The female cycle
The female body and cycle are all too often still considered a mystery. No wonder, because many women themselves don’t really know what’s happening inside their bodies. Especially for women, however, it is particularly important to understand their own bodies and to be able to interpret the signals the body sends correctly. Most of the internal processes of the female body occur in a cyclical pattern. The female cycle influences: our energy and our immune function, our mood and emotions, our creativity and so much more. Women who observe and know their cycle well can also significantly increase their chances of becoming pregnant because they know exactly when they are fertile. There are various methods for tracking the cycle and determining the fertile phase. The female cycle can be like life itself: not everything always goes according to plan.
In some cases it takes years for a cycle to become regular, and even then it is not always the exact same length. The female cycle is regulated by hormones, some of which can also take over other functions in the body or influence it differently. External influences such as stress or lack of sleep also affect the cycle. There are various and complex factors that can lead to cycle irregularities, which are largely normal, but some of which can also have serious causes. In any case, it is important to think of the cycle as the body’s monthly feedback system that keeps you informed about your overall health.
The cycle phases
In this article, we would like to give you an insight into the different phases of the female cycle and take a closer look at what happens in the body during the individual phases of the cycle. A full menstrual cycle is the time span from the first day of the cycle (= 1st day of your period) to the first day of the next cycle. A lot happens in the female body during this period and the processes that take place can be divided into 4 different cycle phases.
How long does a cycle last?
Cycles that are 28 days long are often said to be the ‘norm’ or average, but in fact very few women have a cycle that lasts exactly 28 days. In science, cycles with a length of 24 – 36 days are considered ‘healthy’ cycles.
How can I determine the length of my cycle?
If you want to determine your cycle length, it is important to observe your cycle closely and to start recording the length of your cycles over several months. You can then calculate your average cycle length from the results.
How the female cycle works
Women who are in the reproductive phase of their life find the key to optimal health is to eat, exercise and behave in a way that optimally supports each phase of the cycle. People with female physiology experience what is known as the infradian rhythm. The infradian rhythm is one of two internal time rhythms. It is a (+/-) 28-day cycle that regulates the menstrual cycle. The other internal rhythm is the 24-hour rhythm, which is experienced by both men and women. The infradian rhythm has a strong influence on six different systems of the body:
- your brain
- your metabolism
- your immune system
- your microbiome
- your stress response system
- your reproductive system
In the course of a full cycle, the body prepares for a possible pregnancy by maturing the eggs and building up the lining of the uterus. If the egg is not fertilized, the lining of the uterus is shed during menstruation and the cycle starts all over again.
When the monthly bleed starts, the blood contained in the uterine lining and also the built up layer of the uterine layer itself flow out of the uterus and through the vagina: this process is also called menstruation.
What happens during menstruation?
Progesterone production decreases as the corpus luteum disappears. This triggers the breakdown of the uterine lining during the menstrual phase and menstruation occurs. Estrogen production peaks and then drops again. This stimulates the hypothalamus to prepare for another ovulation cycle.
How long does menstruation last?
The menstrual phase refers to the 3 to 7 days during your period. The first day of your period is the day when you notice fresh blood with a bright red color.
Symptoms during menstruation
A combination of brown spotting and bright red bleeding marks this phase. You may also experience cramps, lower back pain, tiredness and cravings. Sometimes you may feel a sense of relaxation and relief as your estrogen peak passes.
The follicular phase
Every month, eggs mature in the ovaries. The eggs are each surrounded by a protective vesicle called a follicle. The eggs are in different stages of development. Therefore, usually only one egg reaches full maturity per cycle.
What happens in the follicular phase?
The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to send follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to the ovaries to prepare for the release of another egg. In preparation, several follicles begin to swell. The estrogen increases to thicken the uterine lining to accommodate an egg.
The length of the follicular phase
The 7-10 days after your period are considered the follicular phase.
Symptoms of the follicular phase
During this phase, your physical energy increases and you may sometimes feel restless. Initially, you will notice little to no vaginal secretions, then they start to increase. They are yellowish or white in color and usually rather sticky in texture.
At ovulation, the follicle bursts and the unfertilized egg leaves the ovary and travels down the fallopian tube to the uterus. Due to contractions, it is almost as if the fallopian tube creates a suction that transports the egg upwards. If the egg is fertilized on its way, it nests in the nutrient-rich lining of the uterus.
What happens during ovulation?
A sharp rise in follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), followed by a rise in luteinising hormone (LH), also from the pituitary gland, stimulates a follicle to swell further and burst. This releases an egg into one of the fallopian tubes. This egg then travels to the uterus. Estrogen levels continue to rise, further thickening the lining of the uterus and supporting the growth of immune cells in the uterus. Testosterone levels rise rapidly and fall immediately around ovulation.
How long does ovulation last?
The 3 to 4 days in the middle of the cycle, immediately after the follicular phase and before the luteal phase, are considered the ovulation phase. Ovulation itself only lasts about 12-24 hours. This is the period during which the egg can be fertilized. A distinction must be made here between ovulation and the fertile phase, which lasts around 6 days.
Symptoms of ovulation
The vaginal discharge increases and on the day of peak fertility your cervical mucus is clear, moist, slippery and stretchy (similar to raw egg white). After the peak of fertility, vaginal secretion decreases again and becomes drier. There may be a pulling sensation with the release of the eggs and a surge of energy or a feeling of exhaustion, along with cravings or headaches.
The luteal phase
The luteal phase begins immediately after ovulation. The luteinising hormone (LH) is also responsible for the formation of the corpus luteum from the follicle immediately afterwards. The luteal phase is often also called the corpus luteum phase.
What happens in the luteal phase?
The corpus luteum (the follicle from which the egg bursts) grows on the surface of the ovary, causing it to produce progesterone. The increase in progesterone signals the body to keep the lining of the uterus intact. It also signals the pituitary gland to stop releasing follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinising hormone to ensure that only one egg is released into the uterus at a time. The estrogen level continues to rise. Towards the end of the cycle, if the egg has not been fertilized, the corpus luteum is reabsorbed back into the body. As a result, progesterone production will soon stop. Testosterone will increase towards the end of this phase.
The duration of the luteal phase
The luteal phase is the 10 to 14 days between ovulation and your period.
Symptoms in the luteal phase
Towards the end of your cycle, you may experience a decrease in physical energy and PMS symptoms – such as bloating, irritability, headaches, mood swings and cravings.