The process of learning how to navigate and support my hormonal cycle has been a process of deep surrender. Everyday my emotions, my symptoms and my cravings are different. When I think I’ve got a firm hold on how to “manage”, something new reminds me that this whole journey is about accepting that I can never fully control the fluid and ever changing rhythms of my body. Surrender to the process.
With the expectation that I will never fully understand my hormonal cycle, I still find that noticing patterns and adjusting my expectations to compliment those patterns has been an important way for me to collaborate with my period. The two things I’ve found most helpful so far have been learning that my body is craving what my body is needing, and that understanding the intricacies of my cycle's multiple phases empowers me to better navigate the day to day, the spectrum of highs and lows.
Many people have been learning over the last few years about the four phases of the cycle - Follicular, Ovulation, Luteal, Menstruation. While I still find this four phase approach very helpful, it can fail to articulate the primary phases (Follicular and Luteal) and also leaves so many days unaccounted for. It’s somehow too simple and also not simple enough, and can often lead to false interpretations of which phase is when and how to navigate those phases based on the complex hormonal processes that are constantly occurring.
When we think about the menstrual cycle, most of us were taught about the obvious climax of our cycle: the bleeding phase. It’s not subtle, it demands your attention. Some of us were taught to manage and just deal with it, some were taught through curiosity and celebration. Regardless of the tone, it was talked about to some degree, therefore we are equipped with the ability to know when we are (or should be) bleeding. The second phase that some of us are familiarized with is ovulation. Spirits are high, energy levels can peak or maybe you experience painful cramping that feels out of context because bleeding is still weeks away.
Both of these phases act like bookmarks, signaling the start of what I consider the two primary phases of the hormonal cycle: Follicular Phase and Luteal Phase. Follicular, which describes the process of the ovarian follicles maturing, begins on the first day of bleeding and ends at ovulation. Luteal, which describes the forming of the corpus luteum, begins at ovulation and ends when you bleed. I find that this two phase approach is broad, but it tells the clear story of the hormonal processes that occur during a monthly cycle, unfolding like a narrative.
The body bleeds, shedding the uterine lining developed during luteal, and then begins the process of maturing a follicle to release an egg all over again, which will possibly be fertilized during ovulation. In anticipation of a fertilized egg, the corpus luteum produces a hormone called progesterone, which is needed for sustaining a pregnancy. If the egg is not fertilized, the body bleeds and sheds, beginning the narrative once more.
We can see the collaboration between follicle and luteum, working together to create an environment for a fertilized egg to attach to the uterine wall successfully. Ovulation and bleeding act as the events that mark the transition from follicular to luteal. Another way to think of it is imagining an infinity symbol, with follicular/luteal as the loops and ovulation/bleeding as the connecting point in the center.
Grounding myself in the understanding of the two primary phases allowed me to more easily understand the four phase approach. However, I quickly found that this didn’t fully encompass the spectrum of experiences I was having throughout the month, namely that my shifts and fluctuations felt less like bleeding, a stretch of time, ovulation, a stretch of time, etc. Rather, my cycle and it’s undulations occur in 3-5 day intervals.
This makes the several weeks that act as transitions (bleeding to ovulation to bleeding) challenging to navigate, because while ideally I’d love to plan things out like meal planning or self care a few weeks in advance, my hormones tend to ask me for more fluidity and day to day check in’s. So I started thinking about what it would be like to break these four phases down even more into bite sized pieces.
Turns out our bodies do indeed change as often as every 3-5 days, especially during follicular and luteal. In fact, researchers use terms like Early Luteal (EL) and Late Luteal (LL) to distinguish the phases. Approaching the cycle in eight complete phases might be more work to learn and understand, but it offers deeper insight into the processes our bodies are experiencing and therefore make it possible to follow an intuitive method for tracking. When we break up the cycle into eight phases, we have:
Bleeding - Early Follicular - Mid Follicular - Late Follicular - Ovulation - Early Luteal - Mid Luteal - Late Luteal
This approach has offered me more room to utilize my intuition and my cravings, because I can focus on the few days before me. I certainly still step back and plan out on a larger 28ish day scale, but knowing right now that I am in Early Follicular and that phase has a specific kind of energy increase (aka slow and steady) is incredibly useful in helping me determine how I will care for myself the following three or so days. It’s also been ideal for meal planning and grocery shopping, because I am checking in with my cravings more regularly.
Rather than surrendering myself to a 10-14 day pre-bleed and post-bleed, I am able to surrender to the moments before me and slowly over time plan further out as I become more and more aware of the larger picture. I’m so thankful for all the existing resources that use seasonality and the four phase approach to educate us about hormonal cycles, but ultimately I want the information to feel in depth and empowering, not just a sequence to memorize. The more I learn, the more I realize how much my body, psyche and emotions have already been guiding me through the months and months that I’ve had a cycle, gently revealing to me how to interpret the patterns and surrender.