Grateful as she is to be someone who menstruates regularly, since turning 30, Aisling Keenan’s cycle has been so well-defined, but simultaneously so intensely in-your-face that she’s decided she’s just a bit over it. Here, she talks everyone who menstruates about exactly what JOYS to expect throughout the month…[restrict]
For those who might not be clear, a woman’s menstrual cycle is divided into four phases:
- menstrual phase
- follicular phase
- ovulation phase
- luteal phase
Or as I call them:
- The “I’m nauseous, in pain, irritable and constantly uncomfortable, WHY ME?!” phase
- The “IT’S GONE, pass me the nice underwear! Let’s EXERCIIIIIISE” phase
- The very warm, very discharge-y, very horny and very teary phase
- The “I can’t sleep, I’m bloated, I might cry or hit you so DON’T TOUCH ME” phase
Since entering my 30s, I’ve been able to tell, without counting or checking, exactly where I am in my cycle based on my likelihood of crying at a stranger who held a door open for me. If my husband so much as glances my direction on day 14, I near pass out from the sheer desire for the ride. And if anyone – anyone – antagonises me around day 23, 24? Well. They’re getting it both barrels.
Long story short, my cycle is incredibly well-defined these days. I have used a period tracker called Flo (highly recommended) for about four years, but lately I’ve been able to predict my cycle even better than the technology can. Being so tuned-in to my body and my cycle has helped me endlessly.
What I’ve noticed, however, is there doesn’t seem to be a week of just ‘ah, let’s relax’ or a time where I’m not a bit warm, a bit annoyed, a bit too emotional. Every week brings a new barrage of symptoms. And, like many, many women: I’m exhausted from it. And the knowledge that menopause is meant to be worse again doesn’t help ease the irritation.
To help me make more sense of it, I asked an expert to confirm for me if I was imagining things or if everyone else was going through more ups and downs than the Tayto Park rollercoaster.
Dr Shirin Lakhani is a recognised expert in the field of intimate health for both men and women. A leader in the industry, she offers innovative treatments for incontinence, the menopause and sexual dysfunction among other things at her clinic, Elite Aesthetics in Kent, UK.
I asked her, firstly, if it was normal for my menstrual cycle to be so powerfully defined that at times I feel like I am in direct and constant dialogue with my own ovaries.
‘While your 20s is the time that most women find their period flow becomes consistent, the regularity can still vary a lot. However, most women will find that during their early 30s their menstrual cycle is more consistent and predictable, which means that symptoms such as a suddenly heavier flow or more intense pain could be a sign of something else such as Endometriosis and should be checked by your doctor,” Dr Lakhani told me.
Grateful as ever not to experience pain on the level that would indicate a more serious condition, I have noticed a heavier period of late, and can often feel which side I’m ovulating from. And, as Dr Lakhani tells me, it’s almost guaranteed to get worse.
“The 30s is also the decade when many women have children, which can of course play havoc with the cycle for months if not years afterwards,” she tells me. “For some the latter half of the decade brings about changes in the menstrual cycle as the perimenopause begins to set in. It’s more normal to experience this in your 40s, but for some it does happen in the late 30s. The average menstrual cycle for women in their late 30s and 40s tends to be shorter cycles with heavier bleeding. You can also expect some variation in the number of days of bleeding and the flow can vary.”
So, as I said earlier, I always know when I’m ovulating based on both discharge changes and sex drive levels being incredibly high. I asked if that was normal or if my burning loins were just a result of watching too many Ryan Gosling films.
Dr Lakhani said: ‘Before ovulation you’re most likely to experience increased libido and then a drop in libido once ovulation occurs, This phase of increased sexual desire lasts for approximately six days to coincide with the production of the luteinizing hormone. As ovulation approaches, more cervical fluid is produced and so you’ll notice your vagina feeling wetter and the discharge becoming stretchier and slippery, like egg whites, as you ovulate.”
Why yes, doctor. Can confirm.
SURGING AND PLUNGING
Being the total moanbag I am (I’m in my day 24 mood, which is basically a giant two fingers to everything), I lamented to Dr Lakhani that it sometimes feels like we only get one week per month where there isn’t a surge of some kind, either up or down with hormones. Is that the case, technically?
Patiently humouring me, Dr Lakhani told me: “The menstrual cycle is a complex journey of the hormones. Technically there is no stage during the cycle when the hormone levels aren’t surging or plunging in some way; In the first week estrogen starts out low and begins to rise, with it you become more optimistic and positive, in the second week estrogen and testosterone rise until they peak – making you braver and ready for a challenge, the third week is more complex because for the first half the progesterone rises while the estrogen and testosterone drop – this is when you experience a mood drop, but by the second half of the week estrogen rises again putting a stop to the PMS symptoms. The fourth and final week of the cycle sees the estrogen and progesterone plunge, dragging your mood down with it.”
Surging and plunging. I identify so strongly with both of those concepts. I asked Dr Lakhani if she saw the value in monitoring your menstrual cycle closely, with an app or otherwise, and whether trying to conceive or not.
“There are currently a lot of menstrual cycle monitoring apps available. From a medical perspective I do not think that they are suitable for improving chances of conception or indeed using them as a contraceptive. However, anything that enables you to understand your body and moods in relation to it can only be a benefit.
“Tracking your monthly cycle can be beneficial for a whole host of reasons; it can help you change your skincare and exercise regime at certain times of the month to allow for the effects of hormone fluctuations, it can help you to prepare yourself for changes in moods or irritability, and it can also help you to understand bloating, stomach pain and bodily temperature changes that occur at certain times. By tracking your cycle you can plan your life accordingly.”
SORT MY LIFE OUT
I told the ever-patient doctor that I sometimes avoid organising high-energy or high-concentration appointments based on where I am in my cycle, knowing that my tiredness or my lack of focus will hold me back. She told me that is common, and sometimes necessary, for many women.
“It is common for women to organise their diary according to their cycle, and their mood and energy levels at certain times in it. While it’s not always necessary, it can help in many areas from business to sport and I certainly think that by making people more aware of these hormone changes and subsequent mood and energy changes during the month then greater awareness can be given to what a huge part it plays in women’s lives,” she explained.
Lastly, Dr Lakhani talked to me about the breaking down of the period taboo, in light of the recently banned Tampax ad.
“Thankfully, due to campaigns to end period poverty and the increase in media coverage of the subject, the conversation around menstruation and women’s health in general is definitely shifting,” she said.
“The taboo around women’s menstrual cycles is finally being broken and women are teaching their daughters, and sons that it is no longer something to talk about in hushed tones or to shy away from. It’s as natural a part of life as going to the toilet, and as education continues to improve and men and women alike get on board with the fact that it’s nothing to be ashamed of then we can hope that one day it will be talked about openly and any negativity around it will cease.”
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