Do you always dread the arrival of your period? Hate the low mood, fatigue, acne, and pain you have to go through each month? Just the thought of getting our periods can fill us with frustration, but it’s time we thought about our periods from a different angle – the menstrual cycle is more than just the menstruation phase, and what our bodies do is in fact amazing!
The most common 3 things we learn about our menstrual cycle at school and why it is not good enough
We probably all have memories of biology classes in school, learning about the menstrual cycle, simply as a reflection of the reproductive capabilities of the female body.
1. The menstrual cycle is a recurring process of around 28 days, during which the lining of the uterus is thickened in preparation for the implantation of a fertilised egg.
2. If this implantation doesn’t happen, the lining is shed, and Voila! we have our period.
3. We learn that this cycle is controlled by the rise and fall of various hormones – in particular, oestrogen and progesterone.
But since most of us don’t aim to get pregnant each month, we are left wondering why we must suffer the oftentimes negative effects of these hormones in vain. What we don’t learn is that these hormones have a much more widespread effect on our bodies than just on the reproductive system - and so much of it is positive.
What we should be learning about our menstrual cycle at school!
From the first day of your period (i.e. the first day of your cycle), and throughout the first half of your cycle (the follicular phase), oestrogen levels are on the rise. The great thing about this is that oestrogen receptors can be found in areas of the brain which are linked to cognition and emotion, as well as reproduction*. So, apart from repairing, thickening, and maintaining the uterus lining, oestrogen regulates the production of serotonin, or the “feel good” chemical, making us feel more focussed, emotionally stable, and happier. You might therefore find that you are more motivated, sociable, and confident at this point in your cycle. You might simply want to go out more with your friends, or you might even feel more inclined to take on a new challenge – perhaps a new exercise class. And if you do, you’ll recover better, as oestrogen is also essential to the repair and regeneration of muscles*.
In the second half of your cycle (the luteal phase), after ovulation, progesterone begins to rise. Though its primary function is to support early pregnancy, progesterone, again, does so much more than just that. Progesterone calms our central nervous system down, helping to improve our mood and sleep, and has even been shown to reduce sensibility to pain*. You might find yourself in a state of zen, unbothered by an annoying sibling, or entirely lacking that sense of dread and anxiety you normally have about picking up a phone call from an unknown number.
As the level of both hormones tails off in the last days of your cycle, – the few days before your next period begins – their positive influences wane and leave a void, causing the multitude of negative symptoms women tend to report in the premenstrual part of their cycle, from irritability to severe lower back pain*. This is the part that really sucks. But it would be unfair to wholly disregard all the wonderful emotions and experiences your cycle facilitates on account of this phase. Bottom line - the arrival of your period is an affirmation of your health and fertility.
And, while no one should suffer in silence, the stress, physical or mental, posed by your period can even offer you a chance to check in with yourself and take some rest – journaling and gentle movement, such as walking, and yoga are great options for this phase. (https://fablittlebag.com/blogs/news/dealing-with-your-emotions-during-your-period)
Armed with this knowledge, you can view each stage of your menstrual cycle as part of a whole and meet each one with an attitude of acceptance and respect, ok, well at least better understanding!!
The Importance of Having A Functioning Menstrual Cycle
On that point, the reality remains that our cycles can be painful and stressful, and they affect how we feel on a daily and weekly basis. But oestrogen and progesterone are also really quite magic hormones and incredibly important to our overall, lifelong health. Oestrogen builds bone density, maintains cardiovascular health, and supports our immunity*. As for progesterone, it aids the maintenance of breast, cardiovascular and cognitive health*.
With a range of functions which impact so many areas of our lives, it’s clear that our periods are part of a cycle which is fundamental to our well-being, so reframing the irritation of monthly bleeding by focussing on the bigger picture can allow us to make peace with it, and let it run its course.
What Can I Do To Better Understand My Own Menstrual Cycle?
Knowing what a normal and healthy menstrual cycle looks like is a great first step, but noticing and understanding your unique experience of your cycle is even better. Using a period app to track your cycle is a brilliant way to do this, as you’ll not only gain an understanding of when to expect your period, and know when to pack a sanitary pad, tampon, FabLittleBag (https://fablittlebag.com/collections/fablittlebags), or other period products, but you can also make note of any symptoms you tend to experience at each stage of your cycle. (https://fablittlebag.com/blogs/news/get-to-know-your-cycle-the-benefits-of-using-a-period-tracking-app) Knowledge is power - You can then harness this knowledge both to help your productivity, by scheduling your hardest tasks for the most suitable phase, and to practice more self-compassion, avoiding any feelings of panic and shame at your sudden lack of desire to socialise or increased cravings for chocolate. Just listening to your body can revolutionise your relationship with your period.
Our attitudes and the attitudes of those around us to periods often affect our experiences of the actual thing. (https://fablittlebag.com/blogs/news/dos-donts-how-to-celebrate-your-daughters-first-period) So, get curious, learn the ups and downs you experience, work with, not against, your body, and you can begin to more fully appreciate – and even love – the power of your cycle, and feel more prepared for whatever it might throw at you!
*The Female Body Bible, Dr Emma Ross, Baz Moffat and Dr Bella Smith