Medically reviewed on December 10, 2023 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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While men experience 24-hour hormone cycles, women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) experience month-long hormone cycles due to the menstrual cycle.
The menstrual cycle is a recurring, physiological process that involves the release of an egg from the ovaries, the preparation of the uterus for a potential pregnancy, and the shedding of the uterine lining in the absence of conception.
That said, the menstrual cycle consists of four stages, and how you feel at different stages of the menstrual cycle will vary.
If sperm fertilizes an egg in the ovaries, pregnancy occurs. Accordingly, the uterus lining will be thick and its blood vessels will be enlarged to prepare to hold a growing fetus.
If an egg is not fertilized, menstruation, also called menses or your period, will start. Your menstrual cycle begins with the first day of menstruation.
At this point in the menstrual cycle, the thick uterine lining breaks down and bleeds, and both the lining and the egg shed and leave the body through the vagina. This menstrual phase can last up to seven days; however, the duration can differ from person to person depending on the individual’s health status, current medications, and unique body composition.[2,3]
Some people may experience only spotting, while others can lose up to 80 mL of blood during menstrual bleeding. The average, however, is about 30 mL of blood loss during this stage. Typically, blood flow will start heavy and ease over time.
It’s common for people on their period to experience symptoms that, collectively, can refer to a condition called premenstrual syndrome (PMS). These symptoms can include:
Cramps occur as your uterus contracts, pushing the lining out of your body, and cramping is very common at this stage. But, the intensity can differ. Some people may only feel slight discomfort while others can experience intense, throbbing pain.
Your estrogen levels will also decrease during menstruation. Estrogen is a sex hormone that plays a critical role in your sexual and reproductive health, helping to regulate your periods and prepare your body for pregnancy. When levels wane, oftentimes your energy levels do, too.
To ease your emotional, mental, or physical discomfort, listen to your body. It may respond well to a warm bath, light exercise, or a triple-scoop of chocolate ice cream.
The follicular phase overlaps with menstruation. Thus, this menstrual phase also begins on the first day of your period. Typically, this stage can last anywhere from 14 to 21 days.
After your uterine lining completely sheds, your estrogen levels begin to rise again. This causes the uterine lining to thicken in preparation for a possible pregnancy.
But estrogen doesn’t work alone. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which affects sexual development and fertility, stimulates the growth of follicles in the ovaries following your period. The ovaries are two small glands—one on each side of the uterus, that produce and store eggs.
Although many follicles will grow, developing anywhere from 11 to 20 eggs, one dominant follicle emerges, and only this follicle’s egg will fully mature. The dominant follicle will also stimulate even more estrogen, preparing the uterus for eventual implantation. At the same time, elevated estrogen levels trigger a decrease in FSH, causing the remaining ovary follicles to reabsorb into the body.
High estrogen levels also stimulate the production of luteinizing hormone (LH), which activates the subsequent luteal phase, in which the egg leaves the ovary.
During the latter end of the follicular stage, it’s not uncommon to feel your energy levels rise, thanks to increased estrogen. Your skin may also clear and you may experience a higher sex drive and an improved mood.
During ovulation, your ovary releases the mature egg, which travels down the fallopian tube and awaits fertilization. Both FSH and LH trigger this process.
At the end of the follicular stage and during ovulation, women and people AFAB are their most fertile.
During ovulation, you may experience the following :
You may also notice a difference in your vaginal discharge. During ovulation, it can look like egg whites and may be sticky. Your body temperature may also decrease.
Technically, ovulation occurs during the luteal phase. As the egg moves into the fallopian tube, your body will also produce progesterone, a sex hormone, to prepare the uterine lining for pregnancy, thicken cervical mucus to prevent bacteria growth, and reduce contractions in the uterus, allowing for easier implantation of the egg within the uterine walls. Learn more about this sex hormone in our post: Does progesterone make you tired?
If sperm does reach the egg and fertilizes it, the egg will then continue down the fallopian tubes and attach itself to the thick uterine lining. The lining provides nutrients to the egg, allowing for its eventual development into the fetus and placenta.
When pregnant, your body needs to keep the uterine lining, meaning you won’t have a period.
However, if the egg is not fertilized within 12 to 24 hours after ovulation, the egg dies, the body reabsorbs it, and you will get your period.
During the luteal stage (following ovulation), your body temperature increases and your cervical mucus becomes thick and dry, like glue. You may also experience symptoms that are similar to those experienced during PMS, such as :
Hormone levels are largely to blame for the physical, emotional, and mental changes you may experience during your menstrual cycle. Certain menstrual conditions or disorders, however, may also impact the severity of your period and overall wellness throughout your cycle. These include:
Aside from these menstrual conditions, other factors, such as getting off birth control, may impact your menstrual cycle and symptoms.
Throughout your menstrual cycle, it’s common to experience a variety of symptoms that can impact how you feel day to day. Certain menstrual disorders can further impact your physical and emotional health.
If you’re having difficulty identifying your symptoms or are experiencing uncomfortable or unusual ailments, consult with an Everlywell provider via an online women’s health appointment. Through a private virtual visit, you can discuss your symptoms and receive a care plan to treat or ease your discomfort.
Sign up for a virtual care visit today.
Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT works with a wide variety of individuals, ranging in age from children to the elderly, with an assortment of concerns and clinical conditions. She helps individuals optimize overall health and/or manage disease states using personalized medical nutrition therapy techniques.