We’re going deep and quick into the practicalities of the menstrual cycle today. You will be introduced to new terms; you will say ‘ohhhhh’ and you will grab your 2020 diary and feel inspired to reschedule a couple of things. This is not about limiting people with a menstrual cycle because they have a menstrual cycle and covering them in cotton wool. No – quite the opposite – this is about recalibrating what we understand to be the best way to live.
Circadian, Ultradian and Infradian Rhythms
New word alert! It’s likely that you’ve heard of the circadian rhythm. The suprachiasmic nucleus in the hypothalamus receives information that comes through the retina and sends it off to a few other friends in the brain creating a roughly 24-hour schedule. Our sleep/wake cycle adheres to this scheduling as does the male-hormone cycling person! Testosterone is abundant early in the morning, meaning that they’re up for sex, working out and productive breakfast meetings. By the afternoon, they’re testosterone is lagging and will gladly take an excuse to skip the 6pm F45 session.
Ultradian rhythms refer to cycles that are shorter than 24 hours (digestion, heartbeat etc), but it’s the infradian rhythms that we’ll be fixating on. The infradian rhythm is one that is LONGER than the basic 24-hour cycle, of which the menstrual cycle belongs. That’s right – people who have or have had a menstrual cycle are on a 24-hour clock for sleep AND an infradian cycle for their menstrual cycle. This is not a fixed time period, because we know menstrual cycles look different person to person and may even differ month to month for an individual, because it is incredibly responsive to your day to day life.
Our whole society is built on circadian rhythms following that of both the sleep/wake cycle AND the 24-hour male testosterone cycles. Consider it – women gained a seat at the workforce table later than men, after systems were in place. Women have been accused of hysteria and their menstrual cycles blamed for crop failures. The menstrual cycle and women’s hormone cycles have predominantly been ridiculed and at best tolerated from time immemorial, however a little poking around will show the people and societies who have appreciated the artfulness, the sensuality, the ingenuity of women’s hormone cycles.
A different way of living
“But Caz,” I hear you ask, “How can I possibly break out of a 24 hour circadian cycle – I have a career, a family, a uni schedule, a social life. Do you want me to go into hiding for 5 out of 28 days?”
I appreciate that this sounds challenging and that right now you are probably running through your daily schedule as you read this – appointments, weekly outings, weekend commitments, a work schedule that everything else revolves around.
Before we get to the nuts and bolts, I ask you to consider how detrimental living out of sync with your hormones is. Consider how common it is to hear of women experiencing hormonal issues. If people with a menstrual cycle are constantly pushing against what they’re body is craving, it seems logical that the body would rebel.
Your menstrual cycle begins on day 1 of your bleed. If you tend to experience spotting – a little smear of blood when you wipe, or just a small amount that a panty liner will catch over the day, begin counting from the 1stday of full flow. Your hormones will be all but flat lining from day 1, with the oestrogen bumping up a wee bit from day 3.
The follicular phase (fickle follicular phase as I like to call it), is more likely to be changeable than the post ovulatory luteal phase. A dominant follicle is recruited, and its growth suppresses any others that were in the race. It is also referred to as the proliferative phase on account of the fact that everything is growing! The endometrial lining, a healthy egg, your energy and sex drive.
Ovulation is the day that an egg is released from the ovaries – common symptoms experienced include thick, viscous, egg-white like cervical mucus which might be experienced as slipperiness when wiping in the toilet. Energy and libido may increase and you’re feeling your sunniest.
The luteal phase is the most fixed time period of the menstrual cycle. There is a very specific physiological process which occurs that takes around 12-16 days. This is a part of how apps try to pretend like they know when you’re ovulating, because they assume you are ovulating 14 days before then end of your cycle no matter what the length. If your cycle is 29 days, the app will predict you are ovulating on day 15. If you have a 46 day cycle, the app will predict ovulation on day 32 etc etc. This is not necessarily the case – please don’t trust apps for predicting your fertile window.
|Day 1-5 (duration of bleed)||Menstruation||Winter|
|Day 6 – ovulation||Follicular phase||Spring|
|The big O! Day 10-16 roughly||Ovulatory Phase||Summer|
|Post ovulation – menstruation||Luteal phase||Autumn|
Your daily prompts*
- What day of my cycle am I on?
- Which phase of my cycle am I in?
- Which season does that relate to?
*you may not want to ask all 3 questions, but you are free to move through them or commit to those which resonate with you.
Why are you making me track my cycle – I just want my period to come and go and to not think about it
Whether your period is a no-brainer and totally relaxed or a bit of nightmare at the moment, knowing a little bit about what to expect in each phase of your cycle can be enlightening and a little bit fun (honestly). So, what you’ll be doing is living in both circadian AND infradian rhythm as the female-hormone cycling person is supposed to. You’ll be respecting the events that are occurring in your body and by virtue of that, doing a lot for your hormone health.
Your bleed is the time for rest. Don’t feel guilty; don’t make up excuses. Rest can take many forms – you might like to say no to a social engagement and pick up a book, take a break from social media, take in some nature. You might even like to consciously speak less! You may feel quite wintery the day before your period begins, so include it if you like. In an ideal world we would spend day 1 at home, at rest. Eating warm, nourishing foods to make up for the resources we are losing. Perhaps not possible in your lifestyle, but perhaps it is. If you have a say when the meeting will be held, hold off until day 3 if you’re able. The oestrogen rise will give you the bump you need to perform better.
Your follicular phase. The bleed has finished, follicle-stimulating hormone is on the rise and you are moving toward the summer of ovulation. As discussed above, this is the time for growth! Your creativity and self esteem will be blossoming, there is a feeling of lightness and motivation so indulge in things that INSPIRE you. This is the time to get projects pumping and move through blocks. If you’re fond of high intensity exercise now’s the time. You may even find that foods that sometimes disagree with you, don’t affect you at this time.
Ovulatory phase! This is it! The hard-out euphoria of ovulation is the best time to schedule important meetings. You’ll feel confident, creative and energized. As this phase progresses, your energy increases, your libido rises, your skin starts to glow and any outfit you put on looks amazing, because you FEEL amazing. Your body is essentially primed to make a baby, so it is trying to nudge you in that direction (so clever). When things are humming along nicely you’re feeling fine, sassy and everyone on the tram looks attractive.
Your late luteal phase is the time when we turn inward and PMS can kick in. Autumn can be quite changeable between people. You may only experience a few days of autumn; you may have a 2 week autumn if you suffer from a condition called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Trade in high intensity exercise for walking or yoga. As though going into hibernation, plan your time, projects and life, tying up loose ends where you’re able, so that you can slip peacefully into your delicious Winter den.
This article is an introduction for people who have hitherto not engaged in their cycle. There is so much to share and explore within our bodies and I highly recommend that you tap into what your body is saying to you. The two tools of knowing where you are in your cycle used in tandem with your intuition can be refreshing and revitalizing. So do one thing for me. Write down the day that you begin your bleed in your calendar and keep half an eye on any changes you feel as you move through the seasons. Step into the infradian dream.
Carolyn Butler is an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine herbalist at Angea. She is a lover of books and writing and is on a quest to solve the problem of menstrual shaming for future generations and to build up the Chinese medicine profession in Australia.