Have you ever wondered if your PMS symptoms are all in your head? If you’re simply “unmotivated” when you feel sluggish during your period? If you’re just imagining that your libido tends to tick up around the middle of your cycle?
Here’s the reality: The reason you feel different — mentally, physically, and emotionally — during each phase of your menstrual cycle is probably not a product of your imagination or a fluke. In all likelihood, it comes down to hormones, which shift throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Those hormonal changes can affect your mood, your energy levels, or even patterns in your bowel movements. Of course, everybody is different, and the exact presentation of these hormonal shifts will vary from person to person. One thing is universal, though: Listening to your body is important — if you feel like you need to rest more during certain points in your cycle, that doesn’t mean you’re lazy or unmotivated, it means your body craves and deserves some downtime. And as always, if you worry that something is “off” or abnormal, a chat with your doctor is always a good idea.
Breaking down female hormones during each phase of the menstrual cycle
Curious about how exactly those hormones shift during each phase of your menstrual cycle, and how those hormonal shifts affect the way you feel? Read on for insights from OB/GYN Dorothy Bestoyong, DO, who is on hand to break down the female hormones during each phase of the menstrual cycle.
The menstrual phase:
The first part of a person’s menstrual cycle is the menstrual phase: This occurs when you get your period. Of course, this phase can be a tough one. If you deal with menstrual cramps, for example, you may want to lay low during this phase of your cycle.
It’s also important to realize that it’s not just the physical symptoms of menstrual cramps that may make you feel like skipping your workout or logging extra time on the couch — it’s also the hormonal shifts.
“During the menstrual phase (aka your period), estrogen and progesterone levels are low and therefore an individual may feel tired/low energy,” says Dr. Bestoyong. “Some issues with sleep can [also] occur.”
If this phase of your cycle makes you want to cancel plans and stay in bed, you’re not alone. Dr. Bestoyong confirms that this is the point in a person’s cycle where she might want to slow down and take things easy.
The follicular phase:
The follicular phase of your menstrual cycle actually encompasses your menstrual phase as well. In a typical 28-day cycle, the follicular phase will go from day 0 to day 14.
Hormones begin to shift after a person’s period ends, and with these hormonal shifts, people may start to feel more like “themselves”.
“The estradiol hormone starts to increase after your period,” says Dr. Bestoyong. “During this time, an individual may start to feel more energized, have better moods, etc.”
The ovulatory phase:
This phase takes place in the middle of your cycle — around day 14 for people with 28-day cycles. The obvious hallmark of the ovulatory phase is that this is when women are fertile. However, there’s more to this phase. “Luteinizing hormone peaks during this time to induce ovulation,” says Dr. Bestoyong.”Individuals may have increased sex drive [and/or] mood sensitivity.”
In addition to the effects of that hormonal shift, people may also experience tender breasts, heightened sense of smell/taste/sight, or appetite changes, according to Cleveland Clinic.
The luteal phase:
Finally, a person enters the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, which begins around day 15 of a typical 28-day cycle. This phase lasts for about half of your cycle, ending when your next period begins.
People who are trying to conceive may be tracking their fertility by looking at things like cervical mucus (which thickens during this phase) and basal body temperature (which increases slightly during this phase).
“Progesterone increases during this time and this is when individuals may experience “PMS”... mood swings, increased sensitivity, bloating, breast tenderness, etc,” says Dr. Bestoyong.
Cycle syncing could be a way to honor these hormonal changes
You’ve probably noticed that your body simply craves different things — from different foods to different forms of exercise — depending on which phase of your menstrual cycle you’re in. Enter cycle syncing, which has become popular recently. Cycle syncing involves adjusting your routines to suit your body's needs at each phase of your cycle. For example: Modifying the type of exercise you do at each phase.
If cycle syncing feels right for you, it can be a great way to understand how your needs change through each phase of your cycle and implement routines that suit those changes.
“I say if it works for you, go for it,” says Dr. Bestoyong. “It allows one to become more in-tune with their body.”
Yes, hormonal changes are normal — but don’t forget to look out for red flags
Hormonal shifts throughout your cycle are real, and you’re going to feel some effects from them, as Dr. Bestoyong details. However, if anything feels extreme or abnormal, advocate for yourself — any concerns should be directed towards a doctor.
Some red flags to look out for? According to Dr. Bestoyong, these include irregular periods (cycles less than 21 days or greater than 35 days) and heavy or painful periods.
While PMS symptoms are part of the hormonal process (and can include mood swings, headaches, fatigue, acne flare-ups, or appetite changes, according to Mayo Clinic), anything that feels disruptive to daily functioning should be addressed.
“If [you] experience extreme PMS symptoms that [are] affecting daily function or quality of life, it may be PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder),” says Dr. Bestoyong. PMDD is an extension of PMS, according to Mayo Clinic, and the distinction between the two is marked by extreme moodiness, sadness or hopelessness, and anxiety or tension which usually begin 7-10 days before your period begins.
The bottom line?
Hormonal shifts — and the effect they have on you — are to be expected, but if anything is interfering with your ability to get through the day or feels extreme, it should be evaluated.
Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, MarieClaire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.