Did you know that your menstrual cycle affects more than just your period? It can impact various aspects of your body, including your energy levels, mental health, libido, and skin.
The menstrual cycle is a complex process that involves hormones communicating with the brain and other organs. While its primary purpose is to achieve pregnancy, it affects different parts of your body in unique ways.
Menstrual cycles typically last around 28 days but range from 21 to 45 days. It's not uncommon for cycles to be irregular, particularly during mental or physical stress or significant weight changes. If the body is not prepared for pregnancy, it won't allow ovulation to occur.
However, irregularities in menstrual cycles may indicate a more serious issue. If your cycle is shorter than 21 days, it could suggest an infection or changes in the cervix.
Additionally, ovarian cysts can disrupt hormonal balance, while conditions like PCOS can lengthen menstrual cycles to over 35 days.
As women age, irregular cycles can signify declining fertility and the start of perimenopause.
Follicles in the ovaries produce oestrogen, which is a female sex hormone. Oestrogen is vital in regulating the menstrual cycle by thickening and making the uterus lining, known as the endometrium, more receptive to a fertilised egg. Oestrogen reaches its highest levels just before ovulation.
The corpus luteum, the remaining follicle after ovulation, produces progesterone, the other major female sex hormone. Its primary function is to maintain the endometrium and prepare it for implantation. It usually peaks around day 21 of the menstrual cycle, approximately one week after ovulation.
The pituitary gland in the brain creates follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which aims to promote the maturation of egg follicles. FSH also plays a crucial role in initiating puberty.
During menstruation, FSH levels increase. However, FSH levels decrease a few days before ovulation as the body selects only one egg for further development. FSH levels then rise again, helping to facilitate ovulation, before decreasing to their lowest levels just before menstruation.
The brain produces luteinising hormone (LH), which triggers ovulation and releases the most mature egg. LH production is stimulated by a peak in oestrogen levels, and the surge of LH leads to ovulation.
This phase occurs from approximately the onset of your menstrual period until ovulation.
Your ovaries contain eggs that are continually attempting to grow, but they are only released for potential fertilisation when the hormonal conditions are just right. During this phase, the pituitary gland responds to low levels of estrogen and progesterone by producing FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone). FSH promotes the growth of follicles and the production of estrogen. The uterine lining thickens in preparation for a potential fertilised egg to implant, and FSH levels decrease when estrogen levels reach a specific point.
How might you feel?
Ovulation typically occurs around the 14th day of a 28-day menstrual cycle.
Towards the end of the follicular phase, one mature egg (or occasionally, one from each ovary) emerges as the winner of the growth competition and is prepared for release.
This mature egg generates a substantial amount of estrogen, which signals the pituitary gland to release LH (luteinising hormone). LH facilitates the release of the egg. Once released, it takes approximately 24 hours for the egg to traverse the fallopian tube, where fertilisation must occur for a potential pregnancy. The egg remains viable for 24 hours, while sperm can survive up to 5 days.
How might you feel?
The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle commences after the egg's release during ovulation, approximately 14 days before the onset of your period.
After ovulation, the egg leaves behind the corpus luteum, which begins producing progesterone to facilitate the maturation of the uterine lining.
The body anticipates a fertilised egg's descent through the fallopian tube and its growth to a size suitable for attachment to the uterine wall, which takes several days. Around day 21, the corpus luteum becomes less effective, leading to a decline in progesterone production. When progesterone and estrogen levels drop significantly, the uterine lining breaks down, resulting in menstrual bleeding.
How might you feel?
The onset of your menstrual period is designated as day 1 of your menstrual cycle, concurrently marking the commencement of your follicular phase, as explained in phase 1 above. The average menstrual cycle spans 28 days, although this duration can vary among individuals.
Menstruation ensues if pregnancy doesn't occur as the uterine lining breaks down. During the subsequent luteal phase, characterised by elevated progesterone levels, the production of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinising hormone) by the brain decreases to a minimum.
Once progesterone levels drop again, the cycle resets, returning to the follicular phase.
How might you feel?
When ovulating, which typically occurs 14 days before the start of your period, it can be beneficial to become familiar with your body's menstrual cycle. Doctors recommend paying attention to your vaginal discharge, checking your cervix, and being aware of any breast tenderness. These observations will help you recognise patterns and signals in your body.
From the onset of your initial menstruation.
The typical age at which girls experience their first period is slightly above 12 years, but this can vary between 9 and 15 years. It takes some time for your body to adapt and regulate the balance of hormones, but after a year, your menstrual cycles should become more predictable.
Throughout different life stages, including the possibility of pregnancy.
Except for pregnancy, breastfeeding, and occasional missed periods due to high stress levels, your menstruation should remain regular until you reach your mid-40s.
As we age, the quality of our eggs decreases, leading to a heightened risk of miscarriages and chromosomal abnormalities. The corpus luteum, responsible for producing progesterone, becomes less efficient, potentially resulting in shorter menstrual cycles. This change is typically the earliest indication of entering perimenopause.
Concluding with perimenopause and menopause.
Over time, the supply of eggs diminishes, causing your menstrual cycles to become less frequent. Despite not ovulating, your ovaries will continue to produce estrogen, which prompts the lining of your uterus to thicken. However, since there's no ovulation, progesterone production decreases, eventually shedding this built-up lining.
This is why you might experience irregular but heavy and prolonged bleeding until you're around 51. After this period, if you haven't had a period for a year, you're officially in menopause.
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