Q. How many phases does your menstrual cycle have?
A. More than you might realize.
In truth, menstruation occurs over four phases, each marked by different hormone levels, energy availabilities, and nutrient needs. The key is to recognize these markers and needs in advance, so that ideally you can align your lifestyle around your cycle—rather than the other way around. We know, mind-blowing, right? (For more information on cycle syncing, check out In The Flo: Unlock Your Hormonal Advantage and Revolutionize Your Life by Alisa Vitti).
The timing of phases below are just an estimation—every person’s menstrual cycle is a little different, and your cycles may vary in length from month to month and year to year. Note that your body is *not* a Swiss watch. Small variations in your cycle are healthy and normal, but if something strikes you as majorly different or out of the ordinary, talk to your doc.
The Menstrual Phase
Your cycle starts with your period, which is marked by the few days to a week where you’re actively bleeding. The first day of your flow is usually the sign that you’re not pregnant—in technical terms, this means that your recently released egg is unfertilized. A fertilized egg will typically implant itself into the uterine wall, but when this doesn’t happen, the uterus begins to shed the egg and the lining via musculature contractions (aka cramps) that help break down and slowly move the lining out of the uterus (your period). Generally, your flow should last between three and seven days, with heaviest bleeding on the first and second day.
What you’re feeling: You’re likely fighting off a little fatigue, maybe feeling kinda cold (thanks to all that blood loss) and generally low in energy, courtesy of a plummeting drop in both estrogen and progesterone. Thanks to this hormone dip, your body is at its coolest level during this phase (progesterone specifically affects body temperature), so you’ll want to take things a little slower (no high intensity workouts) and focus on warm cooking methods (roasting, baking, stewing).
What to do: Stock up on hot, hydrating foods like soups and tea—all the tea—and practice gentle yoga and get lots of rest. Yes, we’re giving you permission to carve out time for naps!
The Follicular Phase
Immediately following the menstrual phase, your body starts to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which signals your ovaries to start preparing to send out a new egg. This phase is very much marked by building: You’ll be increasing estrogen to build up the lining of the uterus (endometrium), a few new egg follicles are swelling for maturation, and you’ll also be working to replenish the blood lost from your recent period. The follicular phase typically lasts anywhere from seven to 10 days.
What you’re feeling: A bit higher on the energy spectrum and ready to focus. Your brain is primed to problem-solve in this phase, which is marked by creativity and new beginnings, writes Alisa Vitti in her book, Womancode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source. Higher estrogen levels here mean you have more reserves to burn--you can get away with a little caffeine during this phase, as well as lighter cooking methods that require more of your digestive energy to break down, like steaming and sauteing.
What to do: Channel all that extra power into high-intensity workouts and weightlifting sessions, and fill your plate with nourishing, mineral-rich foods like oats, spinach, and sweet potatoes. Prioritize B vitamins (especially folate—try lentils in your salad) plus magnesium and iron to help build yourself back up after menstruating.
The Ovulatory Phase
The shortest phase of the cycle, lasting just three to five days, the ovulatory stage is marked by the release of an egg from one of your ovaries. Estrogen rises even higher, while luteinizing hormone (LH) stimulates the egg’s release, followed by a surge and then drop in testosterone. Progesterone production kicks in here, too. Thanks to peak estrogen levels, your brain (and libido) are on fire right now. Love that for you!
What you’re feeling: Confident, sexy, energized, and blessed with easy communication.
What to do: A surge in progesterone means you’ll likely be running warmer, so lighter, fresh and raw food preparations are best eaten during this phase. Think: a slew of salads, smoothies, and steamed veggies. Because you’ve got energy to burn now, try intense workouts like spinning and kickboxing or interval sprints.
The Luteal Phase
With a duration of 10 to 14 days, the luteal phase is the longest stage of your cycle. Estrogen continues to rise and continues on the upswing of the ovulatory phase for the first week or so, continuing to cushion the endometrial lining. Meanwhile, the corpus luteum (the follicle housing the egg) grows within the ovary, which triggers an increase in progesterone. A rise in progesterone results in ceased production of both LH and FSH. During the second half of this phase, all three major hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) start to plunge in preparation for your period, and the corpus luteum is reabsorbed into the body if the egg is unfertilized. Premenstrual symptoms such as cramping, bloating, headache (among 200 others) usually occur during this phase, most likely in the three to seven days before your period starts.
What you’re feeling: During the first week or so, high estrogen keeps your energy and focus high, but when hormones plunge right before your menstrual phase, fatigue and low energy set in, along with PMS symptoms.
What to do: Nosh on leafy greens, fiber-rich berries and lots of roasted vegetables to ground yourself for your coming menstrual phase. They’re full of the minerals you need rn (like magnesium) to zap stress and improve sleep and keep your digestion moving—helpful for eliminating any excess hormones. Start nesting and slowing down your social calendar a bit to focus on self-care. Skip the coffee from now through your menstrual phase, as caffeine may worsen PMS symptoms like cramps and headache. Work in gentle movement, like yin yoga and stretching.
Vitti, A. In The Flo: Unlock Your Hormonal Advantage and Revolutionize Your Life. 2020. New York:Harper Collins.
Vitti, A. Woman Code: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive and Become a Power Source. 2013. New York:Harper Collins.