A healthy menstrual cycle is perhaps the best indicator you have of general good health. You can get to know your body more intimately by observing the changes that take place in it each month.
One common misconception many women have about their menstrual cycle is that they ovulate 14 days after menstruation starts. Actually, it’s the other way round. The first half of the cycle may vary from woman to woman and cycle to cycle, but the second half tends to by typically the same length every month. In essence, ovulation usually occurs about 14 to 16 days before menstruation starts, not 14 days after it starts.
Poor diet, too much or too little exercise, lack of quality sleep, taking medication, being under stress, and poor health can all disrupt menstruation. However, on average, the process lasts for 28 days, from the first day of bleeding in one cycle to the first day of bleeding in the next. However, it’s possible to be healthy and to have normal cycles that are shorter or longer. It’s also possible to have a period without ovulation and to ovulate more than once in a cycle. Nevertheless, whatever “regular” means for you, your menstrual cycle progresses according to the pattern set out below. Use this guide to get in tune with your body, to recognize the changes in yourself as you progress through the cycle, and to understand better what’s going on inside you.
Every woman’s cycle is unique to her, and unusual menstrual cycles are not always unhealthy. However, if your periods are irregular, it is recommended that you visit your doctor to have things checked out because irregularity could be a sign of hormonal imbalance or even illness. For example, one study found that women with very irregular menstrual cycles were more at risk of developing diabetes.
Your cycle – step by step
• On day one of your period, the pituitary gland releases follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Although your period seems to signal the end of a cycle, it’s actually the start of the next.
• FSH causes a number of egg-containing follicles to grow on the surface of the ovary.
• During the “follicular phase” of your cycle (before ovulation), the eggs inside the follicles mature. The ovaries produce higher levels of estrogen during this phase, too.
• As the estrogen levels from the ovary increase, FSH production decreases. At the same time, the pituitary gland releases luteinizing hormone (LH). In the cervix, acidic, hostile mucus becomes alkaline and fertile.
• Ovulation occurs when a follicle releases at least one mature egg into the Fallopian tube.
• You are now in the “luteal phase”, the second half of your cycle. The corpus luteum (the structure left after the egg has been releases), produces progesterone.
• If the egg is unfertilized, your body prepares for a period, which discharges the built-up uterus lining. Estrogen and progesterone levels drop, and your body begins a new cycle.