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How your menstrual cycle affects your health

From your metabolism to how well you sleep at night, find out how your menstrual cycle can affect you throughout the month.

What is the menstrual cycle?

The menstrual cycle is more than just your period - it’s the time from the first day of your period to the day before your next one.

While Aunt Flo may visit some women the same time each month, for others, her visits are more irregular - we are all different.

The cycle typically follows a 28-day pattern but can last anywhere from 21 to 40 days [1]. Communicating via hormones, the brain and ovaries work together, to keep the cycle going [2].

Let’s take things back to basics and break down the cycle.

Four phases of the menstrual cycle

  1. Menstrual Phase (DAY 1-5)
    Day one is when your period starts and levels of oestrogen and progesterone are low.
     
  2. Follicular phase (DAY 6-14)
    Oestrogen levels slowly rise due to an egg developing within the ovaries.
     
  3. Ovulation (AROUND DAY 14)
    A surge of the hormones luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) trigger your ovaries to release the developing egg [3].
     
  4. Luteal phase (DAY 14- 28)
    The empty egg follicle turns into a structure called a corpus luteum, which produces high amounts of progesterone and small amounts of oestrogen. If the egg is not fertilised, this structure breaks down. Hormone levels drop and your period starts again.

We often position the time of the month as the prime suspect in several mental and physical complaints. It’s likely at some point we have all blamed a bad mood on our period or pointed a finger at our hormones for that late-night sugar craving.

PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is the name for the symptoms women can experience in the weeks before their period. It is still not fully understood why women get PMS, but it is thought to be connected to the rise and fall of hormones during the menstrual cycle [4].

As we ride this hormonal rollercoaster, how are we affected physically and mentally and is there anything we can do to help us feel better? Let’s take a look.

Mood changes and your period

Mood swings are one of the most common symptoms of PMS [4]. After your period ends, oestrogen levels begin to rise before dropping again. The drop is thought to be what causes mood swings as well as other menstrual symptoms.

  • Menstrual phase - If you’re curled up with period cramps, moving your body is probably the last thing you want to be doing. But gentle exercise can help to relieve pain and lift your mood by releasing endorphins, feel-good chemicals in the brain.
     
  • Menstrual and luteal phase - PMS can symptoms leave you feeling tired and unmotivated during the menstrual phase and at the end of the luteal phase, lighter activities like walking and yoga may be good to try.
  • Towards the end of your period - You may start to feel more energised so this is a great time to work up a sweat in the gym or get out for a run.

Along with mood changes, you will also likely experience highs and lows in your energy levels throughout your cycle so always listen to your body and only do what feels right. Make sure to monitor your intensity and give yourself regular breaks. 

Weight gain and bloating 

Bloating and weight gain are two more classic PMS symptoms, so feeling a little heavier around the time of your period is normal. 

High oestrogen levels can cause your body to retain fluid leaving you feeling bloated [5]. Levels peak right before your period and then drop when your period starts.

  • If you’re experiencing bloating - Try to avoid fizzy drinks and instead up your water intake. However tempting, when cravings kick in switch processed, sugary and high-fat foods for healthier options to give you that much-needed energy boost.
  • During the menstrual phase - Your iron levels can take a dip. Focus on fuelling your body with iron-rich foods including lentils, tofu, kidney beans, leafy green vegetables, chickpeas, fortified cereals and brown rice.

Skin changes

You may notice changes to the appearance of your skin throughout your cycle thanks to fluctuating hormone levels.

  • During the luteal phase - As oestrogen levels drop, your skin may be drier than normal [6]. Remember to stay hydrated and look after your skin using a moisturiser in your skincare routine.
  • Hormonal acne - Another common skin problem that many women face, nearly 85% of women experience a worsening of their acne in the days leading up to their period [7]. This can be caused by increased sebum production in the skin [8]. If your skin is prone to hormonal breakouts (spots usually appearing on your jawline and chin), keep your skincare regime light and uncomplicated to avoid blocking your pores.

Sleep

Poor quality sleep can leave you feeling tired and sluggish. Women experiencing PMS are also likely to experience changes to their sleeping pattern, including difficulty falling asleep and interrupted sleep before and during their period [9].

  • Late luteal phase - Studies have found that sleep usually worsens during the late luteal phase when compared with other parts of the menstrual cycle [10]. You may not notice a pattern with sleep disturbances until you pay attention to timing. Keeping a three-month diary tracking when these changes happen is a great first step to working out if they are related to your cycle.

Sex drive 

There is no normal when it comes to sex drive as we are all different and our bodies behave in different ways. Along with many different factors, sexual desire is also affected by the ebb and flow of oestrogen and progesterone during your cycle.

Exactly how reproductive hormones influence libido isn’t the same for everyone. However, many women report a higher sex drive in the days approaching ovulation when we are most fertile [11] and experience a slump in their sex drive during the luteal phase of their cycle [12].

Women on hormonal birth control may not experience the same hormonal libido fluctuations as synthetic hormones work to prevent ovulation [13].

With so many ways that our cycle can throw how we feel out of balance, our Female Hormone Check is a simple and convenient way to help you check if your hormone levels are within the normal range and to understand how they change over time.
 


References 

  1. NHS. 2022. Periods and fertility in the menstrual cycle. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods/fertility-in-the-menstrual-cycle/> [Accessed 26 January 2022].
  2. UCSF Health. 2022. The Menstrual Cycle. [online] Available at: <https://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/the-menstrual-cycle> [Accessed 26 January 2022].
  3. Robker, R., Hennebold, J. and Russell, D., 2018. Coordination of Ovulation and Oocyte Maturation: A Good Egg at the Right Time. Endocrinology, 159(9), pp.3209-3218.
  4. NHS. 2022. PMS (premenstrual syndrome). [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pre-menstrual-syndrome/> [Accessed 26 January 2022].
  5. Stachenfeld, N., 2008. Sex Hormone Effects on Body Fluid Regulation. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 36(3), pp.152-159.
  6. Thornton, J. and Stevenson, S., 2007. Effect of estrogens on skin aging and the potential role of SERMs. Clinical Interventions in Aging, Volume 2, pp.283-297. 
  7. Zeichner JA, Baldwin HE, Cook-Bolden FE, Eichenfield LF, Fallon-Friedlander S, Rodriguez DA. Emerging Issues in Adult Female Acne. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017 Jan;10(1):37-46. Epub 2017 Jan 1. PMID: 28210380; PMCID: PMC5300732.
  8. Raghunath, R., Venables, Z. and Millington, G., 2015. The menstrual cycle and the skin. Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 40(2), pp.111-115.
  9. Sleep Foundation. 2022. PMS and Insomnia | Sleep Foundation. [online] Available at: <https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/pms-and-insomnia> [Accessed 26 January 2022].
  10. Sharkey, K., Crawford, S., Kim, S. and Joffe, H., 2014. Objective sleep interruption and reproductive hormone dynamics in the menstrual cycle. Sleep Medicine, 15(6), pp.688-693.
  11. Campagne, Daniel M. and Ghislaine Campagne. 2007. “The Premenstrual Syndrome Revisited.” European Journal of Obstetrics Gynaecology and Reproductive Biology 130(1):4–17.
  12. Bullivant SB, Sellergren SA, Stern K, Spencer NA, Jacob S, Mennella JA, et al. Women’s sexual experience during the menstrual cycle: identification of the sexual phase by noninvasive measurement of luteinizing hormone. J Sex Res. 2004;41(1):82–93.
  13. Natural Cycles. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.naturalcycles.com/cyclematters/what-is-libido> [Accessed 26 January 2022].