From the time a girl or young woman gets her period she begins a journey of monthly cycles that will carry her through life for the next 30 or 40 years, except when she is pregnant and possibly breastfeeding should she have any children. Women are generally familiar with the bleeding part of the cycle, menstruation, but this is not the only part worth knowing. There are four key phases; menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. These can be broken down even further, however in this article we will be looking at these four, which are increasingly known as The Seasons.
I first learned about the seasons of female physiology through Alexandra Pope's work, specifically her book, co-authored with Sjanie Hugo Wilitzer, Wild Power. If you feel called to learn more about the seasons, or 'inner seasons' as they are referred to in Wild Power, I highly recommend exploring the work of Alexandra Pope. The following article is inspired by this work, however, is not intended as a direct representation of it, rather it is a compilation of information gathered over years of research, self-inquiry and contemplation. I love the use of this language to describe and understand the variations within the female body during the course of approximately one month. It highlights the inevitable changes and brings to mind the fact that our bodies are not separate from nature, we are nature.
It is important to keep in mind that every cycle is experienced uniquely and the below perspective is a generalised approach.
Winter and Menstruation
Days 1 to 7 - the beginning of your cycle, marked by the first full day of bleeding and usually
lasting four to seven days.
Estrogen and progesterone have plummeted and with that energy levels are also rock bottom. It is a time of rest. Estrogen is a hormone that assists us to manage stress and complicated tasks, so you may find yourself overwhelmed and frustrated when you don’t seem to have the resources to sort out a problem because, despite that estrogen will rise throughout menstruation, it remains relatively low. However, try not to stress and just let it be because without the aid of estrogen, these tasks really are harder to manage. Emotions are also intensified with the low levels of hormones and you may feel the surfacing of heartaches and issues you had considered dealt with. Instead of telling yourself you’re crazy, try to tune in and consider what is surfacing during this time. After all, it would not have surfaced if it truly was resolved previously. So take note for now, engage in expression and consider addressing it more when you have the energy. Journaling is great during menstruation and will help keep track of what comes to light during this time.
Many cultures around the world considered menstruation to be an auspicious time for women, when the veil between worlds is very thin, allowing insights and wisdom to pour into the psyche of the menstruating woman. In central America, villages used to listen to the dreams of menstruating women each morning to reap the wisdom and insights the menstruating women had attained throughout the night (this precious story was passed from Don Elijio Panti, a Mayan healer who lived in Belize, to Rosita Arvigo to Tami Lynn Kent who shared it in her training I took part of). Contrast this to modern day perspectives that paint menstruation to always be a terrible inconvenience and the bane of women’s existence and you can see that we have deprived ourselves of experiencing the gifts of menstruation.
Think of what nature looks like during winter. The leaves are long gone and trees are exposed, in their raw state. The bush, the woods, the forests are quieter and stillness is easy to find. We would never get mad at the trees or landscape for experiencing winter, we simply accept, know and appreciate this is just as much a part of nature as summertime. Likewise, go easy on yourself, take time to rest and find stillness where you can. Make sure you keep yourself warm if you live in a colder climate. Perhaps make yourself a daily brew of nettle and raspberry leaf tea which will replenish iron and other minerals and tonify your uterus to support menstrual contractions.
Springtime and the Follicular Phase
Days 7 to 13 - bleeding has finished and your body is building up to ovulation.
Because I married a Swiss man, I spent several years living in Switzerland, and consider it to be another home, in addition to Australia, knowing that we will always return there and live life between the two places. While Australia certainly has seasons, I came to appreciate the incredible differences of the seasons while living in Switzerland. You see, not unlike the people there, the seasons are very punctual, every three months you feel the ending of the current season and the beginning of the next. And after a freezing cold winter, that always felt like it lasted longer than the warmer months, I can’t tell you how great it felt to finally hear the insects and birds coming to life in spring (not that I didn’t love the beautiful white winters but ouch, so cold!). When spring finally came the forest would quickly become a luminous green. You could feel the buzzing of energy as frogs croaked, birds sang and everyone began mowing their little lawns again (and again and again and again!).
Just like the forests emerge from their sleepy winters, women too experience a surge in energy as estrogen begins to ramp up over the follicular phase. It’s the time for planning, creative ideas and exploration. Women may feel increasingly excited and bubbly. Internally, the lining of your uterus is thickening and the follicles on your right or left ovary, from which an egg will be released, are expanding. Estrogen is produced from the follicle hence the increasing levels of this important hormone. It is also why this phase is called the Follicular Phase. This is a time when facing challenges and a demanding workload are met with a greater sense of ease.
Summer and Ovulation
Days 13 to 15 - with enough of a buildup of estrogen, it’s time to party!
Full bloom summer is here and women are generally peaking with hormones after estrogen has steadily increased, sparking the arrival of luteinizing hormone (LH), which releases the egg out of the follicle that grew during springtime. Inspiration comes effortlessly and you’re vibrant. Since the little egg has burst out of the follicle and is cruising its way down the uterine tube, this is the time of fertility. So take some serious caution if you’re sexually active and don’t want to become pregnant. This can be tricky considering libido levels are at their highest during ovulation. Testosterone is also on the scene and is adding to your energy so you may notice that you can run that extra kilometer, do that advanced crane pose in your yoga class or stay up a couple more hours without feeling ruined the next day.
If you’re experiencing ovulation pain or break out in acne, it can signal that your body requires some assistance to break down and flush out the excess of estrogen. Eating more organic cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, kale, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli etc) can support this.
Hopefully you feel fantastic physically, emotionally and energetically and can enjoy the vibrance of your summertime. This is the phase that the world expects women to always be in as when you begin to examine typical work routines you will notice, unlike our monthly cycle, they are linear, unchanging and demand a continuous high level of energy. Interestingly, this has also translated into the typical misunderstanding that women are always fertile. News flash to the world, this is a phase like the rest of them and women are not always able to show up in the world the way we can during ovulation. Imagine the health of women if our work schedules, social expectations and family demands were structured around the variations of our natural bodily processes, including menstrual cycles.
Autumn and the Luteal Phase
Day 15 to 28 - ovulation has come and gone and if the little egg wasn’t fertilised, your body enters autumn, slowly beginning to wind down until you reach the end of your cycle.
Remember the follicle that burst and hooroo’d your egg down the uterine tube? Now this follicle has become what's called a corpus luteum and is busy generating progesterone. This hormone continues to rise and peaks at about day 20 to 23 of your cycle. During this time, you will likely feel similar to how you felt during ovulation. However, after the first part of the luteal phase, progesterone and estrogen begin to fall and continue until you get to the end of your cycle.
The falling of the leaves, I mean hormones, brings a drop in energy and libido. If you tend to overdo yourself the demands of life may begin to feel heavy. Be careful not to beat yourself up and if it is possible take time to replenish yourself. I know this can be very eye-rolling advice because after all, we live in a world that does not recognise the variations in women’s bodies and how this shapes the way we interface the world. But some simple things you could do are, swap that HIIT workout you do twice a week for a restorative workout, consider your work calendar at its maximum capacity and don’t continue to schedule in projects for this time, organise a friend to take your kids to their whole day long sport carnival, commit to an earlier bedtime.
If you put pressure on yourself to feel how you felt last week during the first half of the follicular phase or during ovulation, you will miss the gifts of where you are now. After all, autumn time is a time of letting go of what doesn’t serve and putting to work your precious self-care practices, which foster a deeper understanding of your needs and desires and support your overall wellbeing.
Realistically though, this is experienced as a hellish time for many women. Some women experience such lows that they experience suicidal ideation every month in this phase. If this sounds familiar, then I strongly encourage you to tune in and begin figuring out what your body is communicating during these painful lows. Sometimes women benefit from upping their omega-3 intake and given it is often tricky to get enough omega-3 oil in a typical diet, a supplement may not be a bad idea (I take one derived from algae). Breast tenderness, bloating and food cravings can also be supported by herbal remedies like ginger, turmeric and chaste berry. However, if you’re experiencing these signs of imbalance in extremes and sensing something is not right then I encourage you to increase care for yourself and if it feels right seek some support (treatment at Ananda Woman is an option and can support you to get to the bottom of this through a holistic approach that works with your physiology). Autumn time is so beautiful when we are balanced and able to perceive the gifts of this transformative phase.
So there we have it, the seasons of our monthly cycles. Do you recognise yours? How cold do your winters get? Do you sense the buzzing of new energy in spring? Are your summer days warm with a fresh breeze or scorching hot? Do you enjoy watching what doesn’t serve you fall away like orange and red leaves in your autumn time? Do you embrace these inevitable seasonal changes?