The symptoms of the menstrual phase of your cycle start on the first day or just before you start to bleed. Most of the bleeding happens during the first three days of this phase. It may be heavy or light and you may also experience period pain. Period pain is usually described as cramping pain in the stomach. It can be a dull ache and may be quite severe. Some people find they get lower back pain and even sometimes pain which travels in the legs.
Your oestrogen levels are at their lowest on day one of your period. At this time a hormone known as Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is also released from part of the brain. This signals to the ovaries that it is time to start preparing a new egg.
The Follicular Phase
This is the longest part of your cycle. The follicles – fluid-filled cavities in your ovaries – start developing. Over time, one follicle will become the more dominant and it’s in this follicle that a mature egg will grow.
While this occurs, the lining of the uterus becomes thicker. Around the time of ovulation, oestrogen levels become high. This causes changes such as a white discharge in your underwear. The cloudy white mucus is from your cervix and is designed to help sperm as they are able to survive in it for 2–3 days.
The last five days, leading up to and including the day of ovulation, are the most fertile days in the cycle. Extra care is needed in taking precautions, as there is a higher chance of pregnancy when having sex without contraception during this time.
Ovulation is the release of an egg from one of the ovaries. This can happen at any time from day 7 to 22 in a normal menstrual cycle, although it usually happens around day 14.
You may notice a few symptoms around the time that you ovulate: red ‘spotting’ is common for a day and many women also feel discomfort in their pelvic area. This is called ‘mittelschmerz’ and is nothing to worry about.
If the egg is not fertilised, the menstrual cycle restarts with a bleed.
You may also notice that a day or so after you ovulate, your basal body temperature increases by a tiny amount, usually 0.1–0.2 degrees. This is because your body releases more progesterone to support the thickening of the uterus lining, which raises your temperature slightly. It usually stays elevated until the start of your next cycle, unless you become pregnant, in which case it stays higher for longer.
Luteal (premenstrual) phase
This phase follows ovulation. If conception has occurred, and the fertilised egg has implanted into the lining of your uterus, you are now pregnant. The due date is then calculated from day one of the cycle. If there is no pregnancy, the uterus lining starts to break down causing the next period.
In most women (between their teenage years and the peri-menopause in their forties) the luteal phase, which takes you from ovulation to the start of the next cycle, lasts around 13 to 15 days. This premenstrual period can result in symptoms of Premenstrual Syndrome or PMS – mood changes (anger, tension, feeling emotional) and physical changes which can include:
- water retention
- painful breasts
- acne and spots
PMS symptoms should improve when your period starts and will normally disappear a few days later. Over 100 different symptoms of PMS have been recorded, and they can change from cycle to cycle. If you’re concerned about your PMS, keep a diary of your symptoms for a few months and then speak to your doctor.