The term ‘ Menstrual Cycle ’ denotes to the changes that occur naturally in a woman’s body to get ready it for pregnancy.
Menstruation happens when the broken lining of the uterus comes out through the vagina. Menstruation generally lasts from three to seven days. Some women habitually have periods that are longer or shorter than this. The duration can also vary from one cycle to the next. In addition to blood, menstrual fluid is made up of several components including cervical mucus, endometrial cells and vaginal discharge. The amount of menstrual fluid lost varies from one cycle to the next, but a woman generally loses about 50-100ml of fluid each time she has a period.
The Color & Odor: Menstrual flow may be lightest or heaviest at the beginning of menstruation or may variate throughout. The color can range between brown, pink, dark red, bright red and black. Menstrual fluid only tends to have an unpleasant odor after it has been in contact with air for a period of time.
The duration of menstrual cycle differs from women to women and the most common cycle duration is around 23 and 35 days. For most women, the length of time duration between ovulation (when an egg is released from the ovary) and their monthly period is between 12 to 16 days (this is also termed as the luteal phase).
The duration of the menstrual cycle may vary throughout her life. Irregular periods are quite common amid young women, and in women oncoming menopause. Factors such as extreme emotion (good or bad), stress, excessive physical activity, obesity and travelling can also cause irregularities in menstrual cycle.
Different Phases of the menstrual cycle
Although menstruation is considered to be the first phase of the cycle, in order to properly understand menstruation, it is necessary to first explain the other phases. The menstrual cycle has four different phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation phase and luteal phase.
Phase I : Menstruation
The first day of your menstrual cycle is the day 1 of your period. The period usually then lasts anything between 3 to 7 days. You’ll probably find that if you get any period pains, they’ll be at their nastiest in the first few days of your period. This is because the hormones in your body are causing your womb to actively release the lining that was made up in the previous menstrual cycle.
Phase II : Follicular Phase
At the beginning of your cycle follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is released by the pituitary gland in your brain. This is the main hormone involved in stimulating your ovaries to yield mature eggs. Each follicle has one undeveloped egg. The FSH stimulates a number of follicles to grow and start to produce the hormone estrogen. Your level of estrogen is lowest on the first day of your period and then it begins to increase as the follicles grow.
Initially a number of follicles develop, out of which normally one follicle becomes “dominant” and the egg develops within the enlarging follicle. At the same time, the increasing amount of estrogen makes sure that the inner lining of your womb is thickening with nutrients and blood, so that if you do get pregnant, the impregnated egg will have all the nutrients and support to grow.
High estrogen levels are also associated with the appearance of ‘sperm-friendly’ mucus (or its technical name, fertile cervical mucus). You may notice this as a thin, smooth discharge that may be cloudy white. Sperm can swim more effortlessly through this mucus and can survive in it for several days.
Phase III : Ovulation
The level of estrogen in your body is still growing and it eventually causes a rapid increase in luteinising hormone (the ‘LH surge’). This LH surge causes the dominant follicle to break and release the mature egg from the ovary, and it goes into the Fallopian tube. This procedure is known as ovulation.
Many women think that they ovulate on day 14, but 14 is an average, and most women will actually ovulate on a different day of the menstrual cycle. Your day of ovulation will differ from cycle to cycle.. Some women claim to sense a twinge of pain when they ovulate, but many feel no sensation at all and there’s no other symptom that you are ovulating. If fertilization does not occur, the egg disintegrates within 6-24 hours.
Cervical mucus and position
Just before ovulation, a woman’s cervical mucus becomes clear and slippery, like raw egg white; it is very stretchy and can be stretched into a string between two fingers. This kind of cervical mucus is called ‘fertile mucus‘ because a woman is considered fertile when it is present. Fertile mucus supports and nurtures sperm as they travel up the vagina towards the opening of the cervix.
When a woman is in a non-fertile phase of her cycle, her cervical mucus differs in color and feel. It might be sticky, crumbly, gummy or creamy (like lotion) in texture, and white, milky or yellow in colour (3). This mucus cannot be stretched between the fingers and may have a sour odor. It is important to note that discharges related to spermicides, sexual arousal, semen,vaginal infections (e.g. thrush), lubricants and certain medications can all interfere with the appearance of cervical mucus.
The positioning of the cervix and its opening also alter throughout a woman’s cycle. At about the time of ovulation, the cervix moves into a higher position and its opening broadens. Some women may feel aches or pain around the time of ovulation. This pain can differ from cramps or a general ache in the abdomen to sharp pains in one side. Spotting (light bleeding) can also occur during this time.
Time of ovulation
Women often think that ovulation occurs mid-cycle. It actually occurs 12-16 days prior to the next period starts. So, although a woman with a 28-day cycle may ovulate mid-cycle (between day 12 and day 16), a woman with a 36-day cycle will ovulate between day 20 and day 24.
For women with regular cycles, an easy way to approximate the time of ovulation is to subtract 16 from the number of days in the cycle and then add 4. This will calculate the length of days in which ovulation is most likely to occur. For example, a woman with a 22-day cycle is most likely to ovulate between days 6 and 10 of her cycle (22-16 = 6 (+4 =10).
Ovulation and conception
Following ovulation, the egg’s lifespan can be up to 24 hours, but is usually between six and 12 hours. In contrast, sperm generally survive for three days, but can live inside the vagina for up to five days if optimal fertile cervical mucus is present. Pregnancy can therefore result from intercourse that occurs within a woman’s fertile window (from as early as five days before ovulation, until up to 24 hours following ovulation).
Phase IV : Luteal Phase
During this phase, the remnants of the follicle that released the egg (now called the corpus luteum) release huge amounts of the hormone progesterone as well as some oestrogen. These hormones contribute to the more thickening and preservation of the uterine lining. If fertilization does not happen, the corpus luteum break down and progesterone levels decrease, leading to the disintegration of the uterus lining. During the luteal phase, women may experience physical and emotional changes including tender or lumpy breasts,mood swings,anxiety, fluid retention, tiredness or bloating(Refer Premenstrual syndrome).
Once the egg (or ovum) has been out, it moves along the Fallopian tube towards womb. The egg can survive for up to 24 hours. Sperm survival is more inconstant, but typically 3-5 days, so the days before ovulation and the day of ovulation itself are your most fertile – when you are most likely to get pregnant. As soon as you have ovulated, the follicle begins producing another hormone: progesterone.
Progesterone causes further build up the lining of your womb in preparation for a fertilized egg. Meanwhile, the void follicle within the ovary starts to shrink, but carries on producing progesterone, and also begins to produce estrogen. You may get symptoms of pre-menstrual tension (PMS) such as breast tenderness,irritability, lethargy, depression and bloating at this stage.
If the egg has been impregnated, it may successfully implant itself into the womb lining. This usually takes place about a week after fertilization.
As soon as the impregnated egg has implanted, your body starts producing the pregnancy hormone, human Chorionic Gonadotrophin (hCG), which will keep the void follicle active. It continues to yield the hormones estrogen and progesterone to avert the lining of the womb from being shed, until the placenta (which contains all the nutrients the embryo needs) is mature enough to preserve the pregnancy.
The fertile window
To have the best probabilities of conceiving, you need to permit a few days before and after the calculated ovulation date. The egg has a lifespan of 24 hours and the sperm cells up to 4 days, which stretches a window of about 6 days.
How to recognize ovulation
- Body temperature surges (take your temperature in the morning as soon as you wake up, before getting out of bed) by, 3 to 5 tenths of a degree.
- Cervical mucus becomes flawless, with more abundant fluid.
- You might experience some pain in your lower stomach, on the side where the ovary has released the ovum.
Preparing for the next period…
As the empty follicle shrinks, if the egg is not impregnated, levels of estrogen and progesterone drop. Due to decreased levels of hormones, the thick womb lining starts to break down, and your body shacks the lining. This is the start of your period and the beginning of your next menstrual cycle.
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