If you’re like most women, you probably don’t think much about your menstrual cycle unless you’re actively bleeding. When your period is over, you’re all too happy to go back to carelessly throwing on a pair of white pants without worrying if your regular absorbency is enough to prevent sartorial catastrophe. But there are good reasons to pay attention to your cycle during the rest of the month.
A woman’s cycle is like a canary in a coal mine: it can reveal hidden clues about her health that she would have never otherwise known. We’re lucky to get a personalized report card on our health that isn’t available to men.
Your cycle is controlled by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which rise and fall in an intricate choreography each month. You have these hormones to thank for your fertility: they allow you to ovulate and help build up your uterine lining so the fertilized egg has a place to burrow and grow.
But that’s not all these hormones do. They are also essential for your sleep, mood, metabolism, digestion, insulin response, libido, thyroid, skin, and hair — to name just a few of their essential tasks. More importantly, having adequate levels of progesterone and estrogen when you are young will protect you from osteoporosis, cancer, and cardiovascular disease later in life.
How do you know if you are making enough progesterone and estrogen? By learning to read your menstrual cycle. Here is what you should be looking for:
1. How long is your follicular phase? The follicular phase is the first part of your cycle, beginning on day 1 of your period and lasting until ovulation. During this phase, your estrogen levels are rising, your uterine lining is building, and an egg is maturing inside a follicle in your ovaries. This process should take 2-3 weeks, but can be delayed by stress or illness.
2. Are you ovulating? A healthy menstrual cycle includes ovulation. Ovulation is the only way your body can make progesterone.
3. How long is your luteal phase? After ovulation, your progesterone levels rise and your uterine lining matures in preparation for a possible pregnancy. A healthy luteal phase is usually 12-14 days. If your body isn’t making enough progesterone, your luteal phase will be shorter, and you may experience spotting before your period. If your luteal phase is shorter than 10 days, it’s a sign that your progesterone could be too low.
Ovulation doesn’t announce itself in the same way your period does, with bells and whistles and cramps. But if you want to feel good, look good, and stay that way well into old age, it’s important to confirm that you are ovulating consistently and have healthy luteal and follicular phases.
Tracking your menstrual cycle isn’t hard, and anyone can learn to do it. There are a variety of options out there: you can learn Fertility Awareness Method, which is a set of practices that help you get to know your body’s fertility signs. You can also use an Ava bracelet, a cycle tracking wearable for women. Understanding your cycle is important for your health, but it’s also just plain fun to wake up and know that you’re ovulating!