Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Journey through the Female Menstrual Cycle

Basic Biology: the cycle begins

When a baby girl is born, she has all the eggs her body will ever use, and many more, perhaps as many as 450,000. They are stored in her ovaries, each inside its own sac called a follicle. As she matures into puberty, her body begins producing various hormones that cause the eggs to mature. This is the beginning of her first cycle; it's a cycle that will repeat throughout her life until the end of menopause.

Let's start with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a gland in the brain responsible for regulating the body's thirst, hunger, sleep patterns, libido and endocrine functions. It releases the chemical messenger Follicle Stimulating Hormone Releasing Factor (FSH-RF) to tell the pituitary, another gland in the brain, to do its job. The pituitary then secretes Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and a little Leutenizing Hormone (LH) into the bloodstream which cause the follicles to begin to mature.

The maturing follicles then release another hormone, estrogen. As the follicles ripen over a period of about seven days, they secrete more and more estrogen into the bloodstream. Estrogen causes the lining of the uterus to thicken. It causes the cervical mucous to change. When the estrogen level reaches a certain point it causes the hypothalamus to release Leutenizing Hormone Releasing Factor (LH-RF) causing the pituitary to release a large amount of Leutenizing Hormone (LH). This surge of LH triggers the one most mature follicle to burst open and release an egg. This is called ovulation. [Many birth control pills work by blocking this LH surge, thus inhibiting the release of an egg.]


As ovulation approaches, the blood supply to the ovary increases and the ligaments contract, pulling the ovary closer to the Fallopian tube, allowing the egg, once released, to find its way into the tube. Just before ovulation, a woman's cervix secretes an abundance of clear "fertile mucous" which is characteristically stretchy. Fertile mucous helps facilitate the sperm's movement toward the egg. Some women use daily mucous monitoring to determine when they are most likely to become pregnant. Mid cycle, some women also experience cramping or other sensations. Basal body temperature rises right after ovulation and stays higher by about .4 degrees F until a few days before the next period.

Inside the Fallopian tube, the egg is carried along by tiny, hairlike projections, called "cilia" toward the uterus. Fertilization occurs if sperm are present. [A tubal pregnancy, called ectopic pregnancy, is the rare situation when e a fertilized egg implants or gets lodged outside the uterus. It is a dangerous life-threatening situation if the fertilized egg starts developing and growing into an embryo inside the fallopian tube or elsewhere. The tube will rupture causing internal bleeding and surgery is required.

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Uterine Changes

Between midcycle and menstruation, the follicle from which the egg burst becomes the corpus luteum (yellow body). As it heals, it produces the hormones estrogen and, in larger amounts, progesterone which is necessary for the maintenance of a pregnancy. [RU-486 works by blocking progesterone production.] In the later stages of healing, if the uterus is not pregnant, the follicle turns white and is called the corpus albicans.

Estrogen and progesterone are sometimes called "female" hormones, but both men and women have them, just in different concentrations.

Progesterone causes the surface of the uterine lining, the endometrium, to become covered with mucous, secreted from glands within the lining itself. If fertilization and implantation do not occur, the spiral arteries of the lining close off, stopping blood flow to the surface of the lining. The blood pools into "venous lakes" which, once full, burst and, with the endometrial lining, form the menstrual flow. Most periods last 4 to 8 days but this length varies over the course of a lifetime.

Bleeding - A New Theory

Some researchers view menses as the natural monthly cleansing of the uterus and vagina of sperm and bacteria they carried.

Cramps and Other Sensations

Even not an illness, menstruation brings particular specific symptoms, like:
  • Moodiness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Food cravings
  • Bloating
  • Tenderness in the breasts
Women can experience a variety of sensations before, during or after their menses. Common complaints include backache, pain in the inner thighs, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, breast tenderness, irritability, and other mood changes. Women also experience positive sensations such as relief, release, euphoria, new beginning, invigoration, connection with nature, creative energy, exhilaration, increased sex drive and more intense orgasms.

Uterine cramping is one of the most common uncomfortable sensations women may have during menstruation. There are two kinds of cramping. Spasmodic cramping is probably caused by prostaglandins, chemicals that affect muscle tension. Some prostaglandins cause relaxation, and some cause constriction. A diet high in linoleic and liblenic acids, found in vegetables and fish, increases the prostaglandins for aiding muscle relaxation.

Congestive cramping causes the body to retain fluids and salt. To counter congestive cramping, avoid wheat and dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugar.

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Natural options to alleviate cramping:

  • Increase exercise. This will improve blood and oxygen circulation throughout the body, including the pelvis.
  • Try not using tampons. Many women find tampons increase cramping. Don't select an IUD (intrauterine device) as your birth control method.
  • Avoid red meat, refined sugars, milk, and fatty foods.
  • Eat lots of fresh vegetables, whole grains (especially if you experience constipation or indigestion), nuts, seeds and fruit.
  • Avoid caffeine. It constricts blood vessels and increases tension.
  • Meditate, get a massage.
  • Have an orgasm (alone or with a partner).
  • Drink ginger root tea (especially if you experience fatigue).
  • Put cayenne pepper on food. It is a vasodilator and improves circulation.
  • Breathe deeply, relax, notice where you hold tension in your body and let it go.
  • Ovarian Kung Fu alleviates or even eliminates menstrual cramps and PMS, it also ensures smooth transition through menopause
  • Take time for yourself!
Anecdotal information suggests eliminating Nutra-Sweet from the diet will significantly relieve menstrual cramps. If you drink sugar-free sodas or other forms of Nutra-Sweet, try eliminating them completely for two months and see what happens.

Late or Missed Period

Sometimes a period may come late or be missed for the month. Frequently, a woman's first thought is that she is pregnant. Yes, that could be the case, but there are times when a woman may be late or miss her period for other unsuspected reasons. These reasons include:
  • Significant weight gain/loss
  • Fatigue
  • Hormonal problems
  • Tension
  • Stress
  • Ceasing to take the birth control pill
  • Breastfeeding
  • Increase in exercise
  • Illness
  • Infections
  • STD's

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Menstrual Myths

  • Every woman's cycle is or should be 28 days long.
  • Every woman will or should bleed every month.
  • Every woman will or should ovulate every cycle.
  • If a woman bleeds, she is not pregnant.
  • A woman cannot ovulate or get pregnant while she is menstruating.
The above statements are myths. Every woman is different.

It's true that most women will have cycles that are around 28 days. But, a woman can be healthy and normal and have just 3 or 4 cycles a year. [However, while variations might be healthy and normal, they could also be a sign of a serious underlying problem. For example, a recent news article suggested that irregular menstrual cycles may predict Type 2 Diabetes.]

Ovulation occurs about 14-16 days before women have their period (not 14 days after the start of their period). The second half of the cycle, ovulation to menstruation, is fairly consistently the same length, but the first part changes from person to person and from cycle to cycle. In rare cases, a women may ovulate twice in a month, once from each ovary.

Conception/Fertilization of an egg, can only occur after ovulation. The egg stays alive for about 24 hours once released from the ovary. Sperm can stay alive inside a woman's body for 3-4 days, but possibly as long as 6-7 days. If a couple has intercourse before or after ovulation occurs, they can get pregnant, since the live sperm are already inside the woman's body when ovulation occurs. Thus a woman can become pregnant from intercourse for about 7-10 days in the middle of her cycle.

Did You Know?

  • Women lose between 20 and 80 cc's (1-2 ounces) of blood during a normal period.
  • One in six fertilized eggs naturally results in miscarriage, some of which are reabsorbed by the body and the woman is not aware she's been pregnant.
  • The length of a woman's menstrual cycle (the number of days from the first day of one period to the first day of the next) is determined by the number of days it takes her ovary to release an egg. Once an egg is released, it is about 14 days until menstruation, for nearly all women.
Alternatives for Handling Menstrual Flow

  1. Chlorine-free biodegradable 100% cotton tampons recently hit the market in response to environmentally conscious feminists. Studies have shown that organochlorines can be linked to cancer. Women using chlorine-free tampons are not putting chlorine into their bodies, nor are they supporting an industry which produces enormous volumes of industrial waste containing chlorine. If your regular pad or tampon isn't chlorine-free, write and urge them to make 100% cotton pads and tampons without chlorine.
  2. Natural sponges from the ocean (not cellulose) are used by some women. They are dampened then inserted directly into the vagina. When full, they are removed, washed with water, and reused. Washable reusable cloth pads are also available.
  3. The menstrual cap is another reusable alternative. It is similar to the cervical cap, but worn near the vaginal opening in the same place as a tampon. When full, it is simply removed, washed and reinserted. A cervical cap has also been used successfully in this manner.
  4. The Keeper - a specially made reusable device for catching monthly flow.
  5. Cloth (washable) pads - this is what most women around the word have always used.
To learn more about YOUR OWN cycle, keep a journal or calendar and make note of how you feel, emotionally and physically, thoughts about yourself, your body, your relationships with other cycling women.

Moon Time

Throughout all cultures, the magic of creation resides in the blood women gave forth in apparent harmony with the moon, and which sometimes stayed inside to create a baby. This blood was regarded with reverence: it had mysterious magical powers, was inexplicably shed without pain, and was wholly foreign to male experience. Early menstrual rites were perhaps the first expression of human culture.

Native American (Lakota)

"Follow your Grandmother Moon. Her illuminating cycles will transform your spirit." Begin with the Grandmother Moon at her brightest and most open. This is a time of outward activity and high energy. Sleep where the moonlight touches you. Walk outside where there are no artificial lights. Feel joy and creativity. As the Grandmother begins to cover her face, begin to withdraw into a quieter, less social place. Move to that inward place that is more about "being" than "doing." In the dark of the moon, when bleeding, the veil between you and the Great Mystery is the thinnest. Be receptive to visions, insights, intuitions. Go to a quiet separate place such as a Moon Lodge. Later, come out of the dark, a woman with a cleansed body. As the moon returns, come back out into the world, carrying your vision.

Customs and Traditions

  • Indians of South American said all humans were made of "moon blood" in the beginning.
  • In Mesopotamia, the Great Goddess created people out of clay and infused them with her blood of life. She taught women to form clay dolls and smear them with menstrual blood. Adam translates as bloody clay.
  • In Hindu theory, as the Great Mother created the earth, solid matter coalesced into a clot with a crust. Women use this same method to produce new life.
  • The Greeks believed the wisdom of man or god was centered in his blood which came from his mother.
  • Egyptian pharaohs became divine by ingesting the blood of Isis called sa. Its hieroglyphic sign was the same as the sign of the vulva, a yonic loop like the one on the ankh.
  • From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Christian churches refused communion to menstruating women.
  • In ancient societies, menstrual blood carried authority, transmitting lineage of the clan or tribe.
  • Among the Ashanti, girl children are more prized than boys because a girl is the carrier of the blood.
  • Chinese sages called menstrual blood the essence of Mother Earth, the yin principle giving life to all things.
  • Some African tribes believed that menstrual blood kept in a covered pot for nine months had the power to turn itself into a baby.
  • Easter eggs, classic womb-symbols, were dyed red and laid on graves to strengthen the dead.
  • A born-again ceremony from Australia showed the Aborigines linked rebirth with blood of the womb.
  • Post-menopausal women were often the wisest because they retained their "wise blood." In the 17th century these old women were constantly persecuted for witch craft because their menstrual blood remained in their veins.

Sources and Additional Information:

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