By Kasey Willson
Have you decided to start or add to your family? How exciting!
But before you begin your important preconception detox and nourishing phase (don’t worry, I’l laddress this in future episodes), let's start at the beginning. Do you know the ins and outs of your cycle? When the time comes, will you know when the best days of your cycle are to start trying?
It’s a common theme I see as a Naturopath. Young women going through high school and into their early adulthood, without the empowering understanding of their hormones and precious reproductive cycle. Then when the time comes to actually wanting a baby, they lack body awareness and powerful knowledge of the phases of their cycle.
I was no different! To be honest, throughout my teens I didn’t know when and how ovulation took place. I was equipped with the basics – knowing I inconveniently had my period once a month but because I was on the oral contraceptive pill, I wouldn’t fall pregnant. I was oblivious to the fact that my ovaries had shut down and I wasn’t ovulating, let alone getting an explanation from my GP about potential short and long term side effects of taking the “innocent” daily pill. (now that’s a chat for another day).
Is this sounding familiar?
It wasn’t until my naturopathy studies that I began to truly understand the intricate happenings of a woman’s cycle, both naturally and on synthetic hormones. It took me a couple of years to really balance my hormones post pill, regain a regular cycle and understand my fertile window for when the time came to start a family.
Cue my passion for educating women around body awareness -especially the reproductive cycle, balancing hormones and helping couples set themselves up for a healthy conception.
So let’s start there shall we, with a deeper dive into what is involved with your magical menstrual cycle. & yes, I did say magical.
Hormones have the significant job in your body of delivering important chemical messages to your tissues and organs. Ultimately this controls your metabolism, hunger, cravings, sexual function, physiology, reproduction, moods and energy levels, as well as skin and hair health.
Your hormones are produced from a group of cells called endocrine glands and these include the hypothalamus, pituitary and pineal glands in your brain, thymus gland, adrenal and thyroid glands, your pancreas and ovaries (in men, ovaries are replaced with testes).
Your complex reproductive cycle is a brain driven event with your master gland, called the hypothalamus, calling the shots. To ensure a cycle runs its natural course, communication and feedback loops occur between your hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in your brain, with your ovaries. This interaction controls the different stages of your menstrual cycle.
Your hypothalamus triggers the development of an immature egg by releasing gonadotropin – releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH functions to stimulate your pituitary gland (also in the brain), to release two powerful hormones into your bloodstream – follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH). In response to this production of the FSH and LH from your pituitary gland, hormones progesterone and oestrogen are released from your ovaries at differing amounts throughout the cycle.
These female hormones perform powerful actions within your body such as triggering the development for future reproduction (at puberty), initiating the formation of a new life, nurturing a baby through pregnancy and breastfeeding and eventually slowing the reproductive process as you reach menopause and beyond. Reproductive hormones also allow adaptive response to stress, exertion and strong emotions, such as love.
Your menstrual cycle begins at puberty, with an initial surge of oestrogen from your ovaries, which was stimulated by the pituitary gland in your brain. This oestrogen promotes the growth of your breasts, the development of your reproductive system and the shape of your body. Cycles are often irregular for the first year after your initial period, as the body perfects its intricate communication of hormones and events occurring throughout your menstrual cycle. Once egg production and follicle development is running on schedule, your menstrual cycle should regulate into a monthly occurrence.
Although great variation can occur from cycle to cycle and from one woman to the next, a textbook cycle will last for 28 days. Day one is the first day of your period (not including spotting) and the last day of your cycle is the day before menstrual bleeding begins once again. Ovulation will therefore occur around day 14, leaving a 2-week time frame to the lead up of your next period.
From my experience in Naturopathy clinic, this textbook 28-day cycle with ovulation occurring on day 14, is not the norm for many women. A delay in ovulation can often occur, which creates a lengthier follicular phase (explained below) resulting in a longer cycle. Otherwise a shorter follicular phase may occur creating a shorter time from your period to ovulation, or a shorter luteal phase may take place (ovulation to your period). The latter of the two is a common cause of an infertile cycle, referred to as a luteal phase deficiency- which I delve into within my book, Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones.
The first half of your cycle, from menstruation up to ovulation is known as the follicular phase and is responsible for your egg development. During the follicular phase, your cervix is blocked by a thick mucous plug which protects your reproductive system from infection and also prevents conception, by blocking the entrance of sperm.
At some stage in the follicular phase (this differs for every woman), the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates small amounts of oestrogen and progesterone to be produced from your ovaries and sent throughout your bloodstream. The oestrogen triggers several clusters of cells (called follicles) to begin ripening. Each of these follicles contains a precious egg. As the follicles grow, they manufacture and further release oestrogen (oestradiol) into your blood stream. During the follicular phase, oestrogen levels build up to a peak, just before ovulation.
This heightened level of oestrogen stimulates the production of a fertile, wet, sperm-protective mucous from your cervix which is usually very detectible for you to feel and see. These mucous changes are an important sign that your body is preparing for ovulation and therefore should be considered a time of potential fertility.
Ovulation is the magical time when the fully matured follicle has made its way to the surface of the ovary and ejects an egg into the abdominal cavity.
For ovulation to occur, your pituitary gland must release a surge of luteinising hormone (LH) that therefore triggers your ovaries to promote this fully matured follicle. LH also stimulates the ovaries to produce increased levels of the sex hormone progesterone. If ovulation was to happen on day 14, this progesterone surge occurs around day 12-13 of your cycle.
Along with supporting the development of the tissue and blood in your uterus, progesterone encourages the change to a slippery sensation of egg-white type mucous at the cervix, a rise in body temperature and an increased libido, which you may experience at the time of ovulation. I personally use a fertility tracking device to double check of my ovulation day- see what I use over here.
Interestingly, progesterone also initiates communication from the matured egg producing ovary to the other ovary, to stop the growth of their follicles. This allows the chosen matured follicle to continue rapid growth (up to 3⁄4 inch in size), in the last 1-2 days before ovulation.
Once the egg is released at ovulation, the follicle transforms into an endocrine gland, known as the corpus luteum and resembles a blister on the surface of your ovary. Oestrogen production continues from the corpus luteum but progesterone should be dominant in this second half of your cycle called the Luteal Phase.
When Progesterone peaks (in the luteal phase), there is about 200 times as much progesterone as oestrogen.
Progesterone also stimulates GABA activity which results in helping to alleviate your pain, anxiety and irritability.
The luteal phase of a cycle varies from woman to woman but is generally the same time frame during each of your cycles. This can vary from 9-16 days, but must be at least 9 days (but optimally 12 or more days) for the cycle to be considered fertile. A short luteal phase indicates an issue at ovulation leading to inadequate progesterone production or an early drop in progesterone levels. As progesterone is the hormone required to ripen and preserve the tissue and blood of your uterus, a deficiency causes premature shedding of the uterus lining and results in an infertile cycle called a luteal phase defect.
After ovulation, the egg is gracefully scooped up by the finger like fibrae of the fallopian tube and encouraged along by contraction-like movements and the brushing motion of microscopic hairs along the fallopian tube lining. The egg has a lifespan of 12-24 hours, unless fertilised by a sperm within this time. It is here in the outer third of the fallopian tube where an egg may become fertilised with a sperm, forming a single celled zygote. If fertilisation occurs, the zygote is the earliest form of an embryo and contains ‘the plan’ for the whole body.
Note: although there is only one day where an egg is released, you only ovulate one egg per cycle and your eggs lifespan is only up to 24 hours, your feritlte window is around 7-8 days. This includes up to 6 days pre ovulation as sperm can survive up to 5-6 days in the uterus and your eggs lifespan is no more than 24 hours.
Eg. You may be ovulating on Tuesday, but if you try for a baby Tuesday before or later, those sperm swimmers may still make their way to your egg for successful fertilisation.
If the egg is not fertilised in your fallopian tube within 24 hours of ovulation, it will die and disintegrate. If a fertilised egg is not implanted into the lining of the uterus, the body will reabsorb it. In both cases the levels of oestrogen and progesterone drop off and from 9-16 days following ovulation your uterus sheds it’s lining, making up the blood of your menstruation.
The bleeding of menstruation typically lasts 4-5 days but also varies from cycle to cycle and woman to woman. This process should be virtually pain free and should not cause the need to be housebound, due to heaviness (if it does, you may need to explore the possibilities of oestrogen dominance, endometriosis and/or fibroids).
As the follicular phase kicks off, more hormones are released, new growth occurs and the cycle continues.
Wrapping It Up
So there you have it, you’re now in the know with a brief summary of what happens within your menstrual cycle. Of course, your cycle length and time of cycle where you are fertile may be different to all your female friends, so tuning into your personal signs of fertility is important.
Through detecting mucous changes and waiting for your “wet, slippery” day along with temperate tracking are important tools to use to detect your fertile window.
Want to be extra sure? Seek out my fav fertility tracker here.