Ever get a sudden sharp pain that feels like a tiny angry elf kicking through your ovaries? Or feel like you’re grappling with bloat more than your fair share? Being a lady is tough sometimes, and our bodies go through a whole lot each month. Understanding what’s happening in your cycle week-on-week can alleviate unnecessary worry and make your month a little comfier.
The average cycle lasts 28 days (but anywhere from 21-35 days is normal) and consists of two phases: the follicle phase, defined as the first day of your period until ovulation, and the luteal phase, which is from ovulation till your period arrives.
The follicle phase is all about getting the follicles (teeny, tiny sacs that house individual eggs) ready to mature and release an egg (yep, just one).
The luteal phase preps the uterine environment for the safe and successful development of the fertilised egg. Or, if an egg isn’t fertilised, resetting the uterus for the next time around.
The Follicle Phase
Days 1-5: Menstruation
Your cycle actually starts on the first day of your period. We know, right? Pain and suffering don’t seem like the optimal way to start any ongoing cycle.
At this stage, your endometrial cells produce hormone-like chemicals called prostaglandins, which stimulate the shedding of your uterine lining and start menstruation. What does this mean for you? Cramps. Ouch.
Once your period starts, your pituitary gland starts producing follicle-stimulating hormones to get the maturation of a new egg in motion. In the meantime, your ovaries are pumping out estrogen to ensure the uterine lining is primed and ready for a fertilised egg to take hold next time around.
You’ll also be feeling the knock-on effects of some PMS symptoms, like bloating. While the causes of bloating related to your cycle are varied, peak bloat usually occurs on the first day of your period. Tough day.
Once menstruation finishes your body goes into full prep mode for ovulation.
Most of the egg follicles have been reabsorbed into the ovaries except one, and the pituitary gland releases luteinizing hormone, which will work to prepare the singular remaining egg follicle to burst and release the matured egg.
You can also feel happier, calmer, and more frisky at this stage of your cycle as estrogen and testosterone levels increase.
Our body’s tricky little way into coercing us to have sex when we’re most fertile.
The Luteal Phase
Day 14: Ovulation
The day your reproductive system has been waiting for. The mature egg is released and travels down into the fallopian tube.
The abandoned follicle sac shrinks away and a crucial increase in progesterone occurs – aiming to strengthen the uterine wall. With it comes a likely increase in poor moods and even depression in some studies.
It’s not uncommon during ovulation to feel discomfort in your lower abdomen, ranging anywhere from a dull cramp to sharp pain. This is called “mittleschmerz,” meaning ‘middle pain’ in German.
It’s also normal to experience some spotting around ovulation due to increased hormone levels. Don’t mistake this for a period. This mid-cycle spotting occurs around your most fertile time, so if you’re not wanting to fall pregnant, it’s good to know what you’re experiencing.
If you’re susceptible to sore breasts (known as cyclical mastalgia) during PMS, this will begin to occur as the increasing progesterone levels cause your milk ducts to swell. Discomfort can range anywhere from pain, swelling, fullness, heaviness, or increased size, and usually peaks around 3 to 7 days before the start of your period.
If the egg is unfertilised at this stage it will break down and the levels of estrogen and progesterone will drop.
As hormone levels drop, your body begins producing prostaglandins. We all remember what those result in, cramps. Ouch.
This is also when your body may begin to retain fluid to help the process along, so let the bloating begin!
Stay a Step Ahead
It can feel a bit frustrating knowing that literally half of the month we’re susceptible to feeling a bit shit. That’s why it really pays to understand how your body and moods are affected by your cycle, and for this, we can’t recommend tracking your cycle enough.
Not only will it mean no surprises when that time of the month comes around, but it can ensure that when an unexpected feeling does arise, like a random day of ‘cramping’ mid-cycle, you are equipped with the knowledge of what’s actually occurring.
Plus, knowing what’s coming means you can make any necessary lifestyle adjustments to help ease the discomfort or at the very least, know when it’ll pass.
Knudtson, J., McLaughlin, J. Female Reproductive Endocrinology. Gynecology and Obstetrics, 2019.
Maybin, JA., et al. The presence and regulation of connective tissue growth factor in the human endometrium. Human Reproduction, 2012.
Mishra, S., Marwaha, R. Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. StatPearls, 2018.
Skovlund, CW., et al. Association of Hormonal Contraception with Depression. JAMA Psychiatry, 2016.
Dasharathy, S., et al. Menstrual Bleeding Patterns Amongst Regularly Menstruating Women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2012.
Westmead Breast Cancer Institute, 2018.