Though all women experience menstruation during their reproductive years, many ladies aren't fully aware of how or why it occurs. The female reproductive system is truly an amazing thing, and its functioning is controlled by an intricate network of hormones. While it may be tempting to feel inconvenienced by this regular occurrence, try to take a moment to appreciate its bodily significance instead.
The menstrual cycle
While we often refer to the menstrual cycle as a monthly process, there is actually no universal time frame. Each woman is different – some women’s cycles last 26 days, while others last 35. Some women’s cycles vary month to month! Throughout the cycle, an egg matures in the woman’s ovaries and travels down the fallopian tubes into her uterus. Simultaneously, the uterus forms a thick coating of blood upon which a fertilised egg would implant should the woman become pregnant. If she doesn’t conceive, the egg and the uterine lining are shed, and travel through the vagina out of the body.
To fully understand how the body does this, let’s break the process down into phases.
The follicular phase
A new menstrual cycle begins the day a woman gets her period. While she is shedding uterine lining from her previous cycle, her body starts preparing for the possibility of conception and pregnancy.
The follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and the luteinising hormone (LH) are released by the brain, and travel to the ovaries through the bloodstream. These hormones tell the woman’s ovaries to begin growing eggs. A woman’s eggs are already present in her body before she is born, but they need to mature before they will be ready for possible conception.
The ovulatory phase
After an egg is mature (this usually occurs somewhere near day 10-14 of the menstrual cycle), it is released from the ovary and moves into the fallopian tube – this is called ovulation. As soon as the woman ovulates, the body increases its production of estrogen. This estrogen ‘turns off’ the FSH so no other eggs can be matured and released – this ensures that should the woman conceive, she cannot continue ovulating, thus preventing a double-pregnancy from occurring later on (in the case of fraternal twins, two eggs are released simultaneously).
The egg that was released by the woman’s ovaries travels through the fallopian tube toward the uterus. It is in this phase that conception can occur.
Meanwhile, the follicle that was holding the egg while it was in the ovary develops into a corpus luteum, which secretes progesterone as well as more estrogen.
If the woman does not become pregnant, the egg will continue to travel down the fallopian tube and into the uterus for about 15 days. After this point, the uterine lining is no longer needed. It is shed, and the next menstrual cycle begins.
Problems with periods
Some women experience irregular periods, delayed ovulation, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) and other problems.
Amenorrhoea: Amenorrhoea is when a woman who is sexually mature (but not approaching menopause) doesn’t menstruate for more than six months. This can be caused by thyroid issues, low body weight, prolonged stress or strenuous exercise or use of birth control.
Dysmenorrhoea: Women who suffer from dysmenorrhoea have very painful periods. It is often associated not only with cramping, but also with headaches, nausea and constipation.
Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS): This common affliction refers to the physical discomfort and sometimes intense emotional experience women feel prior to getting their periods. This is usually due to the contraction of the uterus, as well as elevated hormone levels.
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