FEWE CREW: How to make your cycle work for you with Zoe Williams
14th October 2021
Understand the magic of your cycle and to harness it with our FEWE Crew member Zoe Williams.
As a woman I have personal first-hand experience of ‘having periods’ for most of my life. Throughout my life they've changed somewhat, from being extremely painful in my teens, to now being more associated with anxiety and mood change.
As a GP I've heard hundreds of accounts of how menstruating can impact on people’s lives. From heavy bleeding, and pain that some experience to nausea, tiredness, bloating, acne, headaches, brain fog, mood disturbance, inability to concentrate, insomnia – the list goes on. Periods can have a huge effect on people’s lives. And we are all different, so period symptoms will vary vastly from one to the next. Having said that, as a general rule of thumb, the vast majority of us would agree that the first week of our menstrual cycle (day 1 is the day your period starts) is not a time when we feel ‘at our best’. If it were within our power, we would probably not choose to take that exam, run that race, or even celebrate our birthday in that first week.
However, it seems crazy to me that only now, are we really starting to understand more, and consider how we might feel different in the other 3 weeks. As scientists we know the pattern of how hormones change throughout the whole menstrual cycle and how those changes have potential to affect us with everything from energy levels, to pain tolerance and sleep quality and with that we see trends in how people feel, function and perform at different stages of the cycle.
A normal cycle length is anywhere between 21 and 40 days, but the average is to have a period every 28 days. So, for the purpose of ease, let’s consider a menstrual cycle as being 4 weeks long and break it down in 4 phases.
Menstruation (day 1-7ish)
The first phase is menstruation. This is when the lining of the uterus is shed, so we are bleeding (usually lasts between 3-8 days) and may have period pains. During this phase the brain is producing gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) which tells the ovaries to mature follicles (which have potential to become eggs). These developing follicles also signal oestrogen to be produced. During this time the brain is more susceptible to pain, and emotions can be heightened too, but it is a good time for our brain to do focussed thinking.
The first phase is a bit like winter, you may want to slow down, rest and be gentle with yourself. A good time for planning and thinking ahead.
Follicular phase (day 8-14 ish)
The second phase is called the follicular phase. It usually lasts from the end of menstruation till ovulation, around day 8-14. This phase is called follicular because it is when the follicles are developing thanks to FSH, as one reaches maturity, the others start to die off and this signals the release of luteinising hormone. This phase can feel like spring, re-emerging from hibernation. The hormones are likely to help us feel at our best, our skin and hair seems to ‘glow’, pain threshold is higher and psychologically we have a boost of drive and confidence. A great time to push yourself in the gym and book up your diary with the hardest tasks of the month.
Ovulation (day 15-21ish)
The ovulatory phase is around day 15-21. LH and oestrogen peak and at their highest level an egg is released. Once the egg is released these two hormones start to dip and progesterone rises. This phase of the cycle is like summertime. You’re likely to feel bright, experience higher sex drive, have an increased appetite and feel as though you want to go out and party. Towards the end of this phase memory can be less focussed and you might benefit from starting to wind down.
Luteal phase (day 22-28ish)
If a pregnancy has not occurred you then enter the fourth phase, which is the premenstrual phase or luteal phase (day 22-28). The body produces progesterone and levels of FSH and LH drop as they’re no longer needed. In this phase you’re more likely to feel the typical symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) – which include headaches, bloating, breast pain, anxiety and low mood. This phase of the cycle is like autumn, everything can feel a bit grey and lifeless. Energy levels are likely to dip and if you’re not able to take time to yourself away from the demands of the world you may find yourself feeling irritable and short-tempered. Best not to overpack the diary and schedule in some me-time for self-care. Reading a book, long baths, a massage or walks in nature – whatever works for you. A good time to opt for more restorative forms of exercise like yoga or pilates.
I always say that knowledge is power, and that is absolutely true when it comes to hacking our hormones. So instead of that light bulb moment each month when our period comes, for example “Ah that’s why I’ve been irritable for the past 2 days!” We can progress towards tracking, pre-empting and understanding our own biology and making it work for us, rather than against us.