The down low
OK, let’s start breaking things down. Now that you’re up to date on your lady parts and inner anatomy, it’s time to see how it all works together and keeps the cycle going. Your menstrual cycle officially starts on the first day of your period, and it can take anywhere between 8 days to a month before you ovulate, but averages at roughly 14 days. The determining factor in how long this can take is based on how quickly your body reaches an oestrogen threshold…. (Learn more about your unique rhythms here)
Four hormones create the dance of our cycles: FSH, Estrogen, LH, and Progesterone. The underlying principle being that your body prepares for a potential pregnancy every single cycle, whether or not you actually want to conceive.
Alright, one step back, we kick off our cycles with the Follicle stimulating Hormone (FSH), which stimulates between 15-20 eggs each cycle, causing them to start maturing in each ovary. Each egg is encased in its own follicle, which produces oestrogen. Part of oestrogens job is to ensure ovulation, where one ovary releases an egg from the dominant follicle.
Did you know that ovulation doesn’t necessarily alternate between ovaries, as is commonly believed? It’s literally based on which egg dominates first…and according to Toni Weschler’s Taking Charge of your Fertility it’s pretty arbitrary which side releases the egg.
High levels of oestrogen trigger a surge in Luteinizing hormone (LH), the hormone responsible for causing the dominant egg to burst through the ovarian wall – this is what we call ovulation – within 1-2 days of its peak. The phase from Day 1 of your cycle up until ovulation is called the follicular phase, which can vary in length quite considerably based on many factors from stress to nutrition to medication to … making your cycle a crucial gauge for your all round health.
Tip: Check out how you can influence your hormonal health, PMS, and energy levels by adjusting your nutrition, and scheduling according to your cycle, with Alisa Vitti‘s awesome book: Woman Code
So now the egg has popped out into your pelvic bowl and immediately gets swept up by the fimbria of the fallopian tubes. The follicle that released the egg, remains at the ovarian wall, and collapses on itself, becoming corpus luteum (check the diagram above). It has a very finite life span (important info here!) of 12-16 days, averaging at 12 days – this is called the Luteal phase of your cycle, lasting until Day 1 of your next cycle.
Illustration: ‘Menstruation’ Junko Mizuno
Ladies, this means that the day of ovulation determines the length of your cycle, and that if ovulation was delayed due to stress or other reasons, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re pregnant.
Very occasionally the fimbria doesn’t manage to suck in the egg, so pregnancy wouldn’t be possible at those moments either no matter what you do, or don’t do. Once the egg is in the fallopian tubes, it will stay alive for a maximum of 24 hours. If fertilization doesn’t occur, then it will disintegrate and get quickly absorbed back into your body. It’s as simple as that!
Please take a moment to recognise what this means: You can only get pregnant for 1-2 days out of your full cycle. ONE to TWO DAYS!!!!! That’s it. It’s science girls.
Back to the corpus luteum. It starts releasing progesterone, a crazy important hormone for a woman’s fertility, as it: prevents the release of other eggs that cycle; triggers the uterine lining to thicken and sustain itself for the luteal phase; and changes 3 primary fertility signs: the waking temperature, the cervical fluid and the cervical position.
So that’s the menstrual hormone story. Almost done giving you body basics, so in the meantime, get more in tune with your own cyclical rhythm with a little exercise I whipped up here: Know your Flow.
© Juel McNeilly
Featured Blog Photograph: Yung Cheng Lin
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