Get to Know All 4 Menstrual Cycle Phases — and How Each Impacts Your Mind and Body

Find out how the phases of your period cycle can impact your energy levels, blood sugar levels, and more.

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If you menstruate, you might feel like you're always in one of two states: "on my period" and "not on my period." However, the weeks when you're not on your period are actually divided into three distinct phases, each making its own unique impact on your mind and body. Familiarizing yourself with the four menstrual cycle phases can allow you to tweak your lifestyle habits — including diet, exercise, and other activities — to help you feel your best through every phase of your period cycle.

Just don't treat your current menstrual cycle phase as the sole indicator of what your body needs on a given day. "Ultimately, throughout your cycle, eating healthy and getting enough sleep and exercise are crucial to your overall wellbeing, but listening to your body and what it needs is what matters most," says Amy Roskin, M.D., an ob-gyn and chief medical officer at The Pill Club. For example, if you should be high in energy based on your phase but are feeling subpar, don't hesitate to take a rest day.

Next, take a deeper look into what happens during each menstrual cycle phase, plus how you might adjust your habits accordingly.

What Are the Menstrual Phases?

Menstruation

While you may think of your period as signaling the end of your cycle, menstruation actually kicks things off. As for what's happening physiologically during this phase, "menstruation occurs when the egg released with ovulation isn't fertilized," explains Dr. Roskin. "As a result, the hormones associated with your menstrual cycle — estrogen and progesterone — drop, and you begin to shed your uterine lining (which had been thickening to prepare for a possible pregnancy)." On average, menstruation lasts between two and seven days, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Related: Why You Should Always Masturbate During Your Period)

While on your period, many lifestyle changes can assist in making for an easier ride. Alisa Vitti, functional nutrition and women's hormone expert and founder of FLO Living and the MyFLO app, recommends adding quercetin, an antioxidant found in many plants, and nettle, a flowering plant, supplements to your regimen to help reduce cramps. (You can find these available separately or as a combination supplement.) Both act as anti-inflammatory agents — which could help PMS symptoms, according to one study, though it's unclear whether inflammation precedes PMS symptoms or vice versa, as Shape previously reported. (As always, check with your doctor before starting any supplement regimen.)

In terms of how to spend your time during this menstrual cycle phase, "focus on functional and restorative stretching, and walking," advises Vitti. Progesterone and estrogen levels are low toward the beginning of your period, which can lead to low energy levels, according to the U.S. Office on Women's Health.

The Follicular Phase of the Menstrual Cycle

It's typically understood that the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle starts at the same time as your period, but continues after bleeding stops, lasting until ovulation, says Dr. Roskin. (So, a little more than two weeks total, in general.) "This phase is describing what's happening to your ovary as opposed to menstruation, which is describing a process related to the uterus," she explains. "During the follicular phase [of the menstrual cycle], estrogen causes the uterine lining to thicken. You develop ovarian follicles, which contain eggs (one of which will mature and be released through ovulation)."

At this point, you should feel more energized, making it a potentially good time to do some at-home cardio. "Exercise and diet changes can do wonders during the follicular phase — something as simple as going for a walk can improve mood and help with cramping while eating small, frequent meals helps maintain a stable blood sugar," explains Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an ob-gyn and medical advisor at O Positiv. For the record, these lifestyle adaptations can garner benefits anytime, but they might make the biggest impact during your follicular phase of the menstrual cycle. (Related: What Is Seed Cycling and Can It Really Help with Your Period?)

Ovulation

Ovulation is the menstrual cycle phase when you're most likely to get pregnant. "The third phase of your menstrual cycle, ovulation, usually occurs around day 14 of a 28-day menstrual cycle," says Dr. Roskin. "During this phase, your ovary releases the mature egg from the follicle. This is caused by the release of luteinizing hormone (LH)." Ovulation lasts just 12 to 24 hours, says Dr. Shepherd.

At this stage, you will receive your most noticeable energy boost. That's because estrogen levels are at their peak during ovulation, according to the Office on Women's Health. It's a great time to do exercise such as a HIIT workout for beginners, says Vitti. She also explains you don't need as many calories during this phase, as research suggests that your resting metabolic rate, or rate of calorie burn at rest, hits its lowest point when in the ovulation phase. Additionally, "estrogen surge creates peak verbal and social skills," making it the perfect opportunity to schedule that work meeting, according to Vitti. A few small studies have demonstrated that the phases of the menstrual cycle marked by higher estrogen levels seem to coincide with improved verbal working memory, according to a review published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

The Luteal Phase of the Menstrual Cycle

The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle (also called the premenstrual phase) is the last menstrual phase and continues for approximately 14 days. Specifically, it "occurs after the ovary has released the egg from the follicle," says Dr. Roskin. "That would be approximately from day 15 to day 28 of a 28-day menstrual cycle." (Note, this isn't universal, as cycle lengths can vary.) (Related: Should You Eat Based On Your Menstrual Cycle?)

Whether or not pregnancy occurred during ovulation determines what happens next. "If you get pregnant, your ovarian follicle, which has now become the corpus luteum, will continue to secrete progesterone," says Dr. Roskin. (The corpus luteum is a normal cyst that forms out of the materials that once made up the ovarian follicle, according to the Cleveland Clinic.) "If you don't get pregnant, the corpus luteum gets reabsorbed [by your ovary], which causes progesterone and estrogen levels to decrease. This causes you to get your period and start the menstrual cycle over again."

Now is the time to prioritize rest. "During the luteal phase [of the menstrual cycle], it's important to maintain a healthy sleep schedule," says Dr. Shepherd. "Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and added salt can also help prevent period cramps." Caffeine can disrupt sleep and aggravate PMS symptoms, salty foods can contribute to bloating, and alcohol can increase levels of estrogen-disrupting hormones, resulting in dehydration and bloating that make PMS symptoms more intolerable. (Related: Can You Really Catch Up On Sleep?)

As for what you should eat, slow-digesting carbs, and quality protein and fats are all a good idea, says Vitti. (ICYDK, slow-digesting carbs, which are carbs that are low on the glycemic index, elicit a more gradual rise in blood sugar compared to carbs that are high on the glycemic index, which can spike blood sugar levels.) Prioritizing these macronutrients in your diet can help keep your blood sugar levels stable, which is important during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle as changes in estrogen in progesterone can hinder insulin sensitivity, making blood sugar spikes more likely.

Skip endurance training during this menstrual cycle phase, or if you do engage in extended periods of cardio, make sure to fuel your body with plenty of those slow-digesting carbs. This will help combat the effects of a decline in estrogen throughout the luteal phase. "Due to the changes in estrogen and progesterone levels and the interaction with cortisol and insulin, long forms of cardio or endurance training without fueling glucose properly can create a situation in which blood sugar drops, and cortisol signals the body to use stored fat as fuel to compensate," says Vitti. "In the long term when new calories are consumed, the body stores them as fat for future potential physical activity that creates a glucose deficit."

How Do You Know Which Menstrual Cycle Phase You're In?

If you're hoping to adapt your lifestyle accordingly, you need to know how to identify which phase you're in at any given time. "Many of my patients find that period tracking apps such as Flo, Clue, and Eve are helpful in determining which phase of the cycle they're currently in," says Dr. Shepherd. (Related: The Best Period Tracker Apps to Stay On Top of Your Flow)

You can also try a DIY method that asks you to be really good at listening to your body. "Your mood can change and energy levels can fluctuate during different stages of the menstrual cycle," reminds Dr. Roskin. To reiterate, "typically during the follicular and ovulation phases, you can have relatively high energy levels, due to an increase in estrogen and progesterone, whereas when your estrogen and progesterone levels drop during the luteal phase and menstruation, some [people] find their energy might decrease. During the luteal phase, some people experience PMS symptoms (including bloating, headaches, and moodiness) as your body prepares for menstruation."

Counting down the days from when your menstruation began or ended can give you an indication as to when you enter and exit certain menstrual cycle phases, but Dr. Shepherd warns that it "can be tricky as each cycle varies and hormone fluctuations can occur and shift a cycle." If you have a relatively regular cycle, it will be easier, she says. However, not everyone fits within that norm, as "14 to 25 percnt of women have irregular menstrual cycles," according to the National Institutes of Health.

If you have an irregular cycle, a combination of tuning into any cues from your body as well as using a period or ovulation tracking app is probably your best bet. "The irregularity of a cycle may be [consistently] with each cycle or just occasionally for some women, so that also will make it difficult to determine what phase of a cycle one might be in," explains Dr. Shepherd. This is why you likely won't want to solely rely on those ever-changing body cues.

"No two people are exactly alike, but the more you pay attention to your personal signs and symptoms, the more in tune with your own cycle you'll be," says Dr. Shepherd. Whichever route you take, mapping out your menstrual cycle phases may provide helpful insight into finding your optimal wellbeing.

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