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Menstrual/Fertility Cycle

Menstruation is the most obvious event of our monthly cycles, but our cycles are so much more than the blood we see at the end of that cycle. Our fertility is truly an intricate and delicate dance of the ebb and flow of the female hormones. In order for us to get a period each cycle, our body has to go through a series of changes, largely hormonal in nature, and certainly hormonally induced. If something is out of balance, the delicate balance is tipped, and the cycle doesn’t function normally, as a result menses, the most obvious part of the cycle, doesn’t come in a regular or predictable manner.

When considering all the things that menstruation encompasses, reference to the “menstrual cycle” just seems too small and restrictive for all that we are, and all that our cycles are. When you think about it, when we get our period that means that conception did not occur that cycle, and the uterus cleanses itself in preparation for the next cycle. Our cycles are much more complex than what appears on the surface.

Like the moon, our fertility waxes and wanes each cycle, always changing, fluid, in motion, like a kaleidoscope of colors our hormones flow from one to another blending and pulling back each causing specific events and changes in our bodies as we progress through each cycle. Times have changed since ancient man marveled at a woman’s ability to bleed from so deep within and not suffer any apparent wound, nor any ill effects from blood loss, yet many of the old stigmas and taboos remain.

Menstruation is part of our Feminine Power. Our society has made it something dirty and shameful. We are conditioned to see bleeding as messy, gross, undesireable, inconvienient and embarrasing. We are bombarded with negative menstural images from an early age.

Its time for us to change the way we think about menstruation, since becoming more aware of my body, and the how’s and why’s of the feminine cycle, I have a much greater appreciation for my blood and the power that comes from understanding my cycle. I hope others will be able to move beyond the negative stereotyping of menstruation and come to appreciate the beauty, mystery and wonder of our blood, the subtle dance of the feminine cycle.

Judith Duerk writes in the Circle of Stones:

How might it have been different for you if, on your first menstrual day, your mother had given you a bouquet of flowers and taken you to lunch, and then the two of you had gone to meet your father at the jeweler, where your ears were peirced, and your father bought you your first pair of earrings, and then you went with a few of your friends and your mother's friends to get your first lip coloring; and then you went, for the very first time, to the Women's lodge, to learn the wisdom of women? How might your life be different?

We are a fertile species, most of us ovulate monthly, there are many opportunities for conception to occur during our fertile years. Most of us don’t want to be pregnant all the time, so this means we need to create ways for us to avoid becoming pregnant, and weave those ways into our daily lives, aiding us in managing our fertility. A woman is fertile for 30 to 40 years of her life, this means that there are some 360 plus opportunities for conception to occur in a average woman’s lifetime. I think it makes sense for women to learn to identify signs of fertility and to use that information to assist in avoiding pregnancy. The goal of this website is to help you acquire this knowledge.

So what is menstruation anyway?

When a woman gets her period there has been a whole series of events which lead up to bleeding, all these events transpire almost without notice, when the cycle completes and bleeding begins, this is what we see, and lets us know that the cycle has come full circle. Menstruation is the release of the uterine lining which grew lush and thick under the influence of progesterone (a hormone) in preparation to support and nurture a fertilized egg should conception occur that cycle. When conception doesn’t occur, progesterone levels decrease, support for the thick lining is no more and the result is the cellular matter sloughing off the uterine walls, capillaries are exposed and provide the liquid to help wash the uterine lining away.

The rest of the cycle.....

Menses is both an end and a beginning, bleeding signals the previous cycle has come to an end, and a new cycle begins. During the first couple of days of menstruation hormone levels are at their lowest point during the cycle.

There are four main hormones controlling the female cycle. They are:

  • Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH)
  • Estrogen
  • Lutenizing Hormone (LH)
  • Progesterone

    Our cycle begins in our brains, the hypothalamus secretes gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) which stimulates the anterior pituitary gland to produce Follicle Stimulating Hormone. FSH circulates through the blood stream acting upon the ovaries, causing numerous egg follicles to grow. These swelling follicles secrete estrogen, the bigger they get, the more estrogen they secrete.

    Estrogen has numerous effects on the body, one worth mentioning that isn’t often noted is the effect estrogen has in relation to our sexuality. As a hormone geared toward reproduction, its not surprising to find that estrogen has the ability to make us feel more sexy, and attracts our lover’s attention. When estrogen levels are peaking, we are a little more likely to throw caution to the wind, and neglect to use our chosen form of contraception. Many pregnancies occur from lovemaking that happened swiftly, passionately, in the heat of the moment. So think twice when you feel yourself getting swept away, especially if you are neglecting contraception, chances are, estrogen is getting the best of both of you. With ovulation rapidly approaching, any sperm that enters into the body at this time, will beable to survive until the egg is released, and be in position to fertilize that egg.

    The rise in estrogen levels caused by the cluster of developing eggs, causes cervical secretions to undergo subtle changes that the observant can use to help identify approaching ovulation. Non-fertile cervical mucus, is thick, pasty, whitish, salty, and usually present in small amounts. Cervical mucus prior to the increase of estrogen is acidic, and sperm dies fairly quickly when exposed to these non-fertile fluids, able to survive for a few hours at most in these conditions. As estrogen levels rise, cervical mucus becomes thinner, more watery, it looses its salty and sharp flavor. Fluids become more alkaline, and supportive, even nourishing to sperm, making it easier for them to swim out of the vagina and into the cervix and uterus beyond. The most fertile type of cervical mucus has a stretchy quality, able to stretch a strand of mucus between your finger and thumb. Estrogen also acts on the uterine endometrium, stimulating the cells of the uterine lining preparing them for when progesterone floods the system following ovulation.

    As estrogen levels peak it triggers the anterior pituitary gland to reduce the production of FSH and produce a short burst of Lutinizing Hormone (LH) which causes the ripest egg to finish maturing, while suppressing the other eggs that have been awaken by FSH, causing them to degenerate, which reduces estrogen levels in the body, mucus production decreases and begins changing to less fertile, then non-fertile types. This change occurs fairly rapidly, two days at most.

    The surge of LH causes an increase in collagenase activity, resulting in the digestion of collagen fibers surrounding the follicle, thus weakening the membrane covering the now mature egg. Prostaglandin levels also increase in response to the LH surge, causing local muscular contractions in the ovarian wall, expelling the newly ripened and mature egg through the ovarian membrane. The moment the egg leaves the ovary is called ovulation. Thus beginning the post-ovulatory phase of a woman’s cycle is called the Luteal Phase which last for about 14 days, the length of which is pretty consistent for all women. Progesterone is the dominant hormone during this phase of the cycle.

    As the egg begins it’s journey to the uterus, the remaining LH acts upon the wound in the ovary causing the injured cells to transform into the corpus luteum which means “little yellow body”. The corpus luteum begins to secrete progesterone over the next several days, picking up where the estrogen left off, thickening the endometrium (uterine lining) creating a nutrient rich platform for which a fertilized egg may imbed itself should sperm be present this cycle and fertilization occur.

    The egg, now free from the ovary floats in the abdominal cavity where the fallopian tube reaches toward the ovary and sweeps the egg inside. Tiny muscular contractions slowly move the egg through the tube, it takes about 4 days for the egg to traverse the fallopian tube to the uterine cavity. The egg is capable of being fertilized for only 12-24 hours.

    The outcome of any given cycle depends on whether or not an egg is fertilized.

    If conception occurs, the sperm will join with the egg in the fallopian tube. The fertilized and dividing egg travels through the fallopian tube and will implant on the uterine wall 6 days after ovulation occurred. When the egg makes contact with the uterine wall, a chemical message is sent to the ovary and tells the corpus luteum to continue to produce progesterone, and will continue to do so as long as the pregnancy is viable, until the placenta takes over later on in pregnancy.

    If conception doesn’t occur, the chemical message is not received by the ovary and the corpus luteum heals over and progesterone levels begin to decline gradually. When progesterone levels fall below a certain level the lush endometrial growth can no longer be supported. The uterine lining is shed, and menstruation begins 14 days after ovulation occurred, the cycle has come full circle.


    Can ovulation occur during menstruation? No. In order for ovulation to occur, a chain of hormonal events are laid out. Each event triggers the next. During menstruation the uterus cleansed itself in preparation for the next cycle, the hormones that trigger ovulation are simply not available during menstruation.

    But I've met women who said they conceived during menstruation..... I too have met women who really believe that they ovulated during menstruation. However, once you understand how the female body works, its much more difficult to believe that ovulation actually occurred during menstruation, rather I believe sperm is able to get inside the cervix during menstruation then hang out until ovulation occurs. Sperm can survive for up to a week if sperm are healthy and conditions are right. If ovulation occurred early, or if menstruation was longer than usual, it is very possible that the sperm were deposited during menses and fertilized the egg when ovulation occurred after the normal progression of hormonal events.

    How long can sperm survive in a woman’s body? If conditions are right, and sperm can get inside the cervix, they can survive for up to a week, occasionally, I find references to sperm surviving up to 10 days, but I think this is extremely rare. During non-fertile times of the cycle sperm will only live for a few hours in the normally acidic environment in the vagina. Sperm need an alkaline environment to survive. Semen, menstrual fluids and fertile mucus all provide a safer environment for the sperm to survive in, all are alkaline in nature. The vagina is naturally acidic.

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    This page last updated March 24, 2005

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