Let’s get it out in the open right now: A lot of people around the world menstruate.
There. I said it. Now that the hard part is over with, we can talk about the logistics of this life-giving process!
I believe it is important to understand what is happening to the body when it goes through menstruation. You might have a male body or female body or one that is somewhere in between or beyond, and understanding this topic is still relevant to you! Everyone in the world will know someone whose body will go through this process at one point or another, so let’s break it down.
Menstruation – i.e., your “period” – is only one phase of the menstrual cycle. Throughout approximately 28-day long cycles, there are three distinct phases that occur, and the menstrual phase is the one that we all know/love/hate the most out of all of them. Menstruation, in medical terms, is “the breakdown of the endometrium at approximately monthly intervals, with consequent loss of tissue and blood from the uterus.”
Whoa whoa whoa – what is an “endometrium”? The endometrium is the inner lining of the uterus, and it serves to allow an embryo to implant and be nourished so that it can grow.
Occuring around the menstrual phase, there are two phases known as the preovulatory/follicular and the postovulatory/luteal phases. The preovulatory/follicular phase occurs between menstruation and ovulation (release of an ovum – egg – from an ovary) during which follicles are developing in the ovaries. During the postovulatory/luteal phase, between ovulation and menstruation, a hormone-secreting structure called a luteum is formed from a follicle inside an ovary.
Confused yet? Simply put, here is the average 28-day cycle: Menstruation (days 1-5) > Preovulatory (days 6-14) > Ovulation > Postovulatory (days 15-28) > Repeat!
Many individuals will vary in the length of the different phases of the cycle as well as the regularity of the cycle itself, but these phases are the standard that you see across the entire process, and it is happening all the time – isn’t the body an amazing machine?
Remember when we talked about the endometrium and the fact that it regularly breaks down and the body loses tissue and blood as a result? Hopefully you haven’t repressed the memory, because now we can talk about why the body would do such a thing so often! The inner lining breaks down as a result of a drop in the levels of progesterone circulating the body. Progesterone is a sex hormone that helps maintain pregnancy, so when the body realizes it isn’t going to be carrying a fetus, progesterone levels drop and get rid of all of the preparations in the uterus. All of the extra tissue that was created to help support a fetus is unnecessary and is shed, leading to what we know as the period.It is kind of like the body is all excited and expecting that a baby (i.e., an embryo) is going to come any day, so it sets up this really great nursery (i.e., the uterus) and equips it with super high-tech gizmos to make the baby thrive (i.e., the inner lining of the uterus proliferating with tissue and blood). Then someone says, “Just kidding! No baby this time, but maybe in a few weeks!” and now the body has to tear down all of its hard work that turned out to be for nothing!
Once the body has gone through the menstrual phase, it starts all over at the preovulatory phase. Hormones trigger the development of around 20 follicles that serve to secrete hormones, and those hormones will cause the inner lining of the uterus to thicken. Eventually, only one of the developed follicles remains. Just prior to ovulation (between 1 and 2 days before), estrogen levels rise even more and drive the development of that remaining follicle. The follicle can then grow and push on the wall of the ovary it resides in, and *bursts* at the moment of ovulation, releasing an ovum (egg) and the cells that will support it.
Nearby structures at the opening of the oviducts (fallopian tubes) help propel the ovum into the oviducts in the hope of sperm being there to fertilize the egg. If no sperm fertilize the egg, it will die after about 24 hours in the oviduct. Once this process has occurred, the postovulatory/luteal phase is marked by the uterus spending about 2 weeks preparing for the possibility of pregnancy (since it doesn’t know that the ovum was not fertilized). That follicle that burst earlier? It will secrete progesterone, which, if you recall, causes the endometrium to thicken. Since the body will not go through a pregnancy, the menstrual phase will then follow.
Congratulations! Now you know the basics of the menstrual cycle and can see how much a body may go through in preparation for a possible pregnancy. You might be wondering, though – what about all of those other things that are associated with getting one’s “period”? You know what I mean: The cramps, the mood swings, food cravings, etc. Well, progesterone can help explain the mood swings at least a little bit. Progesterone doesn’t just make the endometrium thicken to help support an embryo, it also acts as an anxiety-reducing agent! Towards the end of the postovulatory phase, when progesterone says “adios” and its levels drop because the body isn’t going to support an embryo, there may be a subsequent rise in irritability or anxiety.
As for the other symptoms, each body experiences the menstrual cycle in unique ways, because different individuals respond to their bodies’ sex hormones in unique ways. No level of hormone, type of body, or menstrual cycle is the same, and this leads to a very wide range of normal responses to getting one’s period. However, if you are ever concerned about the way your body is behaving, visit a doctor that you are comfortable with and have a conversation about it!
The topic of menstruation is one that is addressed in different ways across the world and even within small communities, so I cannot be the one to tell you to be open and comfortable talking about it. However, from this author’s unique perspective, I hope that on a personal level, you are able to respect what your body is trying to do for you and find a way to rid yourself any shame that you may feel about it, because you and your body are amazing.
Photo credit: http://www.rupikaur.com/post/114451663155/period-a-photo-series-shot-by-sisters-rupi-and (check this out!)