Your Menstrual Cycle 101

I don’t know about you, but the more I learn about women’s bodies, the more fascinated I become. I think it’s a large part of what drives me toward birth work and coaching women to be their strongest, most badass selves. When I was younger, I used to think being a woman was a curse. Why did we have to bleed every month while men just went about their daily lives, stain-free?

We often demonize our monthly bleed. It’s “gross.” It’s inconvenient. It’s painful, sometimes to the point of missing work or school, or at least wanting to lie on the couch all day. What I didn’t realize until I was older is that our monthly cycle is actually a powerful indicator of our overall health. It’s like the canary in the coal mine, letting us know when we’re maybe not taking care of ourselves as well as we should. When we are under stress, under-eating, or over-exercising, our wonderful bodies are sending signals that something is not right.

The reason our cycle and our stress levels are related is that our bodies are smart. Our genius bodies don’t want us to get pregnant if the world is stressful. Or if there isn’t enough food. Or if you’re constantly being chased by a tiger. When our bodies perceive stress, our ovaries don’t produce enough of the hormones required to ovulate and maintain the rest of a healthy cycle. If we’re paying attention to our body’s signals, we can get a clear picture of what is going on inside the wonderful, complex machine of our bodies.

Are you listening?

But what if I don’t want to get pregnant? I don’t care if my body can carry a baby right now!

I get that most of you reading this probably don’t want to carry a baby in the near future. So why should you care about your cycle?

Because you have not achieved optimal health until all systems are running at their best.* A healthy woman of reproductive age should be able to become pregnant at any moment. If something is off with your menstrual cycle, then you are not optimally healthy, no matter how “clean” your diet or how many times you are in the gym every week.

*I realize some of you reading this may have reproductive challenges that run deeper than the issues I will mention in this blog. I encourage you to seek out the help of a fertility specialist or functional medicine doctor with knowledge of how the reproductive system interacts with other body systems. The information below is intended for educational use and to highlight how many of our lifestyle factors can impact our fertility and therefore our long term health.

Do you bleed at roughly the same time every month (plus or minus a few days)? Do you know if you are ovulating? If your period is on a wacky schedule, extremely painful, heavy, or even extremely light, it could indicate a problem.

What a Normal Menstrual Cycle Looks Like

Many women don’t realize what a normal menstrual cycle should look like, and the complex dance of hormones required to achieve a normal cycle every month. ⁠During the first half of your cycle, your ovaries release estrogen, which causes your uterine lining to thicken. This is what creates a nice, soft implantation site for a baby. During the second half of your cycle, your ovaries produce progesterone. This causes your body temperature to rise and further matures your uterine lining to create a nice, warm, safe home for a fertilized egg.⁠

Your period should arrive 12-14 days after ovulation – no matter when you ovulate! If it takes you 30 days, rather than the “normal” 14, to ovulate, your cycle will be 42-44 days long. ⁠

A “normal” menstrual cycle will last anywhere from 24 to 35 days, with the average being 29 days. A normal bleed lasts 4-5 days, on average. If you are experiencing extremely light or extremely heavy periods, it could indicate a hormonal imbalance. ⁠

Below we’ll discuss some issues you might notice with your cycle, and what they might indicate.

Lack of Ovulation

Lack of ovulation is probably the most common – and the most often missed – cycle issue that women have. Many women believe that if they bleed, they ovulated, but this is NOT always the case! You can have a semi-regular bleed even though you are not ovulating (though your cycles may be all over the place), OR you may not bleed at all. This is called amenorrhea and indicates a major hormonal issue if it lasts longer than 3-6 months.

Here are some signs that you may not be ovulating:

  • Extremely short (<24 days) or extremely long (>35 days) cycles
  • Low libido
  • Trouble trying to conceive
  • Cervical mucus patterns that come and go multiple times in a cycle

If you are not ovulating, or tend to ovulate very late (indicated by very long cycles), this is a HUGE red flag that the body is under stress. Things that can delay or prevent ovulation include:⁠

  • Severe or chronic emotional stress⁠
  • Under-eating⁠
  • Eating an extremely low-carb diet⁠
  • Not eating a nutrient-dense diet⁠
  • Over-exercising⁠
  • Coming off hormonal birth control⁠

Stay tuned for another post about how to determine, without a doubt, that you are ovulating. If you think you may not be ovulating currently, please reach out! Remember, our bodies are constantly reacting to our environment, so one missed cycle is usually not a big deal. However, if this becomes a chronic pattern, it can indicate that something deeper is going on.

Short Luteal Phase

The Luteal Phase is the time between ovulation and the first day of your period. As mentioned above, a normal luteal phase is between 12-14 days long. A shorter than normal luteal phase indicates low progesterone (see graphic above). You might notice your cycles are shorter than usual (in the 24-25 day range), that you tend to spot before the start of your period, or that you’ve been trying to conceive unsuccessfully for several months. This was definitely something I struggled with while trying to conceive our first baby. ⁠

Signs you might have a short luteal phase:

  • Short cycle length
  • Spotting before your period
  • Trouble trying to conceive

Many different things can contribute to low progesterone (thyroid disorders being one of them), but this tends to be a sign the body is under stress. Two things I know can lead to low progesterone are:⁠⁠

  • An extremely low carb diet (carbs help your body make progesterone!)⁠
  • Overexercising (hint: don’t train for a marathon if you’re trying to conceive)⁠

If you’re struggling with a short luteal phase, let’s chat. This is something I’ve recently improved in my own health. If I can’t directly help you, I will at least point you in the right direction.

Early Ovulation

Honestly this is a new issue for me personally, and I recently learned this tends to happen more often as we age! Some signs you might be ovulating early:

  • Short cycles (24-25 days)
  • Short or scant cervical mucus patterns

In addition to age, I’ve read early ovulation can be caused by stress as well as nutrient deficiencies (and let’s face it, they’re often related!). If you feel you’re eating a balanced diet and, most importantly, eating enough, look into stress management and adding more nutrient dense foods to your diet. I’ll do a post very soon about the real “superfoods” used by our ancestors to improve health and fertility (hint: kale and goji berries are NOT on the list).

A NOTE ABOUT HORMONAL BIRTH CONTROL: If you are on hormonal birth control, you may be bleeding every month, but it is a forced bleed and you are not ovulating! Therefore your period will not be an indicator of health because the birth control is overriding your body’s natural hormones and response to your environment. This is why it can take so long to start having regular periods (and get pregnant) after you go off birth control. I’m planning to do a post very soon about how to track your cycles and use that information to either get pregnant more easily OR avoid pregnancy. This method, when used properly, is not quite as effective as the Pill, but about as effective as the male condom. It’s a great, side-effect free option if you’re experiencing negative side effects of hormonal contraception or plan to get pregnant again in the near future and don’t want to diminish your fertility.

I hope you enjoyed, or at least learned something from, this post! (Because really, who LOVES talking about periods? Well, maybe I do.) If you have any questions or noticed something I didn’t cover here, drop a comment below or shoot me an email through my contact page! I’d love to hear about your experience with different cycle issues.

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Meagan Noble Health Coach

Hi, I'm Meagan.

I'm a full spectrum doula and wellness coach helping you thrive through birth, baby, and beyond. Learn more about me here.

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Meagan Noble Health Coach
Meagan Noble

CERTIFIED DOULA (DTI)

Meagan is a full spectrum doula and wellness coach helping families follow their intuition to discover balance in family life. With her focus on ancestral practices, relaxation, and self care, she guides her clients to a calm, confident, and connected birth and postpartum experience.