Your menstrual cycle can reveal a lot about you and holds the key to your health and wellness. The hormones in your cycle affect more than just period—they affect your mood, your energy levels, the way you exercise, what you eat, your sex drive and more. Here are 5 things you may not know about your female cycle, according to Heba Shaheed (aka The Pelvic Expert) who we had the pleasure of meeting at Fitbit Versa’s Female Health Tracker launch not too long ago:
It may come as a surprise to you that 80% of women don’t know how many phases are in a menstrual cycle, according to a recent Fitbit survey.
The first half of the menstrual cycle is known as the follicular phase, and lasts about two weeks. This includes the menstrual phase, which is when you have your period, and the week after, in the lead up to ovulation. During the follicular phase, an egg cell in the ovaries matures into a follicle, which secretes a hormone that stimulates the uterus to build up the uterine lining.
The ovulation phase is when the ovary releases the mature egg into the fallopian tubes. The second half of the cycle is known as the luteal phase and starts after ovulation and ends just before the next period. In the luteal phase, the egg cell stays in the fallopian tubes, and if a pregnancy does not occur, the egg cell breaks down followed by the uterine lining breaking down in the lead up to the period.
Many women know the benefits of exercise for mood, energy, weight control and even for helping with menstrual cramps. However, the type of exercise and how much exercise you do can affect the regularity of your menstrual cycle.
Over-exercising can cause a condition called amenorrhea, which is when your periods disappear. This is more common in athletes, avid gym-goers and especially in women who are underweight. It’s important that women have a balanced approach to fitness, and complement high intensity workouts with relaxation, meditation and nutrition.
Contrary to popular belief, periods are not meant to be painful. Period pain could be a sign of hormonal imbalances such as low progesterone, excess estrogen, excess prostaglandins, inflammation, or a condition such as endometriosis.
Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women and is the presence of abnormal tissue that resembles the uterine lining in places inside and outside the pelvis. This abnormal tissue bleeds and behaves the same way as the uterine lining during a period but there’s nowhere for it to leave the body so it builds up causing inflammation, scarring, adhesions, pain and infertility.
Periods should last approximately 3-7 days and the bleeding should be bright red, fading out into a lighter pink colour. Many women experience spotting before and after their periods, or at other points in their menstrual cycle which can be brown or black. This is usually the remnants of old blood from previous cycles.
Our menstrual cycles are regulated by normal changes in hormones. Many women notice changes in their menstrual cycles when they are stressed. Some women miss a period, or their cycle becomes longer, and some women have more frequent periods when they are stressed.
It comes down to the changes in your stress hormone, cortisol, and the cascade on other hormones. When a woman is stressed, the body prioritises the production of cortisol, burning through progesterone. You need healthy levels of progesterone for a regular menstrual cycle. Too much ongoing stress can also lead to conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, and can make period pain and conditions such as endometriosis worse.
Women can manage their stress and balance their hormones by improving their sleep habits, practicing mindfulness or meditation regularly, engaging in moderate amounts of exercise and eating a more plant-based whole foods diet.
Heba Shaheed is co-founder and CEO of The Pelvic Expert (thepelvicexpert.com), a digital wellbeing platform specialising in maternal, menstrual and hormone health. Heba was inspired to work in the space following her own challenges with 15-year history of chronic pelvic pain and endometriosis. A qualified physiotherapist, nutritionist and exercise specialist, she has supported more than 2000 women to better health and wellbeing. The Pelvic Expert provides holistic and research-based, women-focussed, online wellbeing programs to corporates, private health insurers, workplaces and individuals.