Understanding The 4 Menstrual Cycle Phases & Working With Them

menstrual cycle phases
Photo by Polina Zimmerman

Did you know the average woman will have 450 menstrual cycles in her lifetime? Yet, most of us have little to no knowledge of the menstrual cycle phases we go through each month.

Why?

Because school fails to give us more than one class on the topic of periods. The boys are swiftly kicked out, we’re shown what a pad and tampon look like, and it’s never spoken about again.

Our mother or sister or friends may fill in some of the gaps, but they’re only able to share with us what they know.

People are still uncomfortable with the word “period,” although half the population has them.

What do we learn?

That our periods are something that happens once a month and should be hidden, especially from men. We learn they’re a burden that we are forced to endure. This is what our patriarchal society has reduced the menstrual cycle to.

Shame. Fear. Pain. Curse. Frustration. Lack. Weakness. Crazy emotional women.

But I’m here to tell you this is bullshit. All of it. It’s an attempt to keep you disconnected from your power and intuition as a woman.

Your menstrual cycle is incredible. It’s totally unique to you. It ties you to the natural rhythm of the earth and the moon and signals to your brain and body what you need most and when.

It’s special, and it’s sacred.

It’s more than just a week of bleeding—this is only the first phase of the cycle. You are on your menstrual cycle right now. As women, we never stop cycling.

A menstrual cycle has four unique phases (or seasons), and each one has a different energy that we can harness and work with. When we work with our cycle, instead of pushing against it or ignoring it (like we’re taught to), we start to feel in flow and at peace within ourselves. Life becomes less of a struggle. We give ourselves what we need exactly when we need it.

Can you imagine how different your world would be if you knew how to work in harmony with the natural stages of your menstrual cycle?

Seeking out this knowledge and weaving it into my daily life has revolutionized my relationship with my own menstrual cycle. I have no doubt it will do the same for you.

Welcome to your menstrual cycle

The beginning of your menstrual cycle is the first day you start bleeding each month. This is known as day one of your cycle.

A complete menstrual cycle usually lasts between 21 and 40 days. But this can vary between cycles and may change over the years between menarche (when you get your first period) and menopause (when your periods stop) depending on many different factors.

It’s important to remember that every woman is different, and there’s no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” cycle. We’ll explore this in more detail later in this article.

The physical purpose of your menstrual cycle is to prepare your reproductive organs for a potential pregnancy, which happens through a change in the level of hormones being released (mostly estrogen and progesterone). If you do get pregnant, your cycle will stop. If you don’t (which is most of the time), the menstrual cycle continues to repeat itself.

But there’s more than just a physical purpose of your cycle, which is why I’ll be combining both the physical and energetic aspects of the menstrual cycle phases for you below.

FYI: Hormonal birth control methods (like the pill and implant) prevent some or all of the steps of your cycle from happening, which prevents pregnancy from occurring. You still have what appears to be a period each cycle, but it’s not a real period; it’s a false one.

menstrual cycle phases

The 4 menstrual cycle phases

What are the 4 stages of the menstrual cycle?

Phase 1: Menstruation Phase

This is also known as your period or your moon time. The uterine lining sheds and the levels of both estrogen and progesterone in your body are low.

Phase 2: Follicular Phase

This is the time between the last day of your period and ovulation. Levels of estrogen rise in your body in preparation for an egg being released.

Phase 3: Ovulatory Phase

This is the shortest phase of the menstrual cycle. An egg is released during the middle of your cycle. Estrogen levels peak right before this happens and then fall afterward.

Phase 4: Luteal Phase

This is the final stage which happens after ovulation and continues until the first day of your next bleed. Your body is preparing itself for potential pregnancy during this time. Progesterone is produced, reaches its peak, and then falls.

Menstruation and ovulation are like stable anchor points in your cycle. The two phases that happen between these are days of transition.

As you move from menstruation to ovulation, you experience expansion, and your energy is directed outward. As you move from ovulation back to menstruation again, you experience contraction as your energy is directed inward again.

Did you know your menstrual cycle phases mirror the moon phases?

Yes!

The four menstrual cycle phases are all unique and correspond to one of the four main phases of the moon cycle.

But it doesn’t stop there. Each phase is also linked to one of the four seasons and one of the four female archetypes.

Here’s what this looks like:

Menstruation Phase / Winter / New Moon / Crone

Follicular Phase / Spring / Waxing Moon / Maiden

Ovulatory Phase / Summer / Full Moon / Mother

Luteal Phase / Autumn/Fall / Waning Moon / Wild Woman

If this is completely new to you, please don’t let it overwhelm you. I won’t go into detail on the moon phases or archetypes here, but you can check out these articles if you’re interested in learning more:

Traditionally, women bleed around the new moon and ovulate with the full moon. This is known as a white moon cycle. But of course, every woman has a different cycle and bleeds at a different time. The opposite of this is when a woman bleeds at the full moon and ovulates during the new moon. This is known as a red moon cycle. There are also pink and purple moon cycles which are less common.

The cycle we follow can change frequently depending on so many internal and external circumstances.

None of these cycles are better; just different.

Now, let’s explore the four menstrual phases in more detail.

Phase 1 — Menstrual Phase

When: days 1–6

This is your period, and the menstrual phase begins on the first day you bleed each cycle. This phase typically lasts between 3 and 7 days.

What’s physically happening in your body is the level of progesterone is plummeting, which causes the uterine lining to shed. This is why we bleed.

Many women and men believe that a period is only the menstruation phase, but this is just one part of the entire cycle which is continuous. Like the seasons of the earth and the cycles of the moon, women are always turning. We are always cycling. It’s a constant birth, death, rebirth cycle.

Menstrual phase symptoms

  • cramps
  • tender breasts
  • bloating
  • mood swings
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • low back pain

If you suffer from period pain, check out this article on natural remedies for relieving period pain.

Common menstrual health issues

Some women experience extreme symptoms during their menstrual phase. Here are some of the common issues:

Dysmenorrhoea

This is the term for when women experience painful periods. It is thought to be caused by the uterus squeezing harder than it needs to shed its lining.

Heavy menstrual bleeding

If you experience a heavy blood flow throughout your menstrual phase, you may be affected by this. There are many treatment options available that can help regulate your flow.

Amenorrhoea

This is the absence of menstruation (you don’t bleed). Unless you’re yet to get your first period, pregnant, lactating, or postmenopausal, this is considered irregular. Several potential causes include excessive exercise, malnourishment, or too low or high body weight.

If you’re experiencing one of the above menstrual health issues (or something else), I encourage you to consult your doctor and a holistic health practitioner to help ease your symptoms and potentially treat the cause.

In many cases, irregular or painful periods are caused by lifestyle choices or because we’re ignoring our cycle and not giving our mind or body what it needs.

How to work with the energy of the menstrual phase

menstrual cycle symptoms

The bleeding phase of the menstrual cycle is known as Winter.

It’s a time for solitude, retreating, and self-care.

At this point in your cycle, your energy will be at its lowest. You’re likely to feel tired, drained, and withdrawn.

If you can take a nap during the day or even a day off from work, do so. Usually, this isn’t practical, but try and give yourself as much rest as you can on the first three days of your bleed.

When I try and carry on as normal, my body always suffers as a result. I deplete my energy reserves and end up crashing.

This is not a time for planning big social gatherings or going out—plan in plenty of alone time for yourself. Take small windows of quiet and solitude, even if it’s just ten minutes brewing and sipping a cup of tea.

Avoid strenuous exercise, but try and go for a gentle walk if you can. The fresh air will be soothing and help you sleep better at night.

I always avoid having sex while on my period (and inversions in my yoga practice) because I believe it disrupts the natural flow of energy, which moves downward. But this is a personal choice you should make for yourself.

The menstrual phase is also a wonderful time to journal and reflect. Your intuition is at its strongest right now, so create space to connect with yourself. If your bleeding phase happens around the new moon, it’s the perfect time to set new intentions for the coming moon cycle.

I know it’s hard to honor this slower pace since we live in a world that pushes us to ignore our cycle and soldier on like machines. But if you give yourself the rest you need in this phase, you’ll set yourself up to thrive in the next stages.

Phase 2 — The Follicular Phase

When: days 7–13

The second of the menstrual cycle phases is known as the follicular phase because your pituitary gland releases a hormone called Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH). The follicles in your ovaries contain your eggs, and this hormone stimulates those follicles to mature.

This phase begins the day after your final day of bleeding. Your body is now preparing to release an egg.

Estrogen and testosterone both begin to rise and provide a welcome boost of energy. Testosterone stimulates your libido, while estrogen makes you feel more extroverted and zippy.

Follicular Phase Symptoms

  • Energy returning and building
  • Boost in mood
  • Increased libido

How to work with the energy of the Follicular Phase

follicular phase

Spring has sprung! If you’ve given yourself the rest and space you needed during your menstrual phase, you’ll find yourself vibrating with new energy and optimism during the follicular phase.

Think of it this way: you’re coming out of hibernation, stretching your legs, and venturing out into the world once more to explore and enjoy new adventures. Everything feels a little brighter and warmer.

Allow your focus to naturally shift from inward to outward as your progress through this phase. I love taking a blissful bath on the first day of this phase to celebrate the end of my bleeding.

Now is the perfect time to start new projects or ventures. Think about what you want to get done this cycle or where you want to focus your energy. Is there someone in particular you want to see or spend time with?

Be intentional with your time and energy. Plan and organize. Reconnect to your goals and big vision, and begin taking small steps to work towards them.

Your creative energy is also high during this phase, so make space for creativity as much as you can, whatever that looks like for you.

Phase 3 — The Ovulatory Phase

When: days 14–16

All the work your body has been doing over the past two phases comes together during the third phase, which is ovulation. This is the shortest of the menstrual cycle phases and will last between two to three days.

An egg is released from its follicle in your ovary and can survive for a short window of 12-24 hours. Although women bear the burden of taking the contraceptive pill (or some other measure) to avoid pregnancy, it is actually men who are fertile 24/7.

Estrogen and testosterone levels continue to rise during the ovulatory phase and reach their peak. This means all that energy and excitement that was building in the follicular phase is now magnified and expanded.

Ovulatory Phase Symptoms

  • A rise in your basal body temperature
  • Thicker discharge
  • Your sex drive is at its peak
  • Boost of confidence and general mood

How to work with the energy of the Ovulatory Phase

ovulatory phase

Welcome to summer.

You’re likely to feel brighter, bolder, more confident, and even competitive during the ovulatory phase.

Think about whatever makes you feel most alive and expansive, and spend time doing more of these things.

Now is the time to get outdoors, meet friends, date, party, network, and enjoy plenty of physical activity.

Your energy is at its highest during this phase, so make the most of it! Get out of your comfort zone, try new things, and say yes to things you usually say no to.

Don’t forget to make play and adventure a priority. Plan road trips or weekends away, laugh, break the rules, be silly, and most importantly, have fun.

Phase 4 — The Luteal Phase

When: days 17–28

The first part of the luteal phase will feel similar to the ovulatory phase. After a few days, estrogen and testosterone levels will begin to fall, and progesterone levels will rise. This phase can last anywhere between 10 to 16 days.

In the second week, estrogen levels will rise in preparation for pregnancy. But if there’s no pregnancy, then both estrogen and progesterone decline and the uterine lining will begin to shed.

Luteal Phase Symptoms

The second half of this phase is notorious for being the most difficult part of the menstrual cycle phases due to PMS symptoms.

This includes:

  • bloating
  • breast swelling, pain, or tenderness
  • mood changes
  • irritability
  • headaches
  • anxiety
  • weight gain
  • changes in sexual desire
  • food cravings
  • fatigue
  • trouble sleeping

Sometimes a simple change to your diet and an increase in exercise can help alleviate some or all of your PMS symptoms.

How to work with the energy of the luteal Phase

what are the 4 stages of menstrual cycle

We have now reached the season of Autumn. We’ve been expanding throughout the menstrual cycle up to ovulation, and now we begin contracting once more.

Now is the time to start to slow down, plan, and prepare.

Complete anything that needs your attention before the menstruation phase begins again: work projects, chores, to-do lists.

One of the main reasons many women suffer so badly with PMS is because we don’t honor this part of our cycle—because we’re actively discouraged from doing so. We’re taught to go go go, and so we try to keep going and doing more more more. But our bodies are not made to keep going like this. We need rest and reflection.

During the luteal phase, we begin to turn off the lights and step within into our shadows. It’s important not to judge anything that arises for you during this time. Practice acceptance. This is how you heal and grow.

Make time for self-care, especially during the week before your period. Give yourself alone time, eat a healthy balanced diet, enjoy soothing exercises like yin yoga or swimming, and take more rest.

You will notice how you shift from feeling extroverted to more introverted during this phase. Go with this natural flow. You’re making the journey inwards again.

And that’s a brief look at the menstrual cycle phases, what your hormones are doing, common symptoms you may experience, plus how to work with the natural energy of each phase.

Just like seasons, each phase of the menstrual cycle has its own beauty and magic. But we must be open to it if we hope to make the most of the gifts being offered to us.

Factors that can affect your menstrual cycle phases

Many different factors can affect your menstrual cycle and cause you to experience an irregular cycle or not experience a cycle at all.

Birth control

As I briefly mentioned earlier, the “period” you experience on the contraceptive pill is not an actual period. It’s a fake period that is usually shorter and lighter than a real one. And some birth control methods will stop your periods altogether.

If you want more information on this, I’d highly recommend you check out a couple of books. The first one is How The Pill Changes Everything and the second one is Beyond the Pill.

Pregnancy

Periods usually stop during pregnancy, which is why a missed period is one of the most common first signs that you’re pregnant.

Polycystic ovary syndrome

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal imbalance that prevents an egg from developing normally in your ovaries. This can cause irregular or missed periods.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, can disrupt your menstrual cycle and cause your periods to stop.

Signs of an irregular menstrual cycle:

  • Your periods are irregular and unpredictable
  • Your periods have completely stopped
  • Your periods are less than 21 days or more than 40 days apart
  • You bleed for more than 7 days each cycle
  • You bleed between periods (a heavier bleed than spotting)

If you’re noticing any of these signs with your menstrual cycle, I’d recommend consulting your doctor and a holistic health practitioner (if you haven’t already). There may be a simple explanation for why you’re experiencing irregular or no periods, as well as a simple solution.

Remember, every woman’s menstrual cycle will be slightly different. Let go of any judgment you have around your cycle.

Get to know your sacred cycle

Have you ever taken the time to get to know your unique cycle on an intimate level?

As I keep on mentioning, every woman’s cycle is different. What’s normal for you may not be normal for your sister or your best friend. Some women get their cycle every 29 days like clockwork. Others will bleed for a longer number of days. Some women have a more irregular cycle.

Other factors can also affect your cycle. For example, when I spent four weeks doing my first yoga teacher training in Thailand, my period ended up being over a week late. It makes sense because I was doing over four hours of exercise every day and eating different food, both of which my body wasn’t used to.

Just a couple of months ago, my period was again about a week late. This was because I had a particularly stressful month and was working harder than usual.

Tracking your cycle is a beautiful way to get to know it on a deeper level and fully experience the changes you flow through from one phase to the next. You’ll also be able to more easily predict when your period is due, organize your schedule according to whichever phase you’re in, and give yourself what you need.

You can do this with a pen and paper, using a journal, or using one of the many period apps and trackers available today.

How to track your menstrual cycle phases

period trackng app

Using pen & paper

Start tracking your cycle from the next time you start bleeding. Record this as day 1, and continue to record all your days after this one. When you get your next bleed, you’ll be on to your next cycle, and you’ll start from day 1 again.

Record how you feel each day, any shifts you notice in your energy or mood, and anything else that feels relevant or prominent to you. Make a note of the days when you bleed, how heavy or light your flow is, as well as any spotting between periods.

Even if you have an irregular cycle, the simple act of tracking it can help you feel more at ease and at peace with your unique cycle.

Tracking your temperature

You’ll need a basal body thermometer to properly measure and record your temperature each day. This is a thermometer with two decimal places. Each morning before you get out of bed, pop your thermometer under your tongue and measure your temperature. Write it down somewhere.

This information will help you see what phase you’re in of your cycle, when ovulation happens, and when your period is due. This is how the popular contraceptive app Natural Cycles works. If you’d prefer some guidance and you don’t mind the idea of using an app to track your temperature, I’d recommend checking them out. I’ve been using NC for over three years now as my form of natural contraception, and I love it. It can be used to both prevent and plan a pregnancy.

There are plenty of other menstrual cycle planning apps that will help you track your cycle and notice patterns and changes.

Menstrual cycle awareness is empowering!

It’s never too late to learn something new. There’s no better time than right now to reclaim the power of your menstrual cycle and start working in harmony with this natural flow.

If you’re interested in learning more about your menstrual cycle and moon cycle, here are some other articles I’ve written that you might be interested in:

Do you track your cycle, or have you tracked it in the past? Are you nervous about giving it a go?

Let me know in the comments below!

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