[Please excuse the lack of a post last week. Two people I admire died last week and it was Spring Break for my kids and…it just didn’t happen. Thanks for being patient.]
Okay! As I said two weeks ago, we are going back to the body. And today that means we are also going back to the basics: your lady hormones.
When we get to peri-menopause, especially the very early part of it (peri-peri-menopause) we can start to notice tiny little shifts in our cycle. Or, they may be so small you don’t really notice them. So, let’s remind ourselves of what the menstrual cycle looks like at the height of its reign.
Of course, please note that everybody’s cycle is a little different! Part of what is ‘normal’ for an individual woman may vary from the ‘average’ 28-day cycle we are given as a template. I am going to use that template, but please add your own layer of cycle experience and knowledge over that. Your cycle is unique and you know it best. Keep that in mind.
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First off, your cycle breaks down into two sections- the Follicular Phase and the Luteal Phase. Follicular is for the ripening of the ovarian follicles (which we will get to) and Luteal is from ovulation to day 1 of your period. If you ever talk to me about your cycle, we will definitely break it down into these two phases because different hormones influence each.
Which brings us to the hormones. There is a handy, if awkward, way to remember your cycle hormones- the acronym FELOP. (Sexy, I know.)
FELOP looks like this:
F: Follicle Stimulating Hormone. Aptly named! It stimulates the ovarian follicles to produce eggs. This is also one of the hormones that is often tested to determine if peri-menopause is happening. (However, it’s not always the best determinant of peri-menopause because it may not be the first hormone to start wobbling as your cycle begins to break down.)
E: Estrogen. The stimulated follicles sort of ooze estrogen as they mature several possible eggs. This estrogen is released into the blood stream and shows up in our saliva. It also signals the uterus to begin building up the lining for possible implantation.
L: Leutinizing Hormone. You say it “loo-ten-eye-zing.” [Say it in your head.] When the hypothalamus gets the signal that you’re at the height of estrogen it signals a spike of this hormone. This spike is sort of like pulling a trigger- it shoots off the most ripened, ready egg in the follicles (and sometimes two or three, which is how you end up with non-‘test-tube’ twins or triplets). Some women feel this as a ‘twinge’ in their pelvic area around ovulation.
O: Ovulation. Obviously, this is not a hormone; it is the result of hormones doing their thing. Ovulation is when the egg gets shot out of the follicles and travels down the fallopian tubes into the waiting arms of the uterus. Ovulation is the beginning of the luteal phase.
P: Progesterone. When the egg leaves the follicle, it leaves behind a covering called the ‘yellow body’ or ‘corpus luteum.’ This actually falls back into the follicle, heals over, and begins producing the progesterone that is needed to keep the uterine lining intact until pregnancy either occurs (in which case you have a pregnancy) or does not occur (in which case you have a period). Progesterone rises from ovulation to a few days before your period arrives. A lack of progesterone is what creates PMS symptoms. Once the progesterone falls below a certain level, you start the bleeding phase. And as the bleeding phase finishes up, we’re back to F again.
So, that’s what happens during an average cycle. You may notice that your cycle does different things, has little tweaks in different phases. Some women have rather short follicular stages or very long, which shortens or lengthens your overall cycle. The luteal phase is fairly consistent, 16-17 days long in most women.
When we reach peri-menopause and the peri-peri-menopause, we may notice things changing. Again, in very subtle ways.
Our cycle may shorten or lengthen by a day or two.
I hear from a lot of women that they get a little turned on around ovulation (most women do), but they also get turned on closer to their period. (And that is your estrogen changing, not your FSH, which is why FSH isn’t always the best predictor of peri-menopause.)
Some women notice increased feelings of stress, slightly crankier or bloatier PMS, or increasing anxiety or depressive feelings. (This is also due to estrogen changes.)
Some women notice that it feels like it’s harder for them to ovulate- there is more pain or it seems like your body has to ‘try it a couple of times’ to get the egg out.
Any of these symptoms can mean that your body is showing the first few signs of peri-menopause. And peri-menopause is simply your cycle starting to break apart as it breaks down.
One of the things I truly believe about peri-menopause is that it is a necessary process. It can be tough mentally and physically (spiritually, too), but the process is so very important. We can take the edge off the symptoms, but going through the process can refine you. Peri-menopause can help you burn away what no longer is part of you. It can help you gather your wisdom and fight for what you believe in. Peri-menopause can help you leave a whole lot of ‘crap’ behind and head into the next phase of life lighter and clearer than ever before.