Before you begin: I’ll be referring a lot to “baby making” because, let’s face it, the menstrual cycle is the female body’s means of fertility. Don’t tune out just out just yet if having a baby is not in your near future! Knowing HOW to get pregnant can also PREVENT you from getting pregnant. Oh, and cycle length can vary between 24-35 days, which is totally normal! I’m going to be referencing a typical 28-day cycle for simplicity sake.
The Nitty Gritty of Your Period.
Okay, this gets to be a bit science-y, so bear with me. Baby-making shouldn’t be an awkward, robotic act, right? Nature made sex feel good for a reason, and chances are when the mood is right and you’re feeling the urge, your body is whispering to you “let’s make a baby!” Easier said than done though sometimes. Knowing what is going on with your body, getting in tune with the signs and symptoms of fertility, and identifying the best times to “do the deed” are keys to improving your chances of conception, or preventing it. Also, understanding what a typical female cycle looks like can pinpoint potential underlying imbalances and issues that may become a hindrance to achieving pregnancy.
The phases of a “menstrual cycle”, or the time from the start of one period to the next, are critical as each phase has an incredibly important job. It is also really important that hormones are balanced with one another. If one hormone is too high or too low, it throws off the entire balance of the system.
In a typical cycle, the hypothalamus (a little organ at the base of your brain by the brain-stem) send outs GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone). GnRH is the Ring Leader when it comes to critical timing of sex hormone release. GnRH is secreted in patterned, pulse-like manner and tells the pituitary, another gland in the brain, what to do. The pituitary gland receives the signal from the GnRH pulses released from the hypothalamus and the results are the different phases of the female menstrual cycle. GnRH also sends signals to the ovaries to release certain amounts of estrogen and testosterone, which creates a negative feedback loop to ensure the cyclical pattern of the menstrual cycle.
Put simply, the hypothalamus runs the show. It shouts out to other glands in the body at synchronized times when to release hormones and how much to release. Imagine hormonal health as a symphony—everything must be timed and coordinated just right. Otherwise, it is just a big ol’ mess! Thankfully, our bodies are equipped with “feedback loops” which are built-in systems that act as checks and balances. Once one process starts, it will either start or stop another process, creating a purposeful cascade of events.
Follicular Phase (Days 1-13): When the GnRH pulses are farther apart, the pituitary gland starts to secrete follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH stimulates the follicles (little sacs) in the ovaries, which contain immature eggs, to start the maturation process of the egg. This phase of the menstrual cycle is called the Follicular Phase and is usually days 1-13 of the cycle. As the unfertilized egg begins to grow and develop into a more mature egg, it starts to secrete some of its own hormones, estrogen, that tells the body to minimize levels of FSH. At this point, the egg is mature and does not require as much FSH. When the hypothalamus receives the feedback from the more mature egg that it does not need FSH anymore, the hypothalamus changes the frequency and amount of GnRH.
Estrogen levels are pretty low at this point, but gradually begin to rise the closer ovulation gets. Estrogen’s job is to thicken the endometrial lining to prepare for possible implantation of a fertilized egg and progesterone keeps this in check by not allowing it to become too thick. Estrogen is produced by the ovaries and fat cells (more on why being overweight can lead to Estrogen Dominant soon!). While estrogen is low, you may feel a little more recluse and feel like staying close to home. As the days pass and estrogen begins to rise (closer to ovulation), you could feel a boost in mood and get the urge to go socialize more. Your memory may be enhanced, you may feel more optimistic, and have more energy. Some women report feeling a boost in their confidence and some time-lapse photos of women through their menstrual cycles appear more attractive during this phase leading up to ovulation. Testosterone also increases closer to ovulation, which enhances sex drive.
Ovulatory Phase (Days 13-16) (BABY MAKING TIME!…or not): The change in GnRH pattern then tells the pituitary gland to start secreting luteinizing hormone (LH). Luteinizing hormone is responsible for ovulation, or the time when the mature egg is released from the follicle into the fallopian tube to await for fertilization. Fertilization occurs when sperm from a man reaches the egg and successfully implants inside the egg. Luteinizing hormone (LH) is also responsible for regulating testosterone levels in women which in turn increases sexual desire around the time of ovulation. This phase, called the Ovulatory Phase, lasts from days 13-16 in a normal cycle. Actual ovulation occurs typically around Day 14. The Ovulatory Phase is the most fertile time for the female. Males are fertile all day, every day (for the most part). Timing sexual intercourse based on a woman’s most fertile days helps to increase the likelihood of fertilization.
Signs of ovulation include: increased vaginal discharge (clear and stretchy, similar to egg whites), increased sex drive, breast soreness or tenderness, heightened sense of smell, slight abdominal cramping and bloating, increase in basal body temperature.
A little note about cervical mucus: Monitoring the changes in your cervical mucus is an excellent way to determine your most fertile days. Native tribes use the saying, “plant seeds in the earth when the soil is wet”. This translated into humans means that when a woman begins to secrete more cervical mucus, she is the most fertile. You may have noticed that it looks and feels different at different points in the month (or if you haven’t, you will now!). This is because the mucus becomes more “sperm friendly” during times of ovulation so that the sperm is more easily carried into the vagina and delivered to the fallopian tubes where conception takes place. (Generally speaking, when you do not see any mucus or very scant amounts, you are not yet ovulating or ovulation has already occurred. In some instances, you may skip one or more months of ovulating depending on certain underlying conditions.) Then, a slight creamy discharge will occur and increase in amounts. Finally, when ovulation is approaching, the mucus will turn clear and a little stickier in nature. The best description of this fertile mucus is that of raw egg whites. Keep in mind that during times of arousal and after intercourse, cervical mucus may change. Some medications, including antihistamines and anti-mucosal medicines (for instance, those taken for nasal congestion), can also dry up the vagina. Finally, semen remaining in the vagina 1-2 days after intercourse can also be mistaken for cervical mucus.
Luteal Phase (Days 16-28): The part of the follicle that remains after the egg is released into the fallopian tube and awaits fertilization is called the Corpus Luteum. This hormonally active endocrine structure secretes progesterone, or the “pregnancy” hormone, to prepare the body for gestation. The progesterone secretion tells the hypothalamus and pituitary glands to reduce the amount of LH and prepares the uterus for possible implantation. If fertilized and implanted, the corpus luteum stays intact and continues to secrete estrogen and progesterone. Otherwise, the corpus luteum is shed during menses which results in your period.
Progesterone starts to elevate around this time to prepare the egg for implantation and growth while keeping estrogen levels in check to make sure the endometrial lining is not too thick. Progesterone is a sedating hormone which may make you feel a little fatigued, foggy, and cause a little sadness. The key with progesterone is balance, though, because too little progesterone can also cause the same symptoms as high levels (again, balance is key!). Blood sugar drops and spikes are more common during this phase, so be sure to eat at regular intervals and include fat and protein as most meals. Progesterone can slow down digestion a little, so don’t be super surprised if you’re constipated around this time of month.
Progesterone release causes an increase in basal body temperature which is an indication that ovulation has occurred as the body then becomes an incubator to help grow the fertilized egg into a baby. The basal body temperature should be taken at the same time each day, preferably right upon waking, as the body temperature is the most stable and lowest while sleeping. Tracking your basal temperature at the same time each day can help to identify before, during, and after ovulation. Temperatures should be relatively stable for the Follicular Phase, dip right before ovulation, peak after ovulation, and either stay elevated if pregnant or return to normal if not. In fact, I knew I was pregnant before any pregnancy test picked it up as my temperature stayed elevated all through and past my Luteal Phase! If pregnancy is not achieved, estrogen and progesterone levels will plummet and induce a shedding of the corpus luteum. The decrease in these hormones will also affect your mood, cause carbohydrate rich and fatty food cravings, and may even worsen some nagging symptoms you’ve been having, such as eczema, IBS, and migraines.
Now that you understand the complexity of the female menstrual cycle, try out some cycle mapping. You can use your cell phone, an app, or old fashion pen and paper. Also, you may consider hormonal testing to see exactly where you are!
Next, I’ll teach you the ins and outs of Fertility Awareness Method!