It is ‘that time of the month’ and you may have harbored since long, many questions about this monthly phenomenon. But either felt shy to ask people or never really found someone you’re comfortable enough with to address your doubts. This article aims to take you on a personal guided ride through the Menstrual Cycle and clear many queries women have about the changes they experience during their monthly cycle and help them cope with the various emotions and experiences they go through.
Many women commonly refer to the term “Period” as a synonym for menstrual cycle. But in reality there is a lot more happening in your body, all through the month, which collectively forms the menstrual cycle. A normal menstrual cycle is a well coordinated cycle consisting of simultaneous hormonal changes, mood changes and physical changes in the ovaries and uterus, which results in the release of a mature egg from one of the two ovaries. The egg then enters the fallopian tubule and waits to be fertilized after an intercourse.
All this occurs is in preparation for pregnancy. In case the egg does not get fertilized, the lining of the womb (uterus) is shed causing bleeding through the vagina.
‘Menarche’ marks the beginning of a young girl’s very first period and occurs during early teen years around 11-14 yrs. Parents and school teachers must encourage young girls to talk to them in these times so that they do not develop false fears and embarrassment. Initially the monthly cycle may be irregular and erratic. There is no need to fret as your body is slowly adjusting to the changes.
Gradually, the monthly cycles become progressively regular and eventually women in their mid 40’s attain ‘Menopause’ which marks the end of menstruation or in simpler terms the end of their reproductive period.
An average cycle lasts 28 days though this could vary from woman to woman (21-35 days). As mentioned earlier, several hormones are at play during the menstrual cycle and are chiefly responsible for the various associated changes. Menstruation includes many phases:
Menstrual Phase (day 1-5): Also called menses, menstrual bleeding or period. It is usually a sign that you have not become pregnant. So, your uterus is shedding its soft tissue lining and blood vessels along with the unfertilized egg, in the form of menstrual fluid. The bleeding lasts for 5-7 days, during which you may experience painful abdominal cramps because the uterine muscles are contracting actively in order to expel the menstrual fluid.
In addition, lower back ache, food cravings, irritability and mood swings, headache and fatigue are also experienced. You can take the following measures to cope up with these discomforts:
Follicular phase (day 1-13): This phase begins on the first day of your menstrual bleeding. Your pituitary gland in the brain is begins secreting follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which helps the egg cells in the ovary grow and mature. Gradually, one egg will mature in a sac called follicle. The follicle then secretes a hormone, estrogen, which stimulates the uterus to develop a lining called endometrium.
By the 5th day, you must be done with your period and feel a lot more relaxed , social and optimistic, because of the high levels of estrogen which is associated with increased activity of serotonin, a feel good ‘happy chemical’ in the brain. Estrogen also causes a surge, leutenizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland, which results in ovulation.
Ovulation phase (day14-15): By day 14 of the menstrual cycle, the LH levels will reach their peak and then fall. This rise and fall of LH causes release of the mature egg from ovary. This release is called as ovulation. The mature egg is captured by finger-like projections of the fallopian tubes. The mature egg travels into the fallopian tube and here it waits to get fertilized sperm. This waiting period lasts for a maximum of 12-24 hours.
So don't be surprised with the various emotions and thoughts you experience around this time. Your hormones make you feel highly adventurous and impulsive. Several studies have shown that all this happens to further the reproductive process for the end goal of species propagation. Therefore, a man and woman feel highly attracted to each other at this time!
You must have understood by now, that these 2 days during the ovulation phase are when a woman is most fertile and has high chance of becoming pregnant. So unless you are planning to start a family, do make sure you use contraception during these days to avoid unwanted pregnancy.
Luteal phase (day 15-28): This phase begins after ovulation. It lasts about 14 days (unless fertilization occurs) and ends just before a menstrual period. The ruptured follicle begins to secrete progesterone. This hormone thickens the uterus lining, filling with fluids and nutrients to nourish a potential embryo. In addition, high levels of estrogen also help the uterus lining to remain thick. High levels of estrogen and progesterone widen the milk-ducts. So, breast tenderness is also experienced due to the surge of these hormones. The egg remains alive in the fallopian tube for 24 hours after its release from ovary. If a sperm fails to impregnate the egg during this time, the egg disintegrates.
Premenstrual syndrome or on a lighter note the term, ‘Please Men run for Safety!’ As the estrogen and progesterone levels drop if the egg hasn’t been fertilized then chances are you might be suddenly enveloped by many complex weird feelings including depression, irritability anger or sadness. Specialists suggest swimming, listening to music, yoga, meditation, gardening and indulging in your favorite foods as effective ways to combat the symptoms of PMS.
Plan Your Pregnancy According To Your Menstrual Cycle: A quick look
The knowledge about monthly periods may help you to understand that there are days when the chances of getting pregnant are most. Utilize this knowledge to your benefit, and plan your sexual activities accordingly!
The menstrual cycle is a series of changes that your body undergoes to prepare for pregnancy. Your hormones control your menstrual cycle. It is from Day 1 of bleeding to Day 1 of the next time of bleeding. Normally the average cycle is 28 days, but you may have a cycle that is shorter or longer. About once in a month your uterus grows a new lining called endometrium to get ready for a fertilised egg. When there is no fertilized egg to start a pregnancy, the uterus sheds its lining. This is the monthly menstrual bleeding that you have from early teen years until around age 50.
At the beginning of your cycle, the pituitary gland in your brain produces follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone produces fluid filled cavities called follicles. Each follicle contains an undeveloped egg. The FSH stimulates a number of follicles to develop and start to produce the hormone estrogen. As the number of follicles begins to grow, one follicle becomes dominant and matures into egg.
Once the egg has been released it moves along the fallopian tube towards the womb. The process of releasing egg is called ovulation. This is the fertile phase of your cycle where you are most likely to become pregnant if you have sex on the day that you ovulate or the day before, because the egg lives for 12-24 hours where as the sperm lives for 2-3 days.
If the egg is not fertilized, the womb no longer needs to maintain an environment to support a developing embryo. The body then gets ready for the next cycle by shedding the thick womb lining which was built. This is the start of your period and the beginning of next cycle.
The ‘Fertile window’ refers to the days of your menstrual cycle, when pregnancy is possible. If you have a 28 day cycle, with ovulation typically happening on day 14, the ‘fertile window’ starts on day 12. If you have longer cycles, say 35 days between periods and ovulation happens on day 21, the ‘fertile window’ starts on day 19. If you have very short cycles, say 2 days and ovulation happens on day 7, your ‘fertile window’ would start on day 5.
The safe period refers to the window period where you are less likely to get pregnant if you have unprotected intercourse. For a 28 day menstrual cycle, this safe period falls between day 1-7, when you are bleeding.
If your normal menstrual cycle is of 28 days, only days 8 to 19 are considered fertile where you are likely to have a baby through unprotected intercourse, all other days are safe. The cycle is considered to begin with the first day of bleeding and ends when the bleeding starts again. If you have irregular cycles and the cycle length varies it is better to use condoms or other contraceptive methods like the oral pill to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Best days to conceive!
The best time to conceive depends on the length of your menstrual cycle. The ‘fertile window’ in the menstrual cycle is the five days leading up to ovulation, when the egg is released from the ovary. If you have 28-day menstrual cycles, with day one the first day of the menstrual period, the best time you try to conceive is day 12-14. If you have shorter cycles of 21 days, the best time you to try to conceive are day 5-7. If you have longer cycles of 35 days, the best time you to try to conceive are day 19 -21.
There are 5 phases in a normal menstrual cycle:
1. Bleeding phase: The start of the bleeding phase is first day of the menstrual cycle. Bleeding pattern varies from female to female. It can last from 2 to 8 days but on average are 4 to 6 days.
2. Pre-fertile phase: Once the bleeding stops, you may have a few days as a pre-fertile phase. During the pre-fertile phase, lining of the uterus starts to thicken and at the same time, a group of eggs in the ovaries starts to ripen.
3. Fertile phase: The fertile phase is the time during which you can conceive and become pregnant.
4. Releasing an egg (ovulation): During this phase the female ovulates and releases a mature egg from one ovary. You may be able to predict ovulation day by counting the days of your cycle, if your menstrual cycle is regular. For example, if you have 28 day cycle then you will release an egg sometime around day 14 (ranging from days 12 to 16 of your cycle). If you have 26 day cycle then you will release an egg sometime around day 12 (ranging from days 10 to 14 of your cycle). If you have 35 day cycle, you will release an egg sometime around day 21 (ranging from days 19 to 23 of your cycle).
5. Post-fertile phase: After ovulation period, the post-fertile phase of the menstrual cycle starts. The post-fertile phase lasts for about 14 days (ranging from12-16 days) until the bleeding starts again.
Unsafe period means fertile time. Unsafe period refers to the time when you can get pregnant.
The safe period refers to the duration in which the woman is less likely to get pregnant and can have
unprotected intercourse. Safe period falls between 1-7 days of the period and from day 19 to the start of the next cycle.
Various methods are available for finding the safe period:
1. Calculation of safe period:
The menstrual cycle varies from female to female and it may be of 26 to 31 days. The safe period is calculated to avoid pregnancy. The method of calculation is as follow, for longest cycle days minus (-) 10 days gives last day of fertile period. For smallest cycle days minus (-) 18 days gives first day of fertile period.
For example if menstrual cycle of woman varies from 28 to 30 days. Therefore, 30-10= 20th day is the last day of fertile period and 28-18=10th day is the first day of fertile period. The rest other days are safe period during which you are less likely to get pregnant and can have unprotected intercourse.
2. Temperature Method:
You should record body temperature every morning, just after awakening. The temperature should not be taken after brushing teeth or drinking tea. You should plot a graph daily. The curve comes in shape of a valley between two mountains. The curves give idea about post-ovulatory infertile (safe) days. Low temperature is observed during actual menstruation, subsequently it rises, at the middle of cycle there is fall in temperature followed by a rise. This rise indicates ovulation has occurred. Sperm life is 4 days and ovum life is 2 days. If you have sexual intercourse before 4 days to 2 days after ovulation, then there are chances of you getting pregnant. As per the body temperature graph, you should avoid unprotected sexual intercourse during ovulation period.
3. Cervical Position Observation:
The position of a woman’s cervix changes throughout the menstrual cycle. The cervix is low and firm like the tip of nose during and in the first few days after menstruation. The cervix begins to move up, become more soft, wet, and open when the wet cervical fluid begins. During ovulation period, the cervix is most open. The cervix returns to the firm, low, and closed position after ovulation.
For cervical position observation, you should wash your hands then insert your middle finger, and feel your cervix for height, wetness, opening, and softness. A plastic speculum is helpful in the beginning while doing the cervical observation. You should check your cervix at the same time of day and in the same position.
4. Cervical Mucus Monitoring:
Cervical mucus consistency changes throughout the menstrual cycle. Cervical fluid monitoring gives you an idea about safe period. First, you should wash and dry your hands well. You should find a comfortable position. Insert one finger inside the vagina. Remove finger from the vagina and observe the consistency of the mucus. Consistency of the mucus can check by pressing fingers together and then slowly moving them apart. Sticky or scant mucus indicates you are probably not ovulating yet. Creamy mucus indicates ovulation may be coming, but not just yet. Watery, wet, and slightly stretchy mucus indicates ovulation is very likely close. Very wet mucus, which stretches between your fingers for an inch or more, and resembles raw egg white, indicates that your cervical mucus is very fertile. You should avoid unprotected intercourse during this period to avoid pregnancy.
By using all the methods such as, calculation of safe period method, temperature method, cervical position observation, and cervical mucus monitoring method you can find out the time duration during which conception is not successful.