Its important to understand your menstrual cycle and the stages that take place during the month too. Most people experience a 28 day cycle (give or take a day here or there), but some cycles can last from between 21-35 days.
The NHS advises that it’s common for periods to be anywhere within these ranges, so don’t worry if your cycle isn’t 28 days exactly.
What's an irregular menstrual cycle?
Not everyone experiences a regular menstrual cycle, and this has be not only frustrating, but upsetting too- especially if you’re trying to get pregnant. If you do experience irregular cycles, its important to remember that this doesn’t always mean there’s anything wrong. If you’ve just started your periods or if you’re approaching menopause, hormone imbalances could play a major role in your cycle being unpredictable.
Likewise, medical conditions such as Endometriosis, PCOS, Uterine Fibroids and Pelvic Inflammatory Disease can also cause your periods to be irregular. If you’re concerned about your cycle, always speak to a doctor to find out what’s happening.
Time between periods
The length of time between periods refers to your cycle length. Most women bleed for around two to seven days in total, but again this varies. The first two to four days are usually heavier, with most experiencing a lighter flow for the remaining days.
Your first period
Your first period can occur anywhere from the age of around 12, but some will start earlier and some will start later than that. Usually, your period will have started by the time you’re 16 years old.
Your last period
The transition towards menopause is called perimenopause, and during this time your body will start to produce less and less oestrogen. As the levels of oestrogen fall, ovulation becomes unpredictable and you’ll experience missed or more irregular periods.
Eventually, the ovaries will stop producing oestrogen altogether. You’ve reached menopause when you haven’t had a period for 12 consecutive months.
Stages of a period
Day one of your cycle is the day that your period appears and you experience blood flow from your vagina. Period blood is made up of an unfertilised egg, along with vaginal fluids and tissues from the lining of your uterus.
There are four stages of a period:
Your cycle begins on day one of your period. An unfertilised egg is released from the body along with other tissues and fluid, and the muscles in the uterus wall contract to aid it’s release.
Lots of women also experience painful cramps in the abdomen at this time too. This is normal, and due to the contractions in the uterus triggering the production of prostaglandins, which in turn trigger a pain response.
During your period, you lose around three to five tablespoons of blood, although it can seem like a lot more!
As menstruation starts, the follicular phase also begins, and this stage lasts right up until ovulation takes place.
During this stage of your period, Follicular Stimulating Hormone (FSH) starts to stimulate the ovaries to produce follicles. One of these follicles will mature and develop an egg. It will also trigger the ovary to start producing oestrogen.
The rise of oestrogen in the body causes the lining of the uterus to thicken, and the mucus in the cervix also changes- becoming more stretchy and thinner in consistency.
Although usually only one egg will develop enough to be released, sometimes more than one can reach full maturity. If this happens, a multiple pregnancy can take place.
Ovulation takes place around day 14 of your cycle, and it’s the shortest stage- lasting just one day.
During ovulation, the mature egg is released from the ovary as oestrogen levels reach their peak, and Luteinising Hormone (LH) also rises sharply. The egg then travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. If conception occurs, the egg will implant into the thickened wall of the uterus. If no pregnancy occurs, the egg will die and be absorbed into the body.
During ovulation, you might notice that your vaginal discharge changes, becoming thicker and with an egg white consistency. Some women also experience abdominal cramps during this stage of their cycle. This is normal, but speak to your doctor if you experience intense pain.
Once ovulation is complete, your cycle moves into the luteal phase, which lasts for around 14 days for most women. During this time, progesterone starts to rise, and oestrogen begins to fall. The lining of the uterus remains thick, in preparation for a pregnancy.
At this time, FSH and LH also start to decrease, and the follicle which released the egg starts to close, and to form a corpus luteum. This is the action that triggers the rise in progesterone and causes the lining of the uterus to thicken further, ready for a pregnancy.
If the egg isn’t fertilised, the uterus lining will then start to break down, aided by uterus contractions and subsequent tightening of the endometrial blood vessels. The endometrial tissue is released, along with with vaginal fluids and the unfertilised egg as your period, and the cycle begins once more.
What is PMS?
As all of these changes are taking place, the fluctuating levels of hormones can also have an effect on other parts of your body and your emotions. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) refers to these changes.
You night feel moody, irritable, anxious, teary, tired a week or two before your period. You might also experience bloating, period acne, headaches and sore breasts too. This is perfectly normal, and something many women experience, to varying degrees.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) is similar to PMS, but sufferers experience the symptoms a lot more intensely, and they can sometimes disrupt their normal everyday activities.
Physically, you might experience:
- Sore breasts
- Weight gain
- Mood swings
- Food cravings
If you’re concerned about PMS symptoms and you feel like they’re interfering with activities you usually enjoy, speak to your doctor about what can be done to help.
How to ease PMS symptoms
There are medicines that can help to ease PMS symptoms, and there are natural remedies that could help too.
Some hormonal birth control methods can help to ease PMS symptoms, and your doctor might also suggest antidepressants too. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy might also be beneficial. Make an appointment to discuss the treatment options available.
There are various natural remedies that could help to ease PMS symptoms. Some women report that herbal treatments are useful in treating PMS.
You could try:
- Gingko to reduce breast tenderness and mood swings- research shows that extracts can ease both physical and emotional symptoms of PMS.
- Dandelion leaf for bloating- known to reduce digestive distress and reduce water retention.
- Chasteberry (Vitex Agnus-Castus) for breast pain- known to reduce symptoms by up to 50%. Combined with St. Jonh’s Wort to ease depression, anxiety and cravings, particularly for menopausal women.
- Evening Primrose Oil for breast soreness.
- Magnesium and Vitamin B6 for fluid retention, mood swings and sore breasts.
There are also lifestyle changes that could help to ease PMS symptoms. Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet and avoid alcohol and processed foods. It’s also a good idea to eat smaller portions to reduce bloating and to avoid worsening cramps.
Gentle exercise, relaxation techniques and prioritising sleep can also be hugely beneficial. Studies have found that PMS symptoms can worse when we’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious, so take steps to reduce stress as much as you can.
The bottom line on your menstrual cycle
Having a period and experiencing changes in your hormones is not easy, and at times can be very frustrating.
Take time to understand what’s normal for you in relation to your period and emotions, and if you have any concerns, or your periods are affecting your day to day life, then seek medical advice.
What is the menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle is made up of four stage: menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase. Each stage of your cycle is controlled by hormones, which fluctuate throughout.
The start of your cycle takes place on day one of your period and ends on the last day before your next period.
Most menstrual cycles last for around 28-35 days and will follow the same pattern each time. If a pregnancy occurs during ovulation, the cycle will be paused and periods will be skipped until after birth.
What are the four stages of the menstrual cycle?
The four stages of the menstrual cycle are:
- Menstruation: this begins on the first day of your period.
- Follicular phase: follicles are formed on the ovaries to develop an egg.
- Ovulation: the mature egg is released and travels down the fallopian tubes.
- Luteal phase: the unfertilised egg is reabsorbed into the body and eventually released as part of your next period, marking the start of the next cycle.
For most women, the time between periods is around 28-35 days. Some will have longer cycles, and some will have shorter cycles. Find out what’s normal for you by tracking your cycle using an app or a calendar.
During your period, your body sheds uterine lining and vaginal fluids, along with an unfertilised egg. This flows from your vagina and is helped along by uterine contractions, which cause the blood vessels to constrict. This in turn prompts prostaglandins to trigger a pain response.
At the same time as your period, the follicular phase begins, ready for the next cycle. Follicles develop on the ovaries thanks to a rise in oestrogen, and eventually one egg will develop on one of these follicles.
As the follicular phase progresses, progesterone also starts to rise, and the uterus lining begins to thicken ready for a pregnancy. Ovulation takes place at the end of the follicular phase and lasts for one day. During this phase, progesterone rises further as the egg travels down the fallopian tube.
After ovulation, if no pregnancy occurs, levels of oestrogen and progesterone fall and the egg is reabsorbed into the body. The cycle ends when the uterus once more begins to shed its lining, along with the unfertilised egg. This is the start of your next period, and the first day of your next cycle.