As women, we are part of the many cycles that take place here on earth. Every month, the moon disappears at the new moon and then reappears at the full moon. The seasons pass around us from spring to summer then fall into winter and each day the sun rises and sets. Tuning in to all the cycles we experience can help connect us to our bodies and help us to tune into the wisdom inside each of us.
This article is the cliff notes version of what is happening through your fertility cycle so you can become more in tune with your body and how it feels. In this way, you will start to learn what is normal for you so you can find your most fertile days and connect with the information your body is telling you.
Normally when we hear about the fertility cycle (often called the menstrual cycle, but since you are here because you want to have a baby, we are going to call it your fertility cycle) we talk about a 28 day cycle. This is by no means to say that the 28 day cycle is optimal or even normal, it just fits nicely within our 7 day/week calendar and makes the numbers easier to deal with. Women’s cycles vary in length and looking at the number of days of each phase of your cycle can give you information about how your hormones are working together.
The way we talk about menstruation
Do you remember the day when you had the first “period” talk in school? I remember all the girls in my class sitting around the nurse in uncomfortable silence. I know she described what was going on in our bodies and what would soon be happening to us, but it’s mostly a blur. It was mostly just the fact that our periods were going to start and here are a few products you might want to use. After that discussion, the topic of menstruation was never really talked about except in negative terms like how painful PMS was.
Culturally, we learned to hide menstruation (anyone ever carry your tampons to the bathroom up your sleeve?), hate our bodies for having it, or fear that we could get pregnant because of it. Our periods get blamed for us voicing an opinion and showing emotions, so no wonder we hide them. We disown that part of our body and then expect that when we want to have a baby our body will respond.
I want to talk about the power of your fertility cycle, how you can use your cycle to be more productive in your life and get to know yourself again so you learn to trust your body’s wisdom and amazing ability to create life.
So, I want to introduce the topic in a new way, because learning about our periods can be an indicator of our reproductive health, and ...
I want you to appreciate all that your body does for you each month and help you understand your fertility cycle.
I want you to understand how that knowledge can give you an appreciation of your body and help you to conceive.
For instance, a short luteal phase (the time from ovulation to menstruation) may indicate poor progesterone production or an imbalance between estrogen and progesterone - this is part of my story, you can read more here. Heavy or painful periods may be an indicator of endometriosis or uterine fibroids. Infrequent periods may be a sign of PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome).
Only a doctor can diagnose these difficulties, but having more knowledge about your own cycles can empower you to speak the truth about what is happening in your body. And, each of these changes in menstruation can impact your ability to achieve and maintain a pregnancy.
For this discussion, we are going to call the first day of bleeding Day 1. Just know that since this is a cycle, the distinctions between phases and events in the cycle is arbitrary and what we are really talking about is a flow between the events of menstruation and ovulation.
When bleeding starts our hormones are at their lowest levels. The drop in progesterone from the last half of our cycle has caused the lining of our uterus to shed and we begin bleeding. Women typically menstruate for 3-7 days per month.
You may feel a little more tired or sluggish. Our energy is more tuned into our bodies, and because of the hormonal balance, it is a good time to take stock of what’s happening in our lives. To re-evaluate the past month and start to make plans for the new one. .
Contrary to what our culture wants us to believe (that we are irrational and moody while menstruating), your brain is primed for big ideas. Your right and left sides of the brain are the most connected at this time. You have the ability to see what is going on in your life and to make a decision about whether or not it is working and choose to continue with that strategy or try something new. This may be the time when you can connect with your deepest desires and be really honest about what is working and what is not working in your life. This is a great time to journal, make plans and set intentions for the month.
Because of your low estrogen levels, you may have a harder time with memory or finding just the right word when speaking. The good news is, estrogen is beginning to rise so your mental acuity will return soon. At this point, you’re more in tune with the right side of your brain and though you may have a hard time verbally sparring with the Gilmore Girls, you are better at written communication. This is a great time to be creative or journal about the upcoming month. It is a great time to check in with your intuition and examine what is working and not working in your life.
This portion of our own cycle corresponds to the dark of the moon, winter, and the darkness before dawn.
How can you best support your body during this time? Because your body is bleeding, you are losing iron and other nutrients, and whole foods that help you replenish those stores will be helpful during this time. Here are a few things to try adding to your meal plan during menstruation:
Seaweed: Seaweed is high in iron making it a great addition to your meals this week. Try some wakame in some miso soup or a quick seaweed salad.
Beets: Beets are high in vitamin C, and when eaten with the beet greens which are high in iron and in B vitamins they will help boost your energy. Add some beets to a big pan of roasted veggies that you can use as a base for veggie hash for breakfast or with some chicken or roasted chickpeas for a quick lunch. The greens can be lightly steamed and added to either the breakfast hash or lunch bowl.
Buckwheat: Buckwheat has lots of B vitamins to help boost your energy, plus lots of trace minerals including folate. You can soak the buckwheat groats (the name for the whole grain) overnight in some warm water with a teaspoon of ACV to make them more digestible. Then in the morning rinse the grains well and cook with water to make a porridge. Top with some blueberries or dried cranberries for a yummy breakfast.
By making a few simple additions to your food plan this week and tuning into your body’s desire to turn inward, you can support your body through the menstrual phase of your cycle.
The follicular phase is usually designated as the days after menstruation has stopped until ovulation. During this phase, the follicle is developing in our ovary. This phase is all about egg growth, getting the egg ready for release (ovulation), and getting the uterus ready for a fertilized egg to implant.
During the follicular phase, estrogen is increasing. Estrogen signals our body to increase the layers in our uterus, it also signals our body to increase fat stores to ensure we have enough energy to support the implantation and growth of the fetus. When estrogen reaches a critical level, it signals the hypothalamus to release Follicle Stimulating Hormone which tells the ovary to release the egg. You also have rising testosterone levels at this time. Several eggs mature during this period, but only one (usually) reaches full maturity and is released during ovulation.
The egg that reaches full maturity and is ultimately released at ovulation has been maturing for the past 3 months. It takes about 90 days for a egg to reach full maturity within the ovary. Interesting fact, it takes about 72 days for sperm to mature. So, taking 3-4 months to nourish yourself and your partner will improve the quality of both the egg and sperm.
As your body moves closer to ovulation you will notice a change in your cervical fluid. A few days before you ovulate, your cervical fluid will change consistency from thick and yellowish, white to clear and stretchy. This type of cervical fluid has a specific microscopic pattern which helps the sperm move through the uterus and up the fallopian tube to meet the egg. Under the right conditions, sperm is able to live in the uterus and fallopian tubes for 5 days.
Rising estrogen levels will help improve your verbal skills, make you more social and open to new experiences. During this phase, you are full of new ideas and now have the energy to start them. You are also great at problem solving because you are in touch with your creative right side of the brain and can think outside the box.
The follicular phase is variable, and is not always the same from month to month. Things that affect the follicular phase are poor sleep, travel, illness, stress. These all cause changes in our hormones and may affect how quickly the body will mature the egg. The body knows that if we are under stress, it is not the optimal time to conceive, so it will slow things down.
The follicular phase is like the waxing moon, spring and morning. It is a time full of possibilities and it is a good time to dream and plan for what you want next.
Foods for the Follicular Phase:
Avocados: Avocados have lots of healthy fats to help the egg develop and avocados also help the body produce more cervical fluid.
Broccoli: Broccoli helps support the liver’s detox processes helping all that estrogen your body is making to be converted into a form that can be excreted. It also contains lots of antioxidants which help protect the developing egg from damage. Broccoli has lots of Vitamin C which helps to increase the water content in cervical fluid making it easier for the sperm to travel to the egg.
Eggs: Eggs are a good source of protein during this phase, and protein is needed to make healthy eggs. Eggs are also a source of B vitamins and antioxidants which improve egg health.
The moment everyone is waiting for when #ttc. Ovulation occurs when the ovary releases the egg and it travels down the fallopian tube to reach the uterus. This usually occurs 8 days to 2 weeks after the first day of menstruation, but since the follicular phase can be variable, you may not ovulate on the same day each cycle.
Once the egg has been released, it only lives for 12-24 hours. When you combine those hours with the 4-5 days of fertile cervical fluid, that creates you fertile window; the time you are potentially able to conceive each month.
Right after ovulation, estrogen begins to decrease and progesterone starts to rise. In the days around ovulation, our hormones have us primed to find a mate. You may find yourself being more social and outgoing and you may notice more people talk to you in the grocery store or on the street. Our verbal skills are high, so we communicate well, and we are more open to others. It is a great time to make a presentation, ask for a raise or schedule an interview.
Ovulation is like the full moon, summer, and midday when you shine your brightest.
Foods for Ovulation
Salmon Wild Salmon is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty acids are important building blocks of hormones and make up a big portion of every cell wall in our body. In addition to being building blocks for new cells and hormones, Omega-3s help improve blood flow to our uterus and ovaries and improve the quality of our cervical fluid to help the sperm get to the egg. A great time to add salmon to your meal plan is around ovulation to help with the production of fertile cervical fluid.
Quinoa Quinoa is a seed, not actually a grain. It is a complete protein, because it has all the essential amino acids. Quinoa is gluten-free and contains high amounts of magnesium and iron. Sometimes, quinoa can be hard to digest (I have a hard time with quinoa), if you notice your stomach is upset after eating quinoa, try soaking the grains before cooking them, or buy quinoa that has been sprouted and then dried again.
To soak quinoa, put 1 c. quinoa in a glass bowl and cover with 1-2 inches of water, add 1 T of Apple Cider Vinegar, lemon, whey or yogurt and let sit for 12-24 hours. Rinse the quinoa and cook with 1 c. water or stock.
Raspberries Berries contain Vitamin C and other antioxidants which help protect the egg and sperm from damage and help to keep the reproductive system healthy. I have a great recipe for Raspberry Mousse in my Top 10 Fertility Foods Recipe Book.
The luteal phase begins after ovulation; the main hormone is progesterone whose job is to maintain the uterine lining for implantation of the fertilized egg. Estrogen also rises during the luteal phase, but is when your hormones are working well together, estrogen is not higher than progesterone.
Progesterone is a calming hormone which reduces our anxiety, and helps us sleep better. It also revs up our metabolism by stimulating our thyroid, which is why you see a rise in basal body temperature when you are charting your cycle.
Progesterone is produced by the corpus luteum which is formed from the follicular sac the egg has just been released from. After the egg is released, the covering that surrounded the egg as it matured, transforms into new tissue called the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum lasts from 12-14 days if there is not egg implantation.
Unlike the follicular phase which can vary, the time for the luteal phase is consistent for each woman, usually 12-14 days. If you find that your luteal phase is shorter than that, you may not be producing enough progesterone to maintain the uterine lining for the egg to implant.
In this portion of your cycle, your hormones are primed to for getting things done. It is a great time to take on tasks like accounting or clearing out your closet. Want to Kondo your life? This is the time!
This part of your cycle is like the fall, waxing moon and evening. At the end of this part of your fertility cycle, you may notice that your energy begins to move more inward as you move toward menstruation.
Foods for Luteal Phase
Brown Rice Brown rice is full of fiber to keep us regular and contains B vitamins and other trace minerals that are important for egg health and neural development.
Chickpeas Chickpeas are a great source of Vitamin B6 which helps with progesterone production and improved egg and sperm health.
Sweet Potato Sweet potatoes are a sweet addition to any preconception meal plan. They provide lots of fiber to help regulate blood sugar, and the complex carbs help you stay fuller longer. Plus, when you roast them in the oven, the natural sugars in the sweet potatoes are carmelized giving you the sweetness you crave, without any processed sugar. This natural sugar is especially helpful in the late luteal phase right before you menstruate. The increased sugars at this time can help to regulate our mood and modulate crankiness and PMS which is caused by a decrease in estrogen. The extra fiber also help our body to eliminate the used hormones that our liver has broken down.
Your cycle and fertility
Following your cycle and getting to know how your body feels in each phase is an empowering part of the fertility journey. As you know your cycle better, you begin to know when your fertile days are each month, and you can take advantage of the unique gifts of each part of the menstrual cycle to accomplish more with working less.
Hormones are an interconnected system, if one is out of balance, others will compensate to try and regain equilibrium. The hormones we have discussed here are the ones directly involved in the menstrual cycle, but there are many other hormones that are part of this hormonal dance which can impact this balance and create sub-optimal conditions for conception. Other hormones that impact the cycle are insulin, cortisol, and thyroid hormones. In addition, the fertility cycle can be impacted by inflammation in the body from infection, food sensitivities or injuries.
What can you do
Begin charting your cycle using your basal body temperature to determine if you and when you are ovulating, the length of each phase, and your most fertile days. A great resource for this is Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler
Chart your cycle with apps like Fertility Friend, Flo or Kindara
Check out tracking devices like Daysy, Ovusense, Ava or Tempdrop
Note how you feel in each phase of your cycle. Are there times you have more energy? Are there days you feel bloated? Do you have headaches related to your cycle? This information can provide you with insight into your hormone balance.
To get started nourishing your fertility cycle, download my Top 10 Fertility Foods Recipe Book. It has recipes for my favorite foods that help boost fertility and get you ready for conception.