscle tension and headaches. Eat more iron-rich foods as well because you’re about to undergo menstrual bleeding again.

Don’t be afraid to take things slowly during the luteal phase. Relaxation allows you to continue functioning despite your symptoms.

After the luteal phase, the next menstrual cycle begins. Assuming you have a normal menstrual cycle, the length of each phase will be relatively the same each time. 

But one woman’s experience may differ from another’s. That’s why it’s important to open discussions about this topic.  Apart from letting women know more about their bodies, it allows everyone to bond through shared experiences.

This blog was reposted with permission, and minor edits, from the Bellabeat website.