It's time to learn all those things they never taught us in health class - periods, pregnancy and pelvic floor!
I'm a women's health educator, a nerd when it comes to learning "all of the things", and my obsession is teaching women how to take control of their health and create a life they love!
The follicular phase – the window of time between menstruation and ovulation – can be tricky. While all of the other phases of our menstrual cycle are usually quite consistent and reliable, it’s the follicular phase which can change every single month. Some women may even skip this phase completely!
Welcome to Part Two of your Menstrual Cycle Masterclass, where I’m breaking down the sneakiest of all the phases of the menstrual cycle, the follicular phase – what actually goes on inside our body, how to support your body, balance your hormones and support your reproductive system with nutrition, self care, exercise and sleep.
Hello, and welcome to episode 13 of The Mana Women’s Wellness Podcast. I’m your host, Rachel and this is part two of the Menstrual Cycle Masterclass. Now last week we kicked off the Menstrual Cycle Masterclass with the first phase of our cycle – the menstrual phase. This week we are moving on in to the next phase of the cycle – the follicular phase, that window of time between your period and ovulation.
Now if you want a bit of a cheatsheet for all of the information I’ll be talking about in our Menstrual Cycle Masterclass series you can get over at www.fertilityco.com.au/podcast and grab the shownotes for today’s episode. If you want to dive deeper into how to support your body during each phase of the menstrual cycle, plus how it all ties together plus all about hormones plus so much more, you can grab The Mana Guide to Understanding (and Loving!) Your Menstrual Cycle at my digital shop over on the website too. And if you head over to today’s shownotes or straight to www.fertilityco.com.au/freebook you can grab a free chapter of this book which gives you a really good and clear introduction to the menstrual cycle as well as outlining getting to know the hormones involved.
Now when we dive in to each of the four phases of the menstrual cycle, I’m going to be focusing on what actually goes on inside our body during each phase, and how this all ties in to our ultimate reproductive goal of ovulation and pregnancy. I’m also going to talk about how to support your body during each phase, regulating your hormones and supporting what your reproductive system is actually doing through the nutrition and the foods you eat, self-care and the way you look after your body, how each phase affects your sleeping patterns, your moods and I’ll even show you how you can change up how you exercise to support all of this too.
Let’s get started with the phase which follows menstruation – the follicular phase. This is certainly the trickiest of all phases and that’s because the length of this phase can be quite variable. All of the other phases are pretty consistent, and once your menstrual cycle has established itself and as long as there isn’t anything else too dramatic going on – such as PCOS, illness, stress and so on – your period pretty much looks the same month after month, right? But the follicular phase can change. Again, those factors like stress and illness that I just mentioned, they’re going to be the triggers for change, but the 2-3 day variation – or more – that you may see with every cycle is due to the change in length of the follicular phase. This phase starts immediately from the end of your period until ovulation. And as I said the length of this phase can vary between cycles, and this is the reason why your cycle may not be the same duration every month. And when you think about it, it does make sense why there’s so much variability in this phase because it begins with the end of your period, and ends just as ovulation occurs. It sits between the two opposite extremes of the menstrual cycle – menstruation and ovulation – and so the changes that occur in this window of time take us from one end to the other, which explains all the changes that occur.
Plus, if you have a short menstrual cycle, less than 26 days, you may actually skip this phase completely and move straight from the menstrual phase to the ovulatory phase and your fertile window. This is because this phase is all about preparing the body for ovulation.
The follicular phase is a non-fertile phase. Like I talked about in the last episode, we need to consider ourselves fertile during our menstrual phase purely because there is no really way of knowing whether we have cervical mucus or not. If you want to learn a little more about this, you can check out episode #9 where I talked about how it’s actually possible to get pregnant during your period, and it’s all due to the variability (and in some cases, non-existence) of the follicular phase. It’s a very interesting subject so go and have a listen if you’re curious about that one. I’ll include a link to episode #9 in the shownotes.
So like I said, the follicular phase is the non-fertile phase between your period and ovulation. It’s a non-fertile phase because that mucus plug that broke down just before your period, the one that allowed menstruation to occur? Well that plug reforms at the end of your period and so it’s sitting at the cervix when the follicular phase rolls around and it forms that physical barrier to block sperm from entering the uterus through the cervix. Because this plug is in place, you’ll have either a feeling of dryness with no mucus present, or you’ll feel some degree of moistness but with an unchanging type of mucus day after day. Again, this is something I talked about in episode #9 but it’s the key to this follicular phase. These two sensations during your follicular phase are known as your basic infertile pattern. It’s an infertile pattern because it’s occurring in that non-fertile window between menstruation (potentially fertile) and ovulation (definitely fertile). So, your basic infertile pattern type 1 is basically feeling pretty dry down below. And a basic infertile pattern type 2 is having some mucus present, but it’s likely a bit drier and stickier than what you’ll see in your fertile window and not like the thin, slippery, lubricative mucus as you approach ovulation.
So, are you still with me? The follicular phase is non-fertile because of the mucus plug at the cervix. This plug means sperm can’t get through and you’ll either have feelings of dryness, basic infertile pattern type 1, or some mucus present but it is unchanging from one day to the next – this is your basic infertile pattern type 2.
Ok, so just to make things more confusing, remember when I said that women with shorter cycles tend to skip their follicular phase? Well, for those women, this mucus plug will not re-form at the cervix after menstruation. And they won’t actually have a basic infertile pattern because they don’t have a non-fertile phase. As their period comes to an end, their cervix has already begun to produce fertile mucus, so that thin, slippery mucus that can resemble egg white. These are the women who are at risk of getting pregnant if they have sex during their period, because their mucus plug doesn’t re-form, and remember sperm can live for up to 5 days inside the female reproductive system. And sperm is kept alive by fertile mucus. This type of mucus feeds the sperm, keeps it alive and actually makes it easy for the sperm to swim through to get to the egg released at ovulation. If you have sex at the end of your period and your fertile window overlaps with this, then you can certainly get pregnant from the sex you had during your period.
Think of fertile mucus like sperm swimming along a beautiful stream with the current, and the current happily helps the sperm to get to the egg waiting for it in the fallopian tube. Now think of your non-fertile phase, or your dry, tacky mucus as sperm trying to swim through mud. It’s not going to get very far, and the acidic environment of the vagina is going to kill sperm in a matter of hours.
So for those women who kind of just skip the follicular phase, they’re not missing out on any key processes, they all still happen, they just happen faster. And when they happen tends to blur in with the tail end of menstruation while they’re still bleeding.
I really really hope this all makes sense so far. And I promise that if you start to track your cycles each month, or even just start paying attention to the way your cervical mucus changes every day, you’ll certainly start to understand the wet and dry sensations as well as the changes in mucus throughout your cycle. As I’ve said, the follicular phase is tricky as it changes with every cycle, but you will only ever have a basic infertile pattern type 1 or 2. You’re not going to be a type 1 one month and a type 2 the next. Whatever one it is for you, that’s your basic infertile pattern. So charting and tracking the changes in your mucus will get easier with time and experience.
Ok, now let’s talk about how the female sex hormones change from the menstrual phase and throughout the follicular phase.
Oestrogen levels will peak during the follicular phase, as this phase will end just before ovulation. At the beginning of a new menstrual cycle, and during your period, oestrogen levels are low. As you finish menstruating and ovulation approaches, oestrogen levels rise and trigger thickening of the endometrium in preparation for implantation of the fertilised egg.
It is the high oestrogen levels that cause the production of cervical mucus that makes it easier for sperm to pass through the vagina and reach the egg. This is what I mean about changes in your mucus as you approach ovulation. It gets thin, watery and slippery as oestrogen rises.
Now, balanced oestrogen levels will help to maintain healthy skin, hair and bones. Low oestrogen means less cervical fluid is produced, which can contribute to difficulties getting pregnant. Not only is it harder to identify your fertile window, but remember what I said about this fluid helping sperm to reach the egg and actually keeping sperm alive? Well, the less fluid you have, the harder it will be for sperm to make the distance without getting lost or dying.
Progesterone levels are very low at the beginning of the menstrual cycle and they’ll remain low until after ovulation has occurred. This is because progesterone is a key hormone in establishing and maintaining pregnancy, so it’s not required until pregnancy is actually possible after ovulation.
Now, the follicular phase is called this for a reason. The follicle is where the egg stays while inside the ovary. At ovulation, the egg is released from the follicle. Now, there is a hormone that is released by the pituitary gland in the brain, called follicle stimulating hormone, or FSH, and it’s job is to stimulate growth of the follicles inside the ovaries, where these immature eggs are stored. So basically, FSH helps eggs to mature and develop during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, leading up to ovulation. During each menstrual cycle, one egg matures and is released, while the others will die and break down.
The production of FSH is regulated by oestrogen levels. So, as oestrogen levels rise during the follicular phase, it triggers the production of FSH by the pituitary gland. So it’s a bit of a domino effect, oestrogen triggers FSH, which triggers maturation of the follicle and release of the egg – ovulation.
Now there’s one more hormone that is involved at the end of the follicular phase, called luteinising hormone, or LH. This hormone is also produced by the pituitary gland and it’s released right at the end of the follicular phase. Just like FSH, it’s release is triggered by rising oestrogen levels. So, when LH levels rise, ovulation occurs because the ovarian follicle ruptures and the egg is released. After ovulation, levels of LH and FSH will decrease as progesterone levels start to rise.
If you’re feeling a bit lost and all the different hormones involved in this phase are leaving you a little confused, then I would recommend grabbing my free chapter of The Mana Guide to Understanding (and Loving) Your Menstrual Cycle. This free chapter has a couple of really awesome diagrams that show all the different hormone levels in each phase of the menstrual cycle and the visual makes things a whole lot clearer. There’ll be a link to in it the shownotes or you can grab it at www.fertilityco.com.au/freebook
So, what are some of the physical signs and symptoms you might notice during the follicular phase. Well, you’ll likely feel a little better in yourself once your period ends. You’ll have more energy, feel a bit happier and a bit more stable in your emotions. Your concentration is better, you’re feeling more outgoing and social and those food cravings are likely gone. In this phase, your athletic and physical performance is actually improved, so you can ramp up your workouts a little if you’ve had to take it easy during your period. This is the time to schedule in those social activities, cross those things off your to-do list and get those important projects done.
This is the time for creativity and energy. Be social, planning your month ahead, set some goals for yourself, be creative and try new things. Your hormones will have stabilised now compared to your low oestrogen and progesterone during your period, and so you’ll probably enjoy your sleep a little more. Your basal body temperature has stabilised so you won’t be as hot and bothered during the night. Make sure you’re getting at least 8 hours though in the lead-up to ovulation, if you’re tired and stress, your body may attempt ovulation multiple times before it’s successful.
When it comes to your workouts, make the most of your bonus energy and try cardio and high intensity interval training. This is the time to use your extra energy to challenge yourself and really work up a sweat.
Nutrition during this window should really be focusing on supporting hormone production and healthy ovulation so you want to boost your good fats here with avocado, wild salmon, walnuts, almonds, coconut oil, Greek yoghurt, hummus and chickpeas, broccoli, spinach and parsley. You can support rising oestrogen levels with natural boosters like flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds, as well as boosting your protein intake and green vegies.
Essential oils during this phase are thyme and ylang ylang, all about supporting your hormones.
Well, there you go, that just about wraps up the second phase of the menstrual cycle and the second part of your 4-part Menstrual Cycle Masterclass.
Let’s summarise the key takeaways from this episode all about the follicular phase.
This is a non-fertile phase of the menstrual cycle because that mucus plug has blocked sperm from entering the cervix. You will show one of two basic infertile patterns during this phase – type 1 means you have no mucus production and a general feeling of dryness at your vulva, while a type 2 pattern means you have some mucus, but it’s likely dry and sticky and is does not change from one day to the next. When your mucus starts to change, and it gets a bit wetter and more slippery, you’re entering your fertile window, or the ovulatory phase which I’ll be talking about in the next episode.
The follicular phase starts as your period ends and runs through until ovulation occurs. So this phase is all about preparing the body for ovulating with rising oestrogen levels. And as oestrogen levels increase, it triggers the production of two more hormones – follicle stimulating hormone and luteinising hormone – which triggers maturation of the eggs within the follicle in the ovary, otherwise known as ovulation.
Now remember this is the changing phase with every cycle and if you experience irregular cycles, this is the phase that is responsible. And if you have a shorter cycle, you may have a very short or non-existent follicular phase and go straight from your period into your fertile window. If that’s you, do not have unprotected sex during your period as it is completely possible to conceive in this window, as you have basically skipped the non-fertile window between menstruation and ovulation.
Once again, if you’re feeling a little confused and overwhelmed, if this is all very new to you, then head to www.fertilityco.com.au/freebook and download your free chapter of my menstrual cycle guide. The chapter you get free access to is all about the hormones and how they change throughout your menstrual cycle and the diagrams make things so much easier to understand.
If you learnt something new or found value in today’s episode, I’d love to hear from you! Send me an Instagram DM, post it on your stories – share a story of yourself listening to the podcast – and let me know what you want me to talk about. This podcast is for you and so I want to talk about the things that are most important to you!
I will see you in next week’s episode, part three of the Menstrual Cycle Masterclass where we have reached the main event! Ovulation. That window of time when you are fertile and if you want to make a baby, this is when you do it! We’ll be diving deep and you will not want to miss this one.
Ok, bye for now and don’t forget that knowledge is power!
When you truly understand your body, you are empowered to make informed decisions and take control of your health!
Until next time.
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I'm obsessed with all things periods, pregnancy, pelvic floor and helping women just like you to navigate all of life's major milestones!
I'm a physiotherapist and natural fertility educator and my passion is teaching women how to take control of their health.