As a woman, you know to expect the arrival of your period at least once a month, if your cycle is regular. You are probably aware that there is more to your menstrual cycle than those awful days of cramps and bleeding. For the entire month (28 days, to be exact) your body is changing and experiencing a process that prepares your body to carry a baby. There are four phases to this process and sometimes you complete a cycle and skip right over that first phase of menstruation of which you are most aware. In those cases, you are pregnant. Otherwise, you complete the cycle and start over again. Here are the four phases in detail to help you better understand your body.
The Menstrual Phase: This stage kicks off the menstrual cycle with three to seven days of bleeding, cramps, headaches and mood swings (depending on the woman). During this time, your uterus is shedding the lining of tissue and blood vessels that your body has put in place to prepare to carry a baby. This lining leaves the body as menstrual fluid, exiting through the vagina. This stage is more commonly known as your period and most women are not fond of it except in the event that they aren't quite ready for a baby! (via Menstrupedia)
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The Follicular Phase: Also beginning on the first day of the menstrual cycle, the follicular phase lasts until the thirteenth day of your cycle. A hormone in your pituitary gland stimulates egg cell growth in the ovaries. Over these 13 days, one of the eggs (in some cases, more) will grow and mature until it is a sac-like structure called a follicle. During growth, the follicle gives off a hormone that prompts the uterus to develop the endometrium, a lining of soft tissue and blood vessels to replace what your body has just shed in the menstrual phase. In this stage, your body is beginning to prepare for pregnancy. (via Better Health)
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The Ovulation Phase: On day 14, the pituitary gland emits another hormone. This time, it causes the ovary to release the egg (now mature and ready for action) to be swept up into the fallopian tube where it's kept cozy, ready for the next phase. The life cycle of this little egg is only about 24 hours, which takes place in the next stage of the menstrual cycle.
The Luteal Phase: This phase lasts for the second half of your menstrual cycle. For the first 24 hours of this stage, the egg sits in the fallopian tube and waits. What is it waiting for? You got it. A sperm cell. If a sperm cell doesn't come a-knockin' then the egg disintegrates. By the end of 28 days, the endometrium has used up all of the hormone that keeps it in place and the uterus starts to shed the tissue and blood vessels, bringing you full circle to the menstrual phase and the arrival of that pesky monthly "cousin." But if a sperm cell arrives for duty, the fertilized egg implants itself in the uterus wall. The follicle from which the egg came in the previous phase transforms into a structure called the corpus luteum and releases the hormone that keeps the uterine wall in place and a baby grows.
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Maybe your period isn't as seamless as all this. Sometimes there are complications and sometimes the side effects are magnified. But at the end of the cycle, when your body sheds that uterine wall and brings your least favorite time of the month, you know that your body is doing what it should. If your period is irregular, it would be wise to talk to your doctor. Check out this guide to birth control for the options you have to regulate your period and prevent pregnancy until you're ready.
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