We get them in early adolescence after a short chat from our teacher we’re shown some confusing pictures of an upside down V shaped thing with some tubes coming off it and told one day we’ll bleed out of it. ….and we go back to maths class.
GCSE biology makes things clearer (if you took it). 28 day long cycles, yada yada, 14 day egg released half way through yada yada and period. Literally.
I never quite thought about how those 28 days applied to me and just went with it when my period turned up assuming all of that unknown biology was doing its own thing without me getting involved much.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And we’re going to show you how to get that control back over what the hell your periods are doing and how to track them. Never be caught unawares again whatever your age! Just bear with us for a little biology and a bit of self fingering….
How your body works (roughly):
This your uterus. Say hello! (she is waving back)
At the bottom of the uterus is your cervix which sticks down into your vagina -you can feel if you put two clean fingers into your vagina and feel around upwards in a gentle pinching motion (it goes to say – always wash your hands before venturing here ladies). Personally I find it easier when sitting to find it, but have an experiment.
The cervix is AWESOME. It changes position and creates different types of mucus depending on where you are in your cycle. When you’re not fertile it creates a sticky or creamy type mucus and stays shut and very low and ‘hard’. If you have kids it opens to fit a baby’s head through it. A BABY’S HEAD. That’s how bad ass this thing is.
When you’re about to ovulate it gets higher and softer (sometimes it’s impossible to locate it’s that high), opens wider and releases a mucus which is like egg whites. You can actually stretch it between your fingers up to 6 inches (try it – it’s gross but oddly satisfying). This stuff is designed for sperm to swim through it to reach your egg which should be released imminently.
More on mucus later.
In the middle is your uterus. This always has a lining of one kind or another made from blood, fluid and tissue .
On either sides are your fallopian tubes with ovaries on the ends. Your ovaries are tethered down with small tendons that keep them in place. It’s here that the magic happens…
First things first your period ends. Hurahh! And you enter the first phase of your cycle.
This phase is dominated by the hormone estrogen. It’s what tells your body you’re over your period and are ready to start maturing some eggs.
Enter the ovaries. They are made up of many different follicles (getting the reference to ‘follicular phase’ now?) and they chose the best eggs to mature and then ‘grows’ it in the follicle.
Which ovary grows it? Sometimes one will do all the work for a few months and then other will do a month etc. No-one is sure why. Contrary to popular belief however, they don’t take it in turns fairly left to right.
This forms a 20mm diameter (ouch) fluid filled blister on the chosen ovary and waits for a signal from the brain to release it. Meanwhile your uterus is growing a lovely, lush new lining thanks to the steady rise in estrogen being released…
Your hypothalamus (the bit of your brain that controls metabolism and nervous system amoung other functions) tells your pituitary gland (located just behind the bridge of your nose) to secrete hormones. These are LH (Lutinising hormone) and FSH (Follicle stimulating hormone). This rush of hormones coupled with a steep rise in estrogen causes the egg to burst out of your ovary (it’s as dramatic as it sounds) where the fallopian tubes catch it (literally) and start bundling it down the softly fronded tube.
This takes 3-4 days. And as an egg lives for 12-24 hours unless it’s fertilised…it’s pretty much dead by the time it gets to the uterus.
The body doesn’t know this however because you have just hit your second phase:
The Luteal Phase
Despite the egg being a gonner, the body is still hoping you’ll be feeling broody and left the condoms untouched on the bedside table tonight. The follicle which has supported the egg now collapses and forms, through the magic of biology, the corpus luteum.
Yes, it does sound like a spell from Harry Potter.
This clever little thing will keep your lining hopefully intact for an egg to implant in it for 14 days-ish by secreting small amounts of estrogen and large amounts of progesterone.
Not everyone has a 14 luteal phase. You may have an 11-13 day one. Anything over 11 days is considered ‘good’ when it comes to a healthy cycle though to support a possible pregnancy.
If your egg has not been fertilised and/or implanted in the lining by day 12-13 the corpus luteum disintegrates. The lining breaks down as it has nothing to support it and then a day or two later…it all starts again along with your period.
So, what is my period made of?
Blood, tissue and fluid in short. Sometimes this will be clotty and sometimes this will be clot free. Any clots bigger than a penny should be photographed, roughly measured and then you should speak to your doctor. Don’t be shy about these things. Similarly if your flow is heavy enough that you’re bleeding through a super tampon in under and hour or two for a whole day, see your doctor!
And yes, they change over time. When you first start your period they may be lighter and only appear for a day or two. This may change to a full flow for a few days in your late teens/twenties and as you get older get heavier or lighter.
It isn’t a cause for concern unless the change is drastic. In which case (you guessed it) see your doctor and keep the pressure up if you’re sure in your gut something isn’t right. You know your periods and you know when they’re not right (members of the medical profession, please don’t shoot me).
The scourge of womankind and also our closest ally. This charming little hormone is the bastard responsible for babies and PMS.
Progesterone causes the body temperature to rise and is very useful for us, as we’ll see later, for working out what the hell is going on when with our downstairs areas. The thing is, it causes us to feel a lot of horrible things for up to two weeks before Aunt Irma shows her face.
They range from:
- Sore boobs and nipples
- Pain/cramping around the pelvic area
- Spotting a few days before your period
- Upset stomach incl bloating, constipation and diarrhea
- Food cravings
- Greasier hair
- Joint pains and sciatic pain (down the backs of your legs)
- Tension, anxiety and depression
- General feeling of lowness and sadness
- Actual ranging anger at the entire world
- Headache and backache
To name a few.
The 14 Day cycle myth
Yes some of us will be Joanna Average and will be lucky enough to have a standard ‘medical’ 28 day cycle with a 14 day follicular and luteal phase with ovulation on day 14. The rest of us are a little harder to pin down.
You’ll notice that most apps will set you an ‘ovulation date’ based on a 28 day cycle until it starts to get more information. Few of us will fit into this pattern and don’t take it for granted that you ovulate when it says you have.
I, for example, have natural cycles ranging from 32-36 days (sometimes 38 on the odd month) with a standard 14 day luteal phase and ovulation occurring anywhere between day 18-24.
I have spoken to women who have cycles of 26 days with ovulation occurring on day 12 with a 14 day luteal phase. Other women may ovulate on day 14 and have an 8 day luteal phase.
So moving on, let’s see if we can help you nail down how you tick from here…