Having an understanding of the menstrual cycle is beneficial for your overall health. It can help to:
The menstrual cycle consists of four phases, with your period indicating the start of a new cycle. Keep reading to learn how the female reproductive system works and how hormone levels change throughout the month.
The menstrual cycle is the reason women have periods. Every month or so, women and girls release an egg from their ovaries into their womb. This makes it possible to become pregnant.
There are a series of hormones involved in the menstrual cycle. These include:
The production of these hormones causes changes in the female reproductive system. They are responsible for ovulation and menstrual bleeding, as well as changes in mood and energy levels.
All women and girls who are of reproductive age experience a menstrual cycle. When a woman reaches an age where she stops menstruating, we refer to this as menopause.
The length of a menstrual cycle differs from woman to woman. On average, you should get your period every 21-35 days. It is normal to bleed for 2-7 days during menstruation.
If there are less than 21 days or more than 35 days between menstrual bleeds, you may be experiencing irregular periods. These are common too and can be caused by lifestyle factors such as stress or weight loss, or conditions like PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome).
In many cases, your body gets back on track by itself. However, if your periods are frequently inconsistent and difficult to track, ask your doctor for advice.
It is thanks to the menstrual cycle that women can conceive and become pregnant.
Ovulation is a phase of the menstrual cycle where an egg is released from the ovaries. It is also when fertility levels (the ability to get pregnant) are highest.
Your body prepares itself before the egg is released, making the perfect conditions for a potential embryo (when an egg cell becomes fertilised by a sperm cell) to become implanted in the womb.
If the egg cell isn’t fertilised, it is discarded from the body during your period.
There are four phases in the menstrual cycle. These are known as:
The first day of your period marks the start of a new cycle. Getting your period is called menstruation.
When you menstruate, your uterus lining is shed. This causes blood (as well as vaginal secretions and uterine cells) to exit from your vagina. The bleeding usually lasts around 2-7 days, depending on your flow.
Some women experience abdominal cramps when they menstruate, whereas others might experience little to no discomfort.
The follicular phase starts on the first day of your period too but carries on for 13-14 days (until ovulation).
During this time, your body starts to produce follicles on the ovaries. Eventually, one of these follicles will mature, causing one of your eggs to be released.
The lining of the womb also thickens at this point in your cycle, in preparation for the egg cell and potential fertilisation.
Once an egg cell has matured, it is released from one of the ovaries (travelling via the fallopian tube) into the womb. This is known as ovulation and usually occurs on day 14 of your cycle (if your cycle is 28 days long).
During ovulation, you are most fertile and have the highest chances of conceiving. If a sperm cell reaches this egg, there is a chance of becoming pregnant.
After ovulation, you enter the luteal phase, which usually lasts from day 15 until the end of your cycle.
The lining of the womb continues to thicken in preparation for a possible pregnancy. If the egg cell does become fertilised, it will implant into the lining where it will start to develop.
If the egg cell is not fertilised, your body sheds the thickened lining instead. This causes your period and therefore a new cycle.
You might also experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) during the luteal phase. After ovulation, women often encounter changes in their mood as well as headaches and hormonal acne.
Hormones are chemical messengers that give your body certain signals. In this case, there are 4 hormones responsible for controlling your menstrual cycle:
Sometimes, your menstrual cycle doesn’t flow like normal. You might be spotting in between bleeds, experiencing irregular periods, or not having a period at all.
Several factors can impact your cycle:
By taking hormonal contraception, you can temporarily protect yourself from becoming pregnant without having to rely on barrier methods like condoms.
Hormonal birth control temporarily affects your fertility by changing your hormone levels. This impacts your normal menstrual cycle.
The combined pill contains artificial versions of oestrogen and progesterone. When taken regularly, it stops ovulation and your natural menstruation. Instead of a period, you have a lighter withdrawal bleed every time you take your pill break. When taken correctly, the combined pill is effective at preventing pregnancy.
The mini pill contains an artificial form of progesterone and prevents pregnancy by thickening the cervical mucus (so that sperm can’t enter the womb). In some cases, it also stops ovulation and your natural periods, but this varies from person to person.
It’s also possible to delay your menstrual cycle with the use of Norethisterone. This is another type of hormonal treatment that can be taken on occasion if you’d like to delay menstruation. However, it cannot be used as a method of contraception.
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