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How to manage your menstrual cycle

For many women, the menstrual cycle is just part of the monthly routine, something that you have got used to and handle. Yet there is so much more to menstruation and ways that you can improve your experience. The team at Real Foods, Scotland’s largest independent retailer, shares some in-depth tips on how to manage your menstrual cycle.

Menstruation is a major part of our lives, and yet we know so little about it, except that it happens! Let’s go back to basics so that we can make well-informed choices when managing our menstrual cycle.

When does menstruation begin and end?

Menstruation tends to begin when a girl reaches puberty at around ten to 12 years old. Tell-tale signs include underarm and pubic hair growth, breast growth, and about a year after getting a white vaginal discharge. Some girls can begin their periods as young as eight years old.

Menstruation can last well into a woman’s mid-50s.

What exactly is a period?

A period is simply the time in which you have your menstrual cycle when the blood and lining of your womb are shed.

How many periods will I get?

If you are a healthy female then in your lifetime, it is quite possible to have 500 periods, give or take pregnancy, when your period goes on pause.

How many days will a healthy period last?

Most periods tend to last between two and seven days, taking place every 28 to 30 days, but this is an average remember, and every woman is different.

How much blood is lost during a period?

Each period has about three to five tablespoons of blood, and it can vary in colour from bright red or pink on the first few heavy days, to a brown-black colour on lighter days.

Did you know? It is common for women in close proximity to synch periods with one another, known as socially mediated synchrony. This also happens in the animal kingdom so that female species are sexually receptive at the same time during breeding seasons.

What can I do to manage my premenstrual cycle?

Sometimes a period can be delayed if you are very active with dance or gymnastics, or if you are underweight, or have a hormone imbalance.

It’s helpful to keep a diary to track your periods so that you can pick up on any irregularities.

Why should I track my period?

For girls starting their period for the first time, it can take a few months for menstruation to settle into a routine of regular periods, so it’s particularly worthwhile tracking periods during this time.

Tracking your period also allows you to alter your lifestyle habits, such as sleep, diet and exercise so that you can perform at your best and plan for more restful days in advance.

What happens during the menstrual cycle?

The menstrual cycle is when the reproductive organs, with the help of hormones, prepares a woman’s body to fertilise an egg. Women are born with eggs already in their ovaries.

Women have two ovaries where eggs are developed and stored. These are then released through the fallopian tubes, which connect the ovaries to the womb (also known as the uterus). With help from a hormone called progesterone, a fertilised egg implants itself to the womb for a baby to develop. At this point breasts often become tingly and tender.

If an egg is not fertilised so that the woman does not become pregnant, then a period will arrive.

How are hormones involved in menstruation?

Every single menstrual cycle actually starts in the brain, in the region known as the hypothalamus. This region is responsible for producing hormones. In a nutshell, these are:

  • Oestrogen: the primary female sex hormone
  • Progesterone: the hormone that supports a healthy pregnancy after ovulation
  • Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH): a stimulator of the pituitary gland
  • Follicle stimulating hormone (FHS): a growth stimulator for fluid-filled sacs in the ovaries called follicles. Every follicle contains one egg.
  • Luteinizing hormone (LH): a hormone that triggers eggs to mature and be released during ovulation

How long is the menstrual cycle?

The length of the menstrual cycle varies from woman to woman, but on average, most cycles tend to happen so that you get your period every 28 days. Some can be longer or shorter, and from 21 to 40 days is considered normal.

Phases of the menstrual cycle

The full menstrual cycle is made up of four phases and can vary in length by as many as seven to nine days each month. The below phases are based on the assumption of an average 28-day cycle but the actual days can vary. 

1. The Menstrual Phase: Day 1 to 5

This is the first day of the menstrual cycle when the period starts. This phase lasts for five days.

2. The Follicular Phase: Day 1 to 13

Welcome to the first half of your menstrual cycle! Kicking off on day one, the follicular phase is from the day you get your period, right up until ovulation.

Your follicles mature as the womb lining thickens to provide extra blood and nutrients for a possible baby. During this time, your hormone levels increase.

3. The Ovulation Phase: Day 14

Ovulation is when the hormone oestrogen increases that cause the ovaries to develop and release a mature egg, which can live for 24 hours. This heads into the fallopian tube, ready to be fertilised. It is quite normal during the time of ovulation for you to have a thin vaginal discharge, which looks a bit like raw egg white. This slippery mucus exists for a reason: to help sperm swim through and survive for a few days until it reaches the egg.

This is when your LH and FHS hormone levels decrease and your pregnancy-friendly progesterone hormone increases. Your body temperature might go up a tiny bit too.

4. The Luteal Phase: Day 15 - 28

The luteal phase is the second part of your menstrual cycle, from the time the egg is released to the beginning of your period.

If a sperm has fertilised an egg then this will implant in the womb to develop a baby.

If the egg has not been fertilised then levels of oestrogen and progesterone fall, which signals to the body to reabsorb the egg. The extra womb lining of blood and tissue is then shed and travels through the cervix and out through the vagina - your period. The menstrual cycle starts over again.

How to calculate your menstrual cycle

Your menstrual cycle – including your period start date and your peak ovulation time - can be calculated using an online period calendar.

What’s the best sanitary product?

There are several sanitary products on the market that help absorb or collect the blood that is released during your period.

Sanitary pads and tampons are probably most common and should be changed frequently in order to ensure good hygiene – as often as every two hours during heavy flow days. Given that feminine products are in your most delicate area, selecting non-chemical, unbleached and unperfumed products are highly recommended. While they are sometimes a little dearer, purchasing organic sanitary pads and tampons are a sensible solution.

In recent years there has been an increased interest in the sustainable and more cost-effective alternative of menstrual cups, which are made from medical grade silicone and can be emptied and rinsed easily every six odd hours, and only need to be replaced every decade if they are looked after between periods. 

The most important thing is to find a feminine product that you feel comfortable with.

What happens during the menopause?

The average age for women in the UK to have the menopause is at 51 years old. Sometimes your period can just stop suddenly, or it can become less frequent over several months or years before completely stopping. Hot flushes and other symptoms are common as your body stops producing oestrogen.

Menstruation and sex

As we already know, pregnancy can only happen if a man’s sperm meets and fertilises an egg. Sperm can happily live in the fallopian tubes for up to seven days after intercourse, but a woman can only get pregnant if ovulation has occurred.

If more than one egg is released during ovulation and is fertilised then this can lead to multiple births from the same pregnancy.

Best ways to increase chances of pregnancy

If you and your partner are both in good health, not drinking excessively, eating a well-balanced diet and not smokers, then the chances of pregnancy tend to be good, and approximately 84% of sexually active couples conceive within the first year of having sex without contraception.

Best ways to prevent pregnancy

There are many options to decrease your chances of pregnancy, including hormonal contraception that physically stops ovulation, such as the combined contraceptive pill or the progesterone-only pill, the contraceptive injection and contraceptive rods. There are also protective barriers, such as condoms, the female condom and either plain or hormonal intrauterine contraceptives (IUCD). Talking to your doctor or Family Planning Centre can help you decide on which option may suit you best. 

When is a woman least fertile?

You are least fertile during your period or just before your period.

Although you can only get pregnant on the day of ovulation, there’s actually a short time of six days, known as the fertility window, when it is possible for you to become pregnant because the sperm can live in the genital tract for up to seven days. So, five days prior to ovulation, as well as the day of ovulation, is the time to be cautious if you are not wanting to hear the patter of tiny feet in nine months’ time. This is usually day ten to 17 of your menstrual cycle but again, this can vary from woman to woman, and period to period.

When is it safe to have sex?

The natural contraceptive method, also known as natural family planning or NFP – in which you abstain from sex during the fertility window - is considered a highly ineffective contraceptive method due to the fact that the early phase of the menstrual cycle is not exact and is highly unpredictable.

Let Real Foods help make your menstrual cycle easier with its range of thoughtful and sustainable products. Buy online, or pop into one of our wholefoods stores in Edinburgh.