As athletes, we know how frustrating period symptoms can be. The headaches, the fatigue, the cramps – and we’ve still got to go out there and give it our all! With all that, it can seem like our periods are doing nothing but holding us back. Ultimately, however, menstruation is a natural process that is incredibly important. The natural cycle of hormones in our bodies has implications for various physiological systems – cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and more – and unnatural disruptions to the cycle due to underfueling or overtraining can have serious and sometimes long-lasting consequences. We’d love to get into this in more detail (and we will!), but for now we’re going to focus on providing a quick overview of the menstrual cycle so that you can better understand your body.
What is the Menstrual Cycle?
The menstrual cycle is a monthly process that our bodies go through in preparation for pregnancy. It involves a series of hormonal changes and physical events that take place over approximately 28-35 days, depending on your body. It’s perfectly normal for cycle length to be different from woman to woman, and even from month to month! No matter how long, though, the cycle can be divided into three phases: the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Let’s briefly go through each one.
The Follicular Phase begins with menstruation, when the body sheds the endometrial lining of the uterus and starts to bleed. Initial hormone levels are low, but they begin to rise as the ovaries create new follicles and the uterine lining is rebuilt. Each follicle contains an egg and produces estrogen.
Ovulation occurs approximately halfway through the cycle when estrogen levels surge. During this 24-hour period, one mature follicle releases an egg so it can travel from the ovary to the fallopian tube, where it can be fertilized.
The Luteal Phase is when the ruptured follicle (i.e., the one that released the egg) turns into a structure called the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum keeps our hormone levels high by producing estrogen and progesterone, which is a hormone that helps maintain the uterine lining and prepares the body for pregnancy. If fertilization doesn't occur, then hormone levels drop, the uterine lining deteriorates, and the cycle begins again.
It’s important to note that if you are on a form of hormonal birth control such as an oral contraceptive, your cycle is fundamentally changed. Some birth control pills, for example, reduce the amount of estrogen your body intrinsically produces so you no longer go through the peaks and troughs of high and low hormonal levels. Instead, the pill maintains a constant level of estrogen through doses in the daily pill. So far, there is no consistent evidence that this artificial cycle has negative side effects, but you should consult a medical professional with any questions or concerns you may have.
Why is this important?
Understanding the phases and functions of the menstrual cycle means we gain valuable insights into our own health. It can empower us to make the best decisions for our bodies on a day-to-day basis, tailoring our nutrition and training to ensure that each workout is maximized. Most importantly, though, learning about the menstrual cycle helps us realize that it is a natural process. Periods are easy to villainize because of their inconvenience and (admittedly tough) symptoms, but they are a necessary piece of a vital biological system. Losing your period, though seemingly harmless and convenient, can have very serious consequences for your overall, long-term health. If you have questions about your cycle or if it seems irregular, you should talk to your doctor. In sum, periods are a sign that the natural mechanism of your menstrual cycle is working properly. They are a sign of health, vitality, and power – even though it may not feel like it at the time!
Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog post is for educational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for personalized guidance and care.