A lot more is happening in your body every month than just the days you’re on your period. That’s why the menstrual cycle is considered to be all month long, not just when you’re bleeding.
What is the Menstrual Cycle?
The menstrual cycle is the monthly process those with a uterus go through as their body prepares for potential pregnancy. It’s controlled by hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone.
The rise and fall of hormones is what causes the ovaries to release an egg—a process known as ovulation—and help prepare the body for possible pregnancy, or respond when pregnancy doesn’t occur.
What is Menstruation?
Menstruation generally refers to the days of your cycle that you’re actually experiencing menstrual bleeding—what most people mean when they say, “I’m on my period.”
The first period, called menarche, is usually around the age of 12 (though it can be a few years earlier or later) and ends somewhere around the age of 50 with what is called menopause.
The shedding of the uterine lining is what you’re seeing when you see the blood. It’s actually a combination of blood, vaginal fluids, and the uterine lining. This is why you may notice that period blood doesn’t look quite like other blood.
How Long is A Normal Menstrual Cycle?
The average menstrual cycle length is a 28-day cycle for most people who menstruate and don’t use hormonal birth control, but longer or shorter cycles are also totally normal.
Your menstrual cycle’s length is measured by counting the number of days between the first day your period begins and the day before your next period starts to repeat the process all over again. For some, cycles can vary anywhere from 21 to 38 days.
How Long is A Normal Period (Menses)?
The first phase of the menstrual cycle where the uterus sheds its lining is called menses and often referred to as menstruation. Blood and tissue pass through the opening in the cervix and leave the body through the vagina, usually collected using a menstrual cup or other period products. This process is typically anywhere from two to seven days and tends to become more regular as you age. Having irregular periods when you’re younger is totally normal (no reason to stress!)
The 4 Phases of the Menstrual Cycle:
Menstruation or Menses:
The “period” where the lining of the uterus sheds (usually 2-7 days) to the start of ovulation.
The Follicular Phase:
The time after your period where the lining of the uterus is rebuilding to prepare for possible pregnancy.
When the ovaries release a mature egg through the fallopian tube to the uterus, usually in the middle of your cycle.
The Luteal Phase:
Hormones communicate with your body to detect pregnancy. If an egg isn’t fertilized by sperm, the body prepares for your period again.
Common Causes of Irregular Periods
An irregular period can mean a lot of different things, but may mean your hormones are imbalanced. Some symptoms include missing multiple periods in a row, unusually light or heavy bleeding, heavy periods that last longer than seven days, and general irregularity.
Irregular periods become more cause for concern if you experience symptoms like severe pain from cramping, nausea and vomiting, or significant spotting between periods.
Some causes of irregular menstruation can include:
- Changes in hormone levels
- Thyroid issues
- Exercising too much
- Hormonal birth control pills or devices (like IUDs)
- Some medications or vaccines
- High levels of chronic stress
- Eating disorders
- Smoking cigarettes
Remember a “normal” period is relative to what’s normal for you, and experiencing any of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. Communicate with your gynecologist and make an appointment if you’re concerned.
Irregular periods are also fairly common in teenagers, but tend to regulate as you get older. If they persist in teens, some causes may include taking certain medications, or nutritional issues like consuming too few calories.
Ways to Track Your Menstrual Cycle
Tracking your menstrual cycle is a great way to monitor your health and help you notice anything irregular or out of the ordinary for you. Keep track of the first day of your period each month, and things like the heaviness of your flow, and changes in mood or appetite while you’re menstruating.
It can sometimes be a challenge to be consistent with your data collection, but understanding your cycle as much as possible will help you keep your body healthy. Here are a few different ways you can keep track:
Use A Period Tracking App
The great thing about apps is the amount of information they can keep track of, and all the details they include. The Clue app has 31 categories for tracking, so you can record as much or as little information about your period as you want. Apple also has a tracker built into their Health app.
Keep in mind that these apps aren’t perfect so and the exact day your period shows up is dictated by the the day of ovulation and not the day of your cycle as a whole, so small fluctuations are normal. Again, just observe the predictions for patterns to get an idea of what is normal for you and your cycle.
Use A Calendar
An old school paper calendar is quick and easy option, and already has the dates mapped out for you. Mark the start and end dates fo your period and note anything significant on given days.
Use A Notebook
If you want to keep track of your menstrual cycle as more of a journal, or you want room to write down more details about things like mood and appetite, a journal will give you plenty of room to record all that along with dates.
Use the Notes App on Your Phone
This is a super convenient way to keep track of your period since most of us have our phones with us 24/7, so using the notes app on your phone is an easy way to make quick notes about menstruation wherever you are. This is also a great way to make notes on anything you’d like to bring up at your next appointment!