Quick question, gang. Do you consider your period the end of a cycle, or the start? Well, you might be surprised to learn that the first day of your period is actually the first day of a new menstrual cycle. And that’s not the only surprise hidden in the world of periods…
Your period: The lowdown
Let’s get the basic bits out of the way nice and early. Periods are officially the first phase of your Menstrual cycle. And, as you probably already know, that cycle mostly involves the regular fluctuations of the hormones that control not only your periods, but also your PMS and your fertility.
These fluctuations follow a similar pattern for most people with periods, which means we’re able to break the cycle down into four distinct phases. They are:
- Your period. This stage concerns the sloughing off of your uterine lining; also known as Menstruation or the Menstrual phase.
- The Follicular phase. Rising hormone levels signal to your ovaries that it’s time to start maturing a group of eggs.
- Ovulation. Once a dominant egg is chosen and fully mature, it’s released into your Fallopian tube.
- The Luteal phase. If conception takes place following Ovulation, this phase is concerned with prepping your uterus for housing a fertilized egg. If not, then it preps your body for PMS and your period.
Each of these phases can be characterized by its distinct hormonal, physical, and emotional effects. And together, they make up the entirety of your Menstrual cycle.
How long does this all take?
All told, your Menstrual cycle can range anywhere from 21 to 37 or so days. In fact, anywhere in the timeframe is considered typical. Generally, medicine uses a 28-day timetable, because it’s easy as opposed to necessarily accurate. So, in a 28-cycle, the first day of your period is day one of the Follicular cycle; Ovulation happens around the mid-point, day 14 or so, and then the Luteal phase would last until the first day of your next period.
Most of us will experience cycle length variation at some point, and everyone’s normal is different. If, though, your cycle is 45 days or more, or if your periods are so irregular that they’re impossible to predict, it might be worth talking to a healthcare type to rule out any underlying causes.
When does my period actually start?
So far we’ve talked very generally about periods and what’s going on. Now, it’s time to get a little more granular. As we mentioned, the first day of your period is the first day of a new cycle, but even that isn’t as simple as it sounds. Where periods are concerned, they haven’t officially started until you wake up bleeding. So an afternoon or late evening appearance won’t count until the morning. It has to be a full day of bleeding to be considered day one.
From there, all things being equal, your cycle keeps moving, until the next time you wake up bleeding. So if that happened on day 29, it now becomes day one and your cycle was 28 days long.
Periods themselves can last up to seven full days, but generally, the length will be specific to you. And if you’re taking the pill, we should point out that you won’t have a period at all while you’re using it. The bleeding that you might see every 28 days or so is actually the result of withdrawal from the hormones. IUD users can also see regular non-period bleeding, and that can be down to a thinner, less stable uterine lining.
Now, as anyone who’s ever had a period will know, they’re incredibly complicated, supremely delicate, and easily disrupted. And while we’re all going through the same mechanics, it’s the difference in levels of hormone fluctuations that make periods different for everyone.
So, on the day you wake up bleeding — hope the sheets are okay — your hormones are likely to be pretty low across the board. But some of them will also be starting to slowly climb, and that starts on day one of your period. Here’s how that breaks down.
Hormones and periods
How many times have you heard the phrase, “It’s your hormones!” whenever something menstrually-related comes up? Well, where periods are concerned, it’s actually true. It really is your hormones.
At the start of your cycle, Progesterone should be pretty low. It comes to the fore during the second half of your cycle, or the Luteal phase, and drops just before your period starts. Progesterone is mainly concerned with your uterus and its potential to house a fertilized egg, so it thickens the lining around Ovulation.
If conception takes place, Progesterone continues to work, making sure the fertilized egg has a safe place to land. And if no conception occurs, levels drop, leading to the breakdown of your uterine lining, PMS, and your period.
Your period isn’t just a sophisticated waste disposal mechanism. It’s also part of the signal to your brain that it’s time to begin the reproductive cycle again. Which means your Follicle-Stimulating Hormone, or FSH, levels start to climb, nudging your ovaries into action and encouraging them to grow this month’s group of potential eggs. That starts on day one of your cycle and continues until just before Ovulation.
As your ovaries respond to rising FSH levels, a group of follicles begins to grow, producing Estrogen. And those Estrogen levels keep climbing as the follicles mature, heading toward Ovulation. During this phase, FSH and Estrogen form a feedback loop, each responding to the other until a single egg reaches maturity and is released during Ovulation.
Admittedly, Prostaglandins aren’t technically hormones, but they’re very similar and intimately involved with your Menstrual cycle. During your period, Prostaglandin levels are higher as they help control the uterine contractions you likely experience during your period. Here’s the thing: The higher the Prostaglandin level, the more severe your cramps will be.
During your period, there are a few different things going on in your uterus. The first is that the lining, or endometrium, has broken down and is starting to leave your body. The bulk of your period is made up of these endometrial cells, alongside some blood.
In order to help that process along, your uterus contracts, thanks to the aforementioned Prostaglandins. And that can, in and of itself, be deeply uncomfortable. But those contractions can also have a knock-on effect on the blood vessels in your uterus. Higher Prostaglandin levels can make those contractions last slightly longer than is necessary, squeezing your veins and cutting off the supply of oxygen to your uterus. This lack of oxygen only increases period pain.
The thing is, medicine has no idea why some people’s Prostaglandin levels are so high that they cause severe pain, while others feel barely a twinge. Because, periods, right?
Alongside the cramps and bleeding, many women also experience a wide range of physical symptoms. Side effects can include, but are in no way limited, to:
- General muscle pain
- Joint pain
- Sore breasts
- Digestive issues
- Dry skin
As always, though, your physical reaction to the hormonal fluctuations during this phase will likely be entirely individual to you. And chances are, it’ll change a few times over the course of your reproductive life.
Now, while we’re generally told that the biggest emotional upheaval of a cycle comes before a period. But, for a lot of women, that simply isn’t the case.
Many find that levels of anxiety and depression increase during this phase, alongside tearfulness and a general tendency toward mood swings. Fatigue, sleep disturbance, and stress can also start to creep up. And, just to really top it off, if you’re living with hormonal or mental health issues, your period probably increases your symptoms.
Why is that happening? Well, one of the major reasons, and we hate to sound like a broken record but… It’s, er, your hormones. The incredible amount of ups and downs, in a hormonal sense, around the start of your period can absolutely have a knock-on effect on your emotional wellbeing. The drop in Progesterone, Estrogen, and FSH just before bleeding starts is powerful and for many, the slow climb at the start of the new cycle simply isn’t quick or big enough to counteract the lingering effects of lower hormone levels.
For some, though, bleeding signals the release from PMS and all the associated symptoms, slowly increasing energy and motivation levels.
Pregnancy and periods
Real talk, gang. Regardless of what you may have heard, it is entirely possible to get pregnant during your period. It’s incredibly rare, but it does happen. Admittedly, some very particular conditions have to be met, and it’s all down to the unpredictability of ovulation mixed with cycle length. Let’s say you have a 21-day cycle and bleed from day one to day seven.
You’ll probably ovulate around halfway through, anywhere from day seven to day 12. That means, if you ovulate early that month, and have unprotected sex with a man at the end of your period, you could conceive while bleeding. Then there’s the fact that sperm can live in your vagina for seven days, and your fertile window, the time when your egg is in the right place, can last two days. All of which means that periods do not prevent pregnancy. You have been warned.
Dealing with period symptoms
Chances are, you’ve become incredibly well-versed in dealing with your own period symptoms, because you’ve been doing it for years. But we all need a little reminder now and then, so here are a few useful tips for handling anything your period can throw at you.
Heat. Whether a pad or a hot water bottle, heat therapy can work wonders for cramps, and has the added benefit of being portable. For total body therapy, you can’t beat a long soak in the tub, a hot shower, or, yes, even a sauna.
Exercise. Gentle exercise, including yoga, can help relax those contractions and ease stress as well as release some of those fantastic endorphins.
Sex. This one tends to divide the crowd. Some women find orgasm helpful for cramps, some find penetration works just as well, while others would rather put a pen in their eye. All are equally fine. But please don’t put a pen in your eye. Netflix works just as well.
Pain medication. Paracetamol, as well as NSAIDs like ibuprofen, can help with pain, cramps, headaches, and the like. But always follow the directions on the packet, and please don’t ignore severe pain. Please talk to a healthcare type if the painkillers consistently don’t work.
Diet. This is generally where we tell you to cut down on alcohol, processed fat, carbs, salt, and sugar. Because great nutrition is good for your hormones. But honestly, during this phase, if some chocolate or a couple of slices of pizza makes you feel better, you do you.
Rest and relaxation. Sleep is a powerful restorative, so trying to get as much as you need during your period is important. Your body is working hard during this phase and needs some shut-eye. Gentle yoga, or some breathwork, can help you drift off, or lower anxiety in the moment, increasing relaxation. We also recommend aromatherapy, including lavender, for a calming atmosphere.
Periods. They’re always changing
And there you have it! Our very general guide to what’s going on during your period. From hormones to symptoms, never forget that your period is exactly that — yours, in whatever form that takes. But, as always, gang, if things change drastically, pain becomes severe, or bleeding gets extremely heavy, please tell someone. You’re best placed to know when something’s not right, and ignoring it is not an option.
Periods are your fifth vital sign, and a really good barometer of your overall health. And as much as they can be a bloody pain — pun intended — they’re also a necessary, natural part of our lives. For a while, anyway. So until Menopause, let’s treat our periods with the affection they deserve!