What is a menstrual cycle (and how is it different from a period?)

By Nikki Michelsen

Oct 7, 2022

What is a menstrual cycle (and how is it different from a period?)
What’s the difference between a menstrual cycle and a period?
Periods and the stages of the menstrual cycle shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone, let alone the people who experience them. Unfortuately, society has, for far too long, seen the female body as something shameful, to be hidden, never discussed. As a result, many people are left knowing little to nothing about their menstrual cycles, their periods, and their hormones. Despite what the lack of sufficient education and spreading of misinformation may have led you to believe, the female body is not a breeding ground of erratic, unpredictable hormones and mysterious biological functions governed by the moon or the goddess venus. Even if no-one’s ever sat you down to explain exactly what your body is doing and why it is doing it, there’s a rhyme and a reason to your every mood swing and your every bloated belly. We think everyone has a right to be as well informed as possible about their periods and the stages of the menstrual cycle, so we’re going to do our best to fill in some of the gaps and answer some of the questions you might have. And hey, babe, there’s no shame in the things you don’t know. We’re passionate about menstrual education because not too long ago your questions were our questions too.
We used one of our weekly ‘Would You Rather Wednesday’ polls over on Instagram to find out how much our followers know about their own menstrual cycles, so we’ll be referencing the findings throughout!
So… what is a period?
And how is it different from a menstrual cycle? This stuff should have been covered at school but, sadly, health education is not always what it should be… and teachers are not infallible human beings immune to the internalised shame and taboos which haunt the rest of us. As a result, many of us may remember a visibly nervous P.E. teacher telling us that girls get their periods when they hit puberty and that getting your period means you can get pregnant. And then picking up a banana and a condom and dutifully ignoring the giggles from the back of the classroom. And that’s if you’re lucky: many kids just get told to abstain from sex altogether, leaving them utterly ignorant of the consequences of unprotected sex and vulnerable to the highly unreliable teachings of social media.
So let’s get back to basics, shall we?
A menstrual cycle is the process your body goes through to prepare for a baby each month. The uterus, or baby oven, if you will, builds up a lining every month which is filled with blood and nutrients. In the event that you have unprotected sex with a cis male and one of his sperm successfully fertilises one of your eggs (that’s a lot of ifs, I know, but it turns out babies are both purposefully and accidentally conceived every day!) it’s a safe, pillowy little nest in which to grow a baby for the next nine months. When this doesn’t happen – so, the majority of the months in your life, ta for that one Mother Nature – the baby-nest becomes surplus to requirements and your body wants all that stuff outta there. The getting-rid of this stuff happens by way of your period.
A period is the actual bleeding part – it’s part of your menstrual cycle, but ‘period’ and ‘menstrual cycle’ are not synonymous. As for the flow itself (the blood and gunk that comes out), most of us have probably been told that there’s only an average of 6-8 teaspoons worth of blood lost during an average period. And most of us have probably thought yeah right, pal, you should’ve seen the state of my bedsheets after I sneezed on the second night of my period that one time. A whopping 45% of people who answered our poll thought it had to be 6-8 tablespoons, not teaspoons. But the reason that statement is baffling is not because its inaccurate, but because it’s shockingly rarely followed up by ‘oh, and a shit ton of other things all mixed up into a vermillion concoction that’s actually less than 50% blood.’ I mean, it makes sense when you think about it. The stuff our pads and tampons so helpfully collect for us looks pretty different to the stuff that seeps out of cuts on our arms or legs, for example. In addition to blood, the menstrual flow is actually made up of a mixture of cervical mucus, endometrial tissue, and vaginal secretions.
Is my period normal? (And what the F is normal anyway?)
We’re not massive fans of using the words ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal.’ Periods can vary so much person to person, month to month, and we’re not in the business of trying to scare you. But there are some useful statistics and guidelines that can help you get to grips with what’s going on in there and give you an idea of what’s ‘normal’ for you.
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long, but can last anywhere from 21-35 days in adults. So don’t get too attached to what the calendar is telling you – even if you’re used to a 28 day cycle, if your period pops up early one month, your new menstrual cycle begins then. It’s actually totally normal for your period to switch it up every now and then (because they do like to mess with your head, don’t they?). Especially if you’re young, an irregular period is nothing to fuss about. Teenager’s menstrual cycles can often last up to 45 days. You’ll be relieved to know that the older you get, the more likely it is you’ll be able to plan your holidays around your period, as they do start to settle down. Although anything from diet and alcohol consumption to stress and your exercise routine can affect your cycle length and regularity. Bear that in mind if you’re a fan of a pre-holiday juice cleanse!
We’d mainly recommend going to see the doctor if you’ve missed your period for 90 days or more – even if you aren’t having sex with cis men! There are many reasons your periods could have stopped that have nothing to do with pregnancy and, while it could be nothing to worry about, it’s always worth being safe. Similarly, if you’re experiencing particularly painful periods, don’t suffer in silence. Get yourself checked out.
The stages of the menstrual cycle
The exact timing of stuff happening inside your body will vary depending on the length of your cycle. But here’s a breakdown of roughly what’s going on based on a 28 day cycle.
The period (the very beginning)
Day one of your menstrual cycle is the first day of your period. Kudos to the 73% of Instagram respondents who knew this already. When your period starts, so does your new menstrual cycle, regardless of how long or short it is. Your actual period will probably last anywhere between 3-7 days and can vary cycle to cycle. The unfertilised egg is breaking down and the lining of your uterus is shedding.
If you’re taking hormonal birth control, it’s unlikely you’ll experience a period in this way (though some spotting is quite common) because they’re designed to prevent ovulation occurring. No ovulation = no egg = no period. It’s understandable that there were such split opinions on this (60-40 in favour of not getting a period) on the poll, however, as the scope and range of different birth controls available is pretty daunting and its confusing to keep track of which ones do what. Remember to always read the small print on whatever birth control you might be taking and ask your doctor any and every question you can think of!
Now, listen up, because 23% of people on Instagram reckoned there was ‘no way’ you could make a baby while on your period. It may be unlikely, sure, but sperm can live for up to five days inside your body. So if you have sex in the last couple days of your period and then experience early ovulation in your next cycle, it could happen. The chances are low, so don’t freak out, but we think it’s important you know what’s up.
What to expect: This is the part where the blood (et al) comes out. You’re possibly experiencing cramps and it’s likely you feel sleepy and unmotivated. The good news is, your PMS symptoms will be decreasing and any bloating will hopefully be subsiding.
By day seven, you can expect to have stopped bleeding. Around this point in your cycle, your hormones cause follicles to develop on the ovaries – these are little pockets of fluid which contain an egg. But this is not when ovulation occurs – a fair few of you who answered our poll were a little confused on this one. During this time one egg will be developing, but it doesn’t actually reach maturity until the very middle of your cycle, when ovulation occurs (see below). Your estrogen levels rise from the moment your period ends, but you’re also experiencing a rise in your testosterone levels.
What to expect: you’re probably at your most calm and contented during this phase of your cycle, though your energy is climbing (thank estrogen – it’s also working hard to keep your bones strong!) and you may feel particularly focused or motivated (thank rising testosterone).
Ovulation (the very middle)
This is the part where your insides do their baby-making dance. With a peak in estrogen and an egg released from the ovaries – via the fallopian tubes – ovulation occurs around day 14. This day and the three days leading up to it are your most fertile in your whole cycle. Note that this is day 14 only in a 28-day cycle. If your cycle is longer or shorter, you’ll be ovulating relative to the day which falls in the middle of your cycle.
Usually, just one egg reaches maturity per cycle, during which time it moves into the fallopian tubes and is ready to be fertilised.
What to expect: you’re probably feeling pretty great, at your most confident… and your most horny. Your body’s on a baby-making mission so, even if you’re not into doing it with cis dudes, this is when you’re most susceptible to arousal and receptive to sexual attention.
Fun fact: women and other menstruating humans are born with all the eggs they’re ever going to have – the body cannot create more. You’re born with about 2 million of the things, though, so don’t start getting too panicky about the ol’ biological clock!
If you don’t get pregnant during ovulation, the egg begins to dissolve. This causes drastic hormone changes, including a drop in estrogen and spike in testosterone. Progesterone – the ‘sedating’ hormone – peaks around day 20.
What to expect: Post-ovulation you might get skin breakouts and it’s very likely you’ve already started to experience intense mood swings and tiredness. You’re probably pretty hungry because apparently your body likes to eat for two just in case you got pregnant while you were ovulating.
Premenstrual (the very end)
Estrogen is at is lowest in the last week or so of your cycle and you’re also experiencing low levels of testosterone and falling levels of progesterone. During the very end of your cycle you’ll be going through the stage commonly known as PMS, or premenstrual syndrome.
What to expect: the very end of your cycle is probably your least favourite time of the month. PMS looks and feels different to everyone, but tender boobs, bloating, and a low sex drive are common symptoms. It’s also the time of the month when you’re most likely to feel sad, easily annoyed, or anxious, due to mad dips in hormone levels. Remember that these emotions are also highly dependent on lifestyle – if you develop good exercise and eating habits and avoid stressful situations (we know, easier said than done) you may find you experience little to no PMS-driven mood swings. If you’re experiencing particularly debilitating symptoms before your period, don’t just accept it as par for the course – it could be a hormonal imbalance that you can fix or even PMDD, which you should see a doctor for.
And… repeat!
Ohne Team
Photo by Roberto Hund from Pexels