Understanding and Learning How to Track
When we talk about our menstrual cycle, we always talk about the length or when our menstruation comes and what comes with that. But our cycle is more than that, and knowing how it works can be a powerful tool for us. And it is for that reason that this month I’m taking over Coach and talking to you about our menstrual cycle, the phases, hormones that affect each phase, how to track it and how to use it to our benefit for exercise and other helpful tips.
By Pat Aguilar
First, let’s start with the basics, the common topic of the length of the cycle. Yes, traditionally, it is supposed to last 28 -29 days (similar to the moon cycle), but studies show that it can be between 26 and 40 days. This variation is different for every woman, and it can differ from month to month.
If you have read about it, different studies mention the same phase but in a different partition. Some studies talk about four phases (menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase), and others just talk about two (follicular phase, which includes menstruation and ovulation, and luteal phase). I will explain each stage or phase of our cycle.
Also, let’s keep in mind that the length of the cycle can be different for everyone. I’m going to use as an example of a cycle of 28–30 days, but could be longer or shorter than that, which is absolutely fine and normal.
This phase goes from day 1 until day 4 or 7, depending on the person. And we know exactly when this phase starts due to the arrival of our period. That is our day 1, if you want to start tracking your cycle.
Menstruation happens due to no fertilization of the egg during the days post ovulation or luteal phase. During menstruation, our body releases a combination of blood, mucus, and tissue from the uterus, which is the lining (also called the endometrium) that was prepared in case there was fecundation.
During this phase, most women might feel a few symptoms –again, these vary and for some could be extreme symptoms, and for others, almost nothing. Some of the symptoms are cramps, tender breasts, bloating, mood swings, irritability, headaches, tiredness, and lower back pain.
During this phase, our energy shifts and we tend to go inwards, we want to rest, it’s like we want to hibernate; it is sometimes referred to as the “winter phase”. It’s a phase to give back to ourselves as we are having a big release physically and energetically. If you check in this period, your hormone levels (the ones related to your menstrual cycle of course) will be low, as our body is releasing the endometrium due to no fecundation.
Tip: If you are using the thermometer to check your ovulation days (full explanation in ovulation phase), I would recommend to also, at least during the first months of tracking, take your temperature during these days as it will show a drop in it. Also, your heart rate tends to decrease as we are going into recovery mode.
It is encouraged that during this phase, you do soft exercises. If yoga is your thing, I would recommend some yin, hatha or restorative, which are more slow and soft yoga practices. Avoid exercises that would increase your heart rate, and also inversions. Since the flux of our body is going downward and outwards, it is best to help keep it that way.
According to old texts, during your moon days is not recommended to do any exercise as a form to help the body to recover fully. But if you are like me, I would recommend a soft yin sequence with Supta baddha konasana (reclined butterfly), Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose) Baddha Konasana (butterfly), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose), Balasana (child’s pose) and Savasana.
This phase occurs from day 5 (or when your menstruation ends) until day 14 or until ovulation day (remember that everyone is different. Later, I will give you a few tips how to track these days).
It’s called follicular phase in reference to the follicles that holds the eggs in our ovaries. In this phase, the follicles start working on releasing one egg during ovulation.
The way it works is simple: the pituitary gland sends a signal to the FSH (follicle stimulant hormone) to start “recruiting” several follicles to mature. Each follicle contains one egg. When ovulation comes, the “strongest” follicle and egg would be released.
The follicles also start releasing a hormone, estrogen, which is responsible for inducing the growth of the endometrium (that lining of the uterus). Estrogen is then in charge of thickening it (the endometrium) to be prepared for the egg to be fertilized. Think of the endometrium as the grass in your yard that needs to be healthy and green and full of nutrients; estrogen is our fertilizer.
During the days after menstruation and before ovulation, we tend to feel more energized, due to the increase of estrogen. This phase is also called Spring season, as we are coming back out of hibernation, we tend to be more focused and creative. It’s an optimal phase to dedicate time to projects, to start new projects, reading and researching, learning, and performing physical tasks.
This is the best period to increase your exercise in cardio and weights, to push yourself a little bit, if that is what you are looking for. If you have never tried Pilates, I would totally recommend starting during this phase. You can choose more cardio base classes, then you can slow down a bit, taking alignment classes or beginners (that is what I do, I still work out during my days before menstruation, but I reduce the weight that I use), and my yoga practice tends to get more challenged during this time, welcome back inversions and headstands. ☺
This is the phase where the egg is liberated into the follicle and starts its journey into the endometrium. This is the most effective phase for fertilization, aka getting pregnant. If you don’t want children right now, be mindful to be extra cautious on these days, as the chances are higher if you have sex. Also, it’s important to know that the sperm can live inside our body for up to 5 days, so also take in consideration 3-4 days prior to your ovulation day. If you do want to have children, well girl, as Marvin Gaye says, ”Let’s get it on!”
The hormone that comes into place in this phase is the LH, luteinizing hormone, which is responsible for ovulation itself. This hormone is made by the pituitary gland and tells the dominant follicle (the one that has matured first and is the strongest one) to release its egg.
Tip: How to know when you are ovulating? By measuring this hormone.
I personally start using this technique when I stop using birth control pills. I wanted to know my body and my cycle, so started to track it. It was hard at the beginning as my cycle was irregular. What I did was, after day 10 I would start taking an ovulation test daily (you can get them in the pharmacy or supermarket), so I could see when this hormone would peak and that means the ovulation is happening between 24 or 48 hours.
Now, after a long time of tracking my period, I also note other symptoms: higher energy levels, better mood, even more social than usual, so now I take the test on day 13 onwards so I know when my ovulation should be. There is also a specific thermometer that measures the basal body temperature. This works similar as the ovulation test, as in, you take your temperature from day 10 and when your temperature rises means that you are ovulating, these rises in temperature last around 2-3 days.
During ovulation, we feel like we want to shine! Our hormones are at their highest level getting ready in case there is fecundation. This phase is called summer phase, we are getting hot and feel hotter! We become more social, our energy is outward and expressive. It’s a great time for community building, nurturing relationships and be at service to others. Our libido is increased during this phase, so be careful because our fertility is too. Energetically, this is the best time to ask what you want, to yourself, partner or why not a raise at work?
Let’s Move to Our Last Phase: Luteal Phase
This phase starts approximately on day 16, or after ovulation. Remember that everyone’s cycle is different, you may ovulate on day 14 and your friend on day 17 and both are perfectly fine. That is why it’s so important that you try to recognize your cycle.
During this phase, the egg, if it is fertilized, goes through the fallopian tubes until it reaches the endometrium and settles there. Did you know that our fallopian tubes are not connected entirely to our ovaries? This absolutely blows my mind because I always pictured everything connected. Apparently, when the follicle is ready to release the egg, that is when the fallopian tube connects, isn’t our body just so fascinating? ☺
Estrogen starts to drop, but progesterone hormone is starting to be released as this is the hormone with the job to maintain the thickening of the endometrium –that lining– or, if we keep using our grass metaphor, it’s responsible for “watering the grass”. Its peak is around 1 week after ovulation, which is when the egg should be implanted in the uterus if there was fertilization.
In case that didn’t happen, after this week the levels of progesterone start to decrease and our body starts to prepare for the next phase which will be follicular phase and start menstruation and that means, our cycle starts again.
Energetically speaking, we start going slightly more inward. We start craving more alone time and slow down. This can be related to PMS. There are studies that show that women have an increase of premenstrual symptoms during this stage due to the drop of estrogen, which can be interpreted as a lack of energy. If we push through due to commitments (how easy would this be if we can stop life for a few days, no?) work, etc, our body will start talking to us in many ways.
In this phase, we can feel more inspired and creative. Since we are going inward, it’s the perfect time to nurture one’s own creative insights, write poetry, draw, come up with strategic ideas for your business or career, and assert yourself.
Don’t feel bad for wanting to spend time alone, just be gentile and mention this to friends or your partner. A little story, I used to pick up a fight with my ex-partner on this period of my cycle every single time. I didn’t understand at the beginning, but it was my way (not a good one) to have some alone time. Now I know better and just ask for “Me” time.
When luteal phase ends, our menstruation is back and that means the cycle starts again.
To know your cycle is a wonderful tool, not just to avoid pregnancy or to get pregnant, but to know your body and see how it works, and how can we use it to our benefit. Depending on your lifestyle, you can organize it depending on what part of the cycle you are in. Start noticing those subtle changes.
At the beginning I was writing down everything, and the more I knew, the more it made sense. I went from having an irregular cycle, to a more regular one and from a painful menstruation, to barely have any symptoms now.
If you want to start tracking your cycle, there are apps you can use, example: Flo or Clue, some fitness trackers also have a menstrual cycle tracker, or you can also just use your journal. Track your feelings, mood, cravings, anything that might be helpful to get to know your body better.
Happy tracking!!!! ☺