The Periodical: A Vicious Cycle

Y’all, when’s the last time you really thought about your menstrual cycle? Chances are, unless you’re a doctor or a teacher, you haven’t really considered it for years. And jesucristo, if your sex ed was anything like mine, you probably left class even more confused than you came in. All I remember was being terrified by STI slides and confused about how a tiny egg could produce so much blood.

Even though I had so many questions in sex ed, twelve-year-old me was not about to ask them in a room full of people. Luckily, I’ve grown a lot in the past 18 years and am ready to tackle the tough stuff. Feel free to ask questions; there are no mean twelve-year-olds here! Think of it as the period class you never had. The Magic Schoolbus: Menstrual Edition, if you will.

To do this effectively, we’ve got to do a few things right. First, I’m not going to assume that all women have periods or that only women have periods because that’s just flat out wrong. All kinds of folks — trans and cis, non-binary folks and women and men — bleed or have hormone cycles. The fact that periods are linked with women and femininity is something that I want to push against because the reality is so much broader. At the same time, I want to recognize that this historical and present-day association has had all kinds of impacts on society. So, dear queer bleeders, let’s lovingly spreading information and helping each other out when we mess up.

A Vicious Cycle

Nature is full of cycles. Just think about it; we’ve got seasons, water cycles, nights and days, tides, moons, and nitrogen cycles, to name a few. Just a few days ago, we finished one more year-long journey around the sun and began a new one. With everyone reflecting on the past year and making new year’s resolutions, now’s the perfect time to start paying attention to one more cycle in your life: your period.

Things Your Mother (or Teacher) Never Told You

Contrary to what we’ve been told, your period isn’t just the couple of days that you bleed: it’s the whole damn cycle.

And speaking of cycles: there are actually a few cycles working together to make the whole shebang work. Your ovarian and uterine cycles work together so that you too can experience the miracle of menses (or pregnancy) each month. There’s also a hormone cycle that affects and is affected by your ovarian and uterine cycles.

  • The first day you bleed is the beginning of a new period. Menstruation lasts for 3 to 8 days and begins the follicular phase of your ovarian cycle.
  • About seven days later, your uterine cycle enters the proliferative phase.
  • At about the midpoint of your period, ovulation occurs, ending the follicular and proliferative phases and starting the luteal phase of your ovarian cycle and the secretory phase of your uterine cycle.
  • When you start bleeding again, the luteal and secretory phases end and a whole new period begins.

Cage Match: Follicle v. Follicle

The follicular phase of the ovarian cycle

To understand the follicular phase, we’ve got to talk about what’s been going on inside your ovaries for the past year. That’s right: YEAR.

The egg that formed part of your January 2019 period came from a follicle that’s been growing for the past year.

Folliculogenesis and the follicular phase of the ovarian cycle

Inside your ovaries are gazillions of tiny eggs (called oocytes). These eggs are wrapped up in bags called follicles that exist to love and support their precious passengers. When you’re born, you’ve got one to two million follicles, each holding an immature egg. By the time you go through puberty, that number will have dwindled to about 100,000.

Follicles all begin as primordial follicles, but some 450 will eventually be selected to fully mature and release their egg through a process called folliculogenesis.

This is folliculogenesis in a nutshell! A class of primordial follicles are recruited every month and become primary follicles. Primary follicles’ only job is to rest and grow. Those that don’t do their job well enough die off in a process called artresia. The remaining follicles are called secondary which keep growing and dying off. The follicles that make it through the secondary stage grow a sac and are called tertiary. They start growing faster and dying off faster until only one follicle remains. After a year of growth, this pre-ovulatory follicle takes a week to mature fully and then releases its egg during ovulation.

Primordial and primary follicles

Folliculogenesis is all very Hunger Games. It starts with initial recruitment (yes, that’s the actual scientific name). Each month, a hundred or so primordial follicles are woken up by a surge of hormones — estrogen from your ovaries and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) from your pituitary gland — and become primary follicles.

Primary follicles are .1mm in size and do nothing but sleep for five months.

Secondary follicles

It’s about time to introduce the next bit in our Hunger Games analogy: atresia. Atresia is follicular “death;” it’s what whittles the dozens of initiated follicles down to the single follicle that is crowned victorious. Atresia happens at all stages of folliculogenesis, but happens more frequently as the remaining follicles grow larger.

While a few of the class of initiated follicles will have undergone atresia, the rest will grow to .2mm and become secondary follicles. For about four months these secondary follicles grow very slowly with each surge of FSH.

Tertiary follicles

Around here, things start getting more serious. Stakes are higher. The weakest tributes are gone. The rest have staked out a place, found food and water, and are getting stronger.

These follicles have become tertiary and are also called antral follicles because they’ve grown a fluid-filled cavity called an antrum.

Tertiary follicles are classed depending on their size and structure. Early tertiary follicles – those in classes 1 to 4 – grow from .2mm to 2mm in two months.

Late tertiary follicles – those in classes 5 to 8 – grow from 2mm to 20mm in only 20 days! The speed of growth is increasing, but so is the rate of atresia.

About a quarter of the way through your period, your body chooses a winning follicle. This follicle has about one more week to fully mature in a “Graafian follicle” before it’s time to ovulate. Luckily, estrogen – the hormone responsible for late follicular development – is reaching its peak at this point in your cycle.

The Care And Keeping Of Eggs

ovulation and the luteal phase of the ovarian cycle

About halfway through your cycle, ovulation occurs. A surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) causes the follicle to be extruded through your ovary and form a small cyst on the outside. That’s right, you heard it here folks: everyone has ovarian cysts. If the follicle grows to be larger than 2cm, it might be painful. Just FYI, both the kind of cysts that are a regular part of the menstrual cycle and the kind that grow to be too big and hurt are different from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

The egg that was once snuggled tightly in the follicle begins its long and lonely journey down your fallopian tube.

Remember a few paragraphs ago when I told you that the follicle’s job was to care for the egg? Well, before the egg leaves the follicle, the follicle creates a protective layer of cells around it called the corona radiata. That’s not all though. The follicle turns in the corpus luteum (“yellow body”) and hangs on outside the ovary for about ten days, producing hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that make your uterus hospitable to fertilized eggs.

Your egg is fertilizable for 12-14 hours after it’s released from your ovary. If it’s not fertilized, it continues on to your uterus. Once the corpus luteum receives the message that the egg wasn’t fertilized, it stops planning for pregnancy and begins to decay. The decayed corpus luteum is called a corpus albicans (“white body”) that will exist for the rest of your life as a tiny scar on your ovary.

There Will Be Blood

The uterine cycle

Now that you’ve got a grip on what’s happening in the ovarian cycle, we need to piece together how it interacts with your uterine cycle.

Let’s start by looking at your uterus. It’s made up of three layers: the perimetrium (outer coating), myometrium (muscle), and endometrium (lining). At this point, all we care about is the endometrium which in turn has two layers: the basal layer and the functional layer. The basal layer stays intact throughout your cycle and is like the foundation of a house. The functional layer grows and sheds in response to hormone fluctuation and is like bricks and mortar.

At the end of menstruation the functional layer is totally depleted, having just exited your body with all kinds of fanfare and blood over the past week. At this point, estrogen levels immediately begin rising and your uterus enters the proliferative phase. During the proliferative phase, estrogen causes the functional layer to begin growing again. Arteries, veins, and mucous glands, grow just in case the next egg is fertilized and needs somewhere to implant.

After ovulation, progesterone becomes the dominant hormone and the secretory phase begins. If the proliferative phase was building the house so the egg has somewhere to live, the secretory phase is decorating the interior so that it’s comfortable. Progesterone helps connective tissue in the endometrium grow stronger and causes the endometrium to secrete nutrients that support developing embryos.

If you’re starting to feel bloated, this might be why: The model on the left is a life-size model of your uterus right after menstruation. The one on the right? That’s the size of your uterus with a fully-formed endometrium.

You know what’s coming next: the menstrual phase. With no fertilized egg to support, your corpus luteum stops producing progesterone. With no progesterone, there’s no mortar to hold the bricks of your new house together. With no mortar, the bricks begin to fall. Your uterine muscle contracts to cut off the supply of blood to the endometrium. Without oxygen supplied by blood, the functional layer dies and uterine contractions push it through your cervix so that it can leave your body. While it’s good to get the dead stuff out, these uterine contractions are what cause cramps. Bummer.

The stuff we call “menstrual blood” is really a mixture of everything that’s been growing for the past month. While blood makes up about half of the fluid, the other half contains endometrial tissue, mucous and secretions, and water. The average amount of fluid lost during menstruation is 30 mL or two tablespoons.

30 mL is the same as 2 tablespoons is the same as 1 fluid ounce.

Raging Hormones

The hormonal cycle

There’s one final piece to the puzzle and that piece is hormones. You might think of hormones as the enemy: years of hearing “hormonal” to refer to cranky people will do that do you. As it turns out, hormones actually help regulate our mood, affect our sleep cycles, and keeps us healthy, among other actions.

Your hormones are managed by your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries. While I can’t even pretend to understand the complex interactions that produce hormones, I can give you a crash course. Your hypothalamus is the part of your brain that sends messages to your pituitary gland. Your pituitary gland then sends messages to your ovaries, which send messages back to your pituitary gland, causing a whole cycle of hormone release. Stress, depression, and excessive exercise can cause your hypothalamus to work less efficiently, which is why your cycle can change depending on how you feel, how healthy you are, and how much you work out.

On the first day of your period, your progesterone is at an all-time low because the body that was producing it – the corpus luteum – has decayed. Low levels of progesterone are associated with a higher sex drive, which is why you might feel frisky on the first day of your period. Estrogen levels immediately increase once menstruation begins. In addition to helping your endometrium grow, the reintroduction of estrogen to your system can help lift you out of the moodiness you might feel before you bleed.

Your pituitary gland also releases high amounts of FSH during the first week of your cycle to help follicles grow. As more estrogen is produced in the first part of your cycle, it inhibits the release of FSH.

About a day and a half before you ovulate, your pituitary gland releases large amounts of LH to induce ovulation and create the corpus luteum. At this point, progesterone begins to rise and estrogen begins has reached it peak and begins to fall.

The corpus luteum releases progesterone and small amounts of estrogen to prepare your uterus for a fertilized egg. Progesterone causes your core temperature to rise, which is why taking your temperature can help you predict your cycle. Around day 21, progesterone reaches its peak. Progesterone makes serotonin receptors even more receptive (and if you’ve ever been on an SSRI, you know how helpful that can be), which helps regulate your mood.

On the last day before you bleed, both your progesterone and estrogen levels have reached an all-time low. It’s no wonder you don’t feel good. Don’t worry, though! There’s a spike in estrogen just around the corner.

While we’re at it, let’s just dispel one of my least favorite gender essentialist myths: that girls and women get especially cranky and mean before and during their periods because our hormones are all out of whack.

Take a look at these two charts:

See anything notable?

If you said that the cis female hormones look the most like cis male hormones at the point that the person is bleeding, you get a gold star. That’s right: the time that women are supposedly the cRaZiEsT is also the time when their hormones are most “male-like.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, misogynists.

Body Language

Physical Changes

The next two things were going to talk about are things that most people associate with baby-making: cervical fluid and basal body temperature. I decided to try monitoring mine for a few months to see if it could help me – someone who is decidedly not thinking about baby-making yet – get in touch with my body.

Spoiler alert: it totally did.

Cervical Fluid

Not everyone’s cervical fluid looks the same at different points in their cycle, but there is a pattern that it tends to follow.

  • Menstrual fluid – We’ve already got this covered.
  • Dry – After your period ends, your vagina will typically stay dry for a day or so.
  • Sticky – This fluid is thick and pasty and feels tacky like glue.
  • Creamy – Next, the fluid stays thick but gets creamier and feels more like lotion.
  • Egg white – You’re most fertile when you ovulate and so the fluid is built to accommodate fertility. It’s the consistency of an egg white – thin and stretchy – so that sperm can easily travel in it. Sometimes it is released in larger amounts and can leave you feeling like you’ve wet your pants.
  • Dry, sticky, creamy or egg white – After ovulation, your vagina tends to be dry, but your body may release any different type of fluid because the corpus luteum produces estrogen which makes the fluid thinner and stretchy.

If all these words mean nothing to you, you’re not alone. Here’s a website with pictures. You can monitor your cervical fluid by checking your underwear, looking at toilet paper right after you’ve wiped, or using your (clean) fingers.

Temperature

Because progesterone causes your core temperature to rise, you can often tell when you’re ovulating and when you’re about to start bleeding with a thermometer.

To track your temperature, you’ll need to take your basal body temperature – the temperature of your body at rest. Buy a thermometer from your drug store and take your temperature first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. Chart your temperature using paper, a spreadsheet, or an app like clue. for a few months until you have enough information to see patterns emerge. And because I know you’re wondering: yes, you take your temperature in your mouth.

Hooked on all these feelings

Emotional Changes

All right. You’ve waded through So. Much. Science. Are you ready to get a little woo? Okay, so let’s talk about energy cycles. There are all kinds of ways to think about the changes in your body. Three of the most common ways of thinking about menstrual cycle are as seasons, as phases of the moon, or as feminine archetypes. This is one of those points where the historical linkages between femininity and menstruation come up. While this cultural history is complex in light of the spectrum of gender, I don’t think it’s necessarily something that we should automatically discard. Instead, I’m interested in learning how other people have thought about their periods and reimagining some more inclusive ways to talk about our bodies’ cycles together.

First quarter (days 1-7) – Winter – New Moon – Elder

Winter
Low levels of estrogen and iron, cramps, and aches during the first week of your cycle may mean that you have less energy than you’re used to. In winter, we retreat within our homes to stay safe and warm; during this week, we retreat within ourselves to recharge. In both winter and this part of the cycle, we may spend time alone, studying, working and learning. During the winter holidays, we celebrate sacred time with people we love and reflect on the past; similarly, we can honor this time by being gentle on ourselves, developing rituals, surrendering to our body’s need for rest, and spending time with a few close friends who energize us. Like the cabin fever you get at the end of winter, you might start to feel more energetic and ready to move on to the next season of your cycle at the end of this week.

Elder
The elder might no longer be fertile, but they carry wisdom with their maturity. Having passed through the other three stages of life, they are now able to focus on caring for themself rather than nurturing others. This solitude can be both comforting and isolating, but the wisdom of age allows the elder to handle contradictions. They know that death is necessary for renewal and is able to shed the things in their life thy no longer needs in order to keep growing. The elder may be surrounded by darker emotions, as pain often accompanies loss. The elder should be honored for their courage in facing loss and for their wisdom. In this part of your cycle, your body physically experiences loss and pain as your endometrium comes apart. Acknowledging that the pain you feel is real, recognizing how much strength it takes to get through each period of bleeding, and being easy on your body may help you have an easier period.

New Moon
The new moon is, like your uterus, empty. While the physical similarities are evident, there are emotional and experiential connections. The new moon is often associated with turning over a new page, something that we often do during a period of self-reflection.

Second quarter (days 7-14) – Spring – Waxing Moon – Child

Spring
In the spring, the earth comes back to life. The sun is beginning to come out for longer periods of time, plants are starting to grow, and everything is turning green. We stretch our winter-worn limbs and spend more time outdoors. During this week of your cycle, the follicle your body has chosen is growing quickly, your endometrium is beginning to thicken, and your estrogen levels are increasing. By the end of the week, you will be as fertile as springtime. With all the energy you have – both socially and physically – now is a good time to start projects and take risks.

Child
The theme of “greenness” continues in looking at the girl archetype. The child is active, playful, and confident. Friendship and flirtation bring them profound social connections, and they are independent and explorative. They find their identity more in themself than in their communities or partners. This time in your cycle brings you energy to have adventures; take advantage of it.

Waxing Moon
As the moon waxes – or grows – so does your body and energy. Your selected follicle is maturing for ovulation, your uterus is starting to regenerate and your energy is expanding as your hormones increase. This portion of the moon is often associated with warrior maidens who are brave and independent.

Third quarter (14-21) – Summer – Full Moon – Parent

Summer
Summer is all about openness and pleasure. The sun it out until all hours of the night, everything is in bloom, and we spend days and nights outside taking it all in. At this point in your cycle, estrogen is reaching its highest point, helping you feel even, happy, and relaxed. The sociality of warm summer night is mirrored in your energy, you might feel more extroverted and connected to other people. But no summer is complete without mosquito bites or hangovers. Your connection to others may leave you vulnerable or you may get carried away by an idea. Don’t let the potential for too much fun intimidate you, though. Now is a good time to meet new people and express yourself creatively.

Parent
The parent is empathetic, loving, and communicative. With a new baby to care for, their energy is outward-oriented; however, it’s important that they take care of themself to sustain their supportive qualities. This quarter brings you energy that you can lavish on other people; developing relationships and caring for others are important parts of this week. The parent is also vulnerable. Their body is recovering from the creative process it experienced, they have a small child to care for, and their attention is turned away from themself. Similarly, your energy may be taken advantage of by opportunists. Embodying the strength and fierceness of the parent help balance the liabilities that exposure creates.

Full Moon
The full moon is, in a word: full. The quarter of your cycle may likewise be full of energy, relationships, projects, and parties. Historically, the full moon is associated with fertility, insomnia, insanity, and magical phenomena like lycanthropy (people turning into wolves). This time may feel magical or insane depending on how your energy is being spent.

Fourth quarter (21-28) – Fall – Waning Moon – Witch

Fall
Fall is a time of harvest: the end of the growing season and time to reap the fruits of the past half year. By the last week of your cycle, your hormones have waned and your uterus has reached its most mature form. The earth prepares to sleep for the winter, the sun spends less time out, and people and animals are beginning to settle in for the colder days ahead. Remaining in the outside world becomes more difficult as the season continues. Similarly, you may begin turn inwards as you experience PMS that can manifest itself in irritability, pain, sensitivity, and confusion. Now is a good time to “harvest” your work; complete projects and tasks so that you can spend the next portion of your cycle caring for and focusing on yourself.

Witch
Commonly associated with Halloween and autumn, the witch represents this quarter of the cycle. The witch is sensitive; at best, this means in touch with their intuition, at worst it can make being around others difficult. Sensitivity reaches it peak at this point in your cycle, bringing you closer to the witch archetype. This detachment from others is echoed in the witch’s tendency to provoke others, criticize them as well as themself, and uncover truths that may bring about unsettlement. You may feel similarly detached, critical, and unsettled during this time. The witch is also associated with creativity, a trait that may help you finish assignments and problem-solve. Like the witch, feel free to indulge your whims, but don’t be afraid to retreat from the world when you need to. Immerse yourself in the conflicts that characterize this quarter; they can be more positive than you initially realize.

Waning Moon
Your energy decreases like the light of the moon wanes. The waning moon is associated with endings: stopping bad habits, breaking off relationships, and leaving jobs. Your unsettled and critical nature during this time of the month is ideal for getting rid of things you no longer desire.

Make a period bracelet

Now that you are quite literally filled to the brim with knowledge, you are all set to track your period. You know how to track your temperature, your cervical fluid, and your physical and emotional symptoms and will be able to make a really educated guess about when you’re ovulating and when you’ll start bleeding each month. Don’t you want to do something with all that information?

In an effort to figure out different ways to chart periods, I came across this picture:

I had two simultaneous thoughts: 1) WOW, this is a seriously ugly bracelet and 2) This bracelet is completely brilliant and I want one.

The ugly part is pretty self-explanatory, but I could go on about the brilliant part forever. Like how smart it is to actually think of your period as a circle and not five days on a calendar. And how putting your period on a bracelet means you have a wearable reference that helps you know what’s going on in your body. And that it can be as discreet or in-your-face as you want but either way you’re totally reclaiming your period by wearing it on your wrist.

How-to

1. Track your period like a motherlover. I can’t recommend Clue enough. It charts everything we’ve talked about, plus it lets you add your own tags so that you can track anything else you want. It’s up to you to decide what’s important enough to go on your bracelet.

2. Think about how you want to represent your period. Do you want to only show when you bleed? Do you care about representing fertility? Your mood? Ovulation? Pain? Do you want to your bracelet to contain a series of actual periods or just one average period? How will you represent these things? Will you use different shaped or colored beads? Add multiple beads for one day to denote something in particular?

3. Turn your tracking information into a bead code.

4. Get stringing!

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