The 4 phases of your menstrual cycle explained
For the last 20 years, whenever I thought of my period, I only thought of the week I’m bleeding and the pain that preceded it. I was never able to separate that pain from what was actually happening in my body nor was I ever aware that there was a whole cycle involved - that my body was in a constant state of waxing or waning. (Yes, like the moon.)
Over the past few months, I’ve been keeping closer track of my full cycle and making an effort to pay attention to what my body needs in times of hibernation (menstruation), desire for new experiences (follicular phase) and full-on social butterfly (ovulation phase). The more information I had about what was going on in my body - like being able to FEEL when my egg is released - the less anxiety I felt about any new changes or pains. And more importantly, the less guilty I felt about wanting to be a recluse one week and feeling energized and social the next.
This is why I’m so excited to partner with Gabrielle Lichterman, founder of Hormonology and author of 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life Moods and Potential to walk us all through the four phases of our cycle and what we might expect during those times.
A menstrual cycle is a roughly four-week span of time when three key hormones—estrogen, testosterone and progesterone—rise and fall in a specific pattern.
Depending on how high or low these hormones go and the direction they’re headed, they impact you in a wide variety of ways, for instance, your mood, energy, love life, spending habits, sleep quality, food cravings and health.
Day 1 (first day of period) to Day 7: Estrogen rises
During your first week, estrogen starts out at its lowest point and begins a steady climb. For the first day or so of this cycle week, the low level of this hormone combined with period-related aches and fatigue may make you a bit quiet and have you preferring to stay close to home.
However, as estrogen rises throughout this cycle week, this hormone will be boosting your mood, energy and patience and ratcheting up your desire for adventure and to socialize.
You become more and more optimistic and motivated, your verbal skills and memory improve and it’s easier to absorb new facts and learn new skills.
For some women, these hormone-fueled benefits kick in quickly; for others it takes a few days or longer. It depends on your personal sensitivity to hormone fluctuations as well as if you’re eating enough iron-rich foods to make up for iron loss as you bleed during menstruation. (When iron dips, it can trigger fatigue, fogginess and a down mood. If you’re not getting enough iron in your diet, ask your healthcare provider if you can take an iron supplement.)
Some other effects to look forward to in your Week 1: You have more interest in romance and your libido climbs steadily. As a result, you may seek out ways to meet new people or spend more time with your current partner.
You’re also building more muscle and building it faster when you do resistance exercises, such as lifting weights or using resistance bands, due to rising estrogen.
Rising estrogen also has a slight appetite-suppressing effect, which makes it a bit easier to eat smaller portions and opt for healthier foods.
You may find that chronic or recurring health issues, such as asthma, eczema and irritable bowel syndrome, crop up at the start of your Week 1. This is because, even though your estrogen level is climbing daily, you still start out with a relatively low level of this hormone. However, as estrogen continues to climb throughout this week, symptoms generally lessen.
Day 8 to ovulation (which is Day 14 in a 28-day cycle):
Estrogen and testosterone rise till they peak
Estrogen continues to rise all throughout your Week 2 and, as it does, it revs all the positive effects you experienced during your Week 1: Your mood, energy and patience continue to increase, you crave adventure and new experiences and you’re happiest when surrounded by lots of people and engaged in conversation.
High estrogen also makes you braver, more confident and ready for a challenge. You’re thinking quickly and learning new facts and skills more easily.
During this cycle week, you’re more coordinated and have faster reaction times, your verbal skills peak and you’ve got a sharper memory.
High estrogen triggers a greater output of pain-masking endorphins in the brain, which means uncomfortable activities—such as going to the dentist or getting a flu shot—will hurt less this week than during other weeks of your cycle.
The high level of this hormone is also making you more self-assured about your appearance. In fact, estrogen is actually boosting your attractiveness by prompting subtle shifts in soft tissue that make your facial features slightly more symmetrical.
You tend to be a bit less hungry due to rising estrogen’s slight appetite-suppressing effect. During ovulation, research shows your appetite drops even further, leading to eating less than during any other time in your cycle. You’ll find it’s also easier to opt for lighter, healthier foods since estrogen increases willpower (boosting your ability to resist temptation) and revs your motivation to reach good-for-you goals.
You build more muscle and build it faster when you do resistance exercises during the first half of your cycle—your Week 1 and Week 2—compared to when doing them in the second half of your cycle—your Week 3 and Week 4—thanks to rising estrogen.
One other hormone that’s key in your Week 2 is testosterone, which rises during the latter part of this week. When that happens, it tends to make you more impulsive, daring and competitive. Your libido is high all during your Week 2, however, when testosterone spikes, it boosts your libido even higher.
One downside of your Week 2: Some women experience anxiety or greater stress during this cycle week due to high estrogen triggering excessive arousal in the brain. Meditation, yoga, moderate aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) and chamomile tea all help reduce this hormone-fueled anxiety.
Begins the day after ovulation and lasts 8 days (which is Day 15 to Day 22 in a 28-day cycle): Progesterone rises; estrogen and testosterone drop the first half this week, then estrogen rises again
Your Week 3 is really a two-parter: During the first half, you can experience a “pre-PMS” phase. The symptoms are like a shorter, less intense version of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and may include irritability, fatigue and a down mood. Like PMS, this pre-PMS phase is also caused by plunging estrogen. While most women are aware that estrogen plunges once in their cycle—in the six days before their period—not many realize there are actually two estrogen dips every cycle (see chart above).
Luckily, by the second half of your Week 3, estrogen rises again, putting a stop to any annoying pre-PMS symptoms you’ve experienced, which helps level out your mood.
Progesterone rises throughout your Week 3 and, as it does, it slows you down and makes you quieter, more cautious and a bit foggy and physically fatigued. That’s because progesterone is a sedating hormone. If you’re sensitive to progesterone, this can be a cycle phase when you experience bouts of sadness or crying.
During your Week 3, progesterone has you craving favorite comfort foods that are high in fat and calories. Your appetite is also greater and you’re hungrier more often, so you tend to eat more at meals and snack more frequently. All this is because your body thinks you might have gotten pregnant during ovulation, so progesterone wants you to eat enough for two.
If you eat too little during this cycle phase (because you’ve skipped a meal or didn’t eat enough at a meal), you run the risk of experiencing a dramatic shift in mood that leads you to feeling angry or sad. That’s because many women are more sensitive to drops in blood sugar during this cycle week due to progesterone. Simply eating regularly and at the first signs of hunger pangs can help fix this and keep your mood stable.
Other side effects of progesterone: It can trigger constipation because it slows down digestion as a way to help your body absorb more nutrients from food in case you got pregnant. And, it prompts water retention, causing temporary bloating.
On the upside, you’re burning up to 30% more fat when you exercise thanks to the combination of estrogen and progesterone making your body more efficient at using fat for fuel. Bonus: Exercising reduces hormone-triggered water retention by helping you sweat out excess fluid.
Your libido tends to drop significantly as a result of progesterone. However, research shows this same hormone makes you feel emotionally closer to your mate, so you may crave more hugs and hand-holding.
Final 6 days of your cycle:
Estrogen and progesterone plunge
Estrogen drops throughout your premenstrual Week 4 and the lower it goes, the more it has the potential to drag down your mood and make you sad, irritable or anxious.
However—and this is a big “however”—not all women have bad moods during their premenstrual weeks. Depending on your genes and how healthy your lifestyle is (if you’re getting good sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly and destressing), you could have just a little or no premenstrual grumpiness or you could be hit with many bouts of bad moods.
Regardless of what type of mood issues you experience, generally, plunging estrogen can make you more cynical, pessimistic and critical since it has you focusing more on negatives than positives. Because of this, you’re more wary, which makes you prefer safe or fully tested options over anything that’s unconventional or new, for example, when choosing a restaurant, you’d likely pick one where you’ve eaten dozens of times already rather than one where you’ve never been.
Surprisingly, this typically isn’t the most tired week of your cycle. That honor goes to your Week 3 when rising progesterone saps your pep. Research shows that as the level of this sedating hormone goes down in this cycle week, you get a bit more energized.
During this cycle week, your libido returns—though technically that’s not due to hormones. Researchers believe it’s because nerve endings down below get stimulated as your body prepares for menstruation.
Descending estrogen can trigger cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods, such as sweets, pasta and bread. The reason? As the level of this hormone drops, it drags down levels of mood-moderating serotonin in the brain—and carbohydrates help replenish it, so your body pushes you to eat more of them.
Progesterone is descending during this week, however, because it’s still at relatively high levels, you’ll likely still feel the urge to eat foods high in fat and calories and have a greater appetite.
Looking to keep your weight in check? You burn up to 30% more fat during aerobic exercise up to a couple of days before your period due to the combination of estrogen and progesterone firing up your body’s fat-burners.
You may find that chronic or recurring health issues, such as asthma, eczema and irritable bowel syndrome, worsen during your Week 4. This is due to a low level of estrogen. Talk with your healthcare provider about symptoms that re-appear regularly at certain times in your cycle since many treatments can be tailored around these hormone fluctuations to prevent them ahead of time.
Gabrielle Lichterman pioneered the growing movement to live in sync with your menstrual cycle and learn all the ways that your cycling hormones impact your moods, health and behavior with her book, 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life Moods and Potential, and her Hormone Horoscope apps. She offers free tools and tips that make every day of your cycle better at MyHormonology.com.