Understanding your menstrual cycle can take away a lot of the confusion and irritation it causes – if you know what your body is doing and why it makes it easier to compensate for it, and to get on with your life, or, to identify the right time to take advantage of your cycle if you’re trying to get pregnant!
It all hinges on ovulation. Your ovulation cycle is the key to understanding what your body is doing through each month (or nearly: most cycles last around 28 days).
The First Stage
The first step of your menstrual cycle is known as the Follicular Phase. In this phase, luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulate your ovaries to prepare 15-20 eggs. They begin to grow toward maturity in small, fluid filled sacs in the ovaries, and towards the end of this phase, one will dominate as the healthiest, most mature egg. The others painlessly reabsorbed by the body, and the final egg swells towards maturity and fertility.
In a final burst of LH, the mature egg is ejected from the ovaries and begins to travel down the fallopian tubes.
From that key moment of ovulation when an egg is released, there are two important things going on in your body: firstly, your body is preparing to receive a fertilised egg, by creating a thick lining in your uterus. This is known as the luteal phase.
While your hormones marshal your body’s resources to create a welcoming environment for that potential fertilised egg, the egg itself is travelling down your fallopian tubes. It remains fertile for up to 24 hours, depending on its health (so if you want to improve your chances of getting pregnant, improving the health of your eggs is vital. Eating more green vegetables, taking vitamin and mineral supplements and of course giving up smoking can give you healthier eggs within three month. Sperm will see a similar improvement in a similar time scale). Sperm can survive around four days in your body so that gives you a window of around five days in which intercourse could result in a fertilised egg and then pregnancy.
If a fertilised egg embeds in the thickened endometrial lining, then your body ticks forward into it’s pregnancy preparations, ready to grow that egg into a foetus and then a baby over the course of nine months. If it doesn’t, it’ll shed that lining along with the inert egg in a period, and then prepare to begin again immediately.
The average cycle length is 28 days but they can vary widely, from 21 days to 35 in some women. If you have PCOS they can be even longer, and irregular into the bargain, so understanding your cycle length gives you a vital insight into what’s happening in your body.