Thriving (not just surviving) in our menstruating years.

Roughly half the female population is of reproductive age and, on average, will bleed once a month. We all know this is a normal and natural process and thank-fully it is beginning to drop the “taboo” label it has long since carried. Let’s go deeper and really see if we can unpick some of our basic physiology to understand how we can optimise our lives through syncing with our cycles.

My name is Shirley and I’m a Doctor of Chinese Medicine, I love women’s health and the role hormones play in our bodies. I like to talk about the menstrual cycle as a monthly report card; it is an internal feedback system that tells us about the inner health of our bodies. If it is longer than usual or shorter than usual, heavier or more painful, this is our body’s way of letting us know what the repercussions of ill health, poor lifestyle choices or an emotional blow has had on our sensitive cycle.

It is important to understand the stages of the menstrual cycle and although there are 2 distinct phases (follicular and luteal), I like to talk about it in four seasons; menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. The length of each of these seasons may be different between women and this is why I like to encourage all of my female clients in their reproductive years to be tracking these different stages.

The first phase is called the menstrual phase and it is the time that you bleed for; usually 4-5 days. Day 1 is considered the first day of your proper bleed, not just a bit of spotting, the kind of bleed that requires a pad or tampon rather than just a panty liner. During this time, it is encouraged to rest, to go inward and reflect. Exercise should be light, and sleep should be prioritised. If it was a season think of it as autumn; just as the leaves fall from the trees, so do we shed the lining of our uterus.

The second phase is when our hormones are at their lowest then gradually begin to rise. It is likened to the winter season. After menstruation it continues until around day 13 and in this time, oestrogen begins to rise as hormones prep for ovulation.

Ovulation is the peak of the cycle, when hormones surge and an egg ruptures from one of the ovaries. Ovulation is essential, not just for fertility but for a woman’s mood, bone health and longevity. Ovulation triggers a rise in progesterone production which is responsible for preventing symptoms of PMS such as breast sensitivity, mood changes, migraines, headaches, cravings, fatigue and pain.

Ovulation could be regarded as spring, flowers are blooming, and life is bountiful. Ovulation only lasts for 24-36 hours on average, and it is often a time when women feel their most creative and extroverted. If you are choosing when to schedule a job interview or a public talk then this would be the time!

The final phase is the luteal phase which begins the moment ovulation occurs (around day 14) until when we bleed again. The luteal phase is considered summer, as high levels of progesterone stimulate the production of GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for keeping us calm and relaxed. Progesterone also causes our body temperature to rise slightly in preparation for the egg to implant. If, however fertilisation doesn’t occur, our uterus begins to “uncoil” and menstruation will soon follow.

Optimising our cyclic natures, once learnt, soon becomes innate and you will wonder why no one told you about this trick before. You can uncover the key differences in macronutrient utilisation, optimise weight loss, enhance your exercise performance, rid yourself of pesky PMS symptoms and hit those high notes at work. Get ready to be amazed!

Dr Shirley O’Dwyer currently practices at Ranges Integrative Health on Wednesdays. Bookings can be made online from our bookings page or by calling 9754 2062