Sunday Edit: Understand yourself and your cycle better
Too many women ignore the signals their body sends, even when they are loud and clear. But it is never too late to learn to listen to what the body is saying, says psychologist, yoga teacher and author, Laila Tórsheim. She believes that a woman's menstrual cycle holds a wealth of rewarding information that can make us softer, stronger and, not least, much smarter about our health, body and psyche.
Listen to your body — and understand yourself and your cycle better.
Have you ever considered that you feel different depending on where in your menstrual cycle you are? In the week leading up to your period, you may be a little more irritable than usual and notice that your emotions take hold of your body. You feel bloated and long for the comfort of your duvet as soon as dinner has been ingested. And when you finally start to bleed, it is like a balloon being punctured. The energy seeps out of you. The sofa is more appealing than the dance floor and you wonder why you agreed to the many appointments you have in your diary. As Laila Tórsheim, author of the book Your secret weapon – a guide to your menstrual cycle says: “You must never leave your diary in the hands of your inner summer girl.”
By that she means that you probably made the appointments at a time in your cycle when you were most energetic. We will come back to that later, but first a little about the book which she has written together with nutritional therapist, Nanna Ewald Stigel: it is an attempt to understand the menstrual cycle beyond the conventional thought of being on or off your period.
According to Laila, the innate biology of the female body is a highly sensitive barometer that can be used to gauge our overall health. It is a system that provides important information on health and vitality, but also a compass that we can use to navigate demanding work tasks, diary appointments or big decisions.
It may sound far-fetched, but these observations are grounded in reality: it is a physiological fact that hormones, metabolism, stress response, immune system, fascia and reproductive organs all change dramatically during the menstrual cycle. For most, it is experienced as small fluctuations that can easily be overlooked, but they affect us in one way or another, both physically and psychologically. If you allow yourself to notice these changes, you will likely nod knowingly to some of them.
“There are two fundamental phases in a 28-day cycle, each lasting about 14 days. The time leading up to ovulation – where the hormone estrogen dominates – is called the follicular phase. During this phase, many women will experience a high energy level, increased sex drive and an urge to socialize and get things done. In contrast, the time between ovulation and your next period is called the luteal phase. Here, progesterone peaks and energy levels trough. You may even feel more introverted. Both estrogen and progesterone dip right up to and during menstruation, affecting how you feel physically as well as mentally," explains Laila, who has dubbed the two different phases solar and lunar.
“We need both types of energy and mood, just as we need night and day, the masculine and the feminine, yin and yang. The change of pace is important — and as women, we have it built into our bodies. We are reminded monthly that it is good to balance these forces so that we can both work and rest,” she adds. For Laila, this is a form of self-development based on something that is inherent in the body: “ The problem is not that we change during the menstrual cycle: it is the idea that we have to be the same all the time that is problematic.”
In addition to the solar and lunar phases, she further divides the menstrual cycle into four weeks or inner seasons. Seasons are analogies to describe the emotional states and inner changes of pace that characterize your cycle. And this is where the summer woman she mentioned earlier comes into play.
“We call the time leading up to ovulation inner spring. It is the period from when menstruation stops. You feel dynamic and full of possibilities, and it is typically during this phase that the first seeds of projects are sewn, and new lifestyle habits are introduced. You are open and enthusiastic and have a playful approach to both the small and big plans that are rattling around in your head.”
In short, it feels like a spring day, when the sun is shining, and flowers and trees are about to bloom. And as always, when we experience a rush of joy, hormones have a hand in the game.
“Estrogen, which is linked to increased energy and sex drive, rises,” she adds.
The word estrogen comes from the Greek oistros, meaning liveliness or inspiration, and more figuratively, sexual passion or desire.
The ovaries produce estradiol, one of the three types of estrogen (estrone, estriol and estradiol —ed.), which is believed to raise the levels of the happiness and reward hormones, serotonin and dopamine. The endometrium is thinnest at this time and the uterus smaller, therefore the body feels less heavy and bloated.
“Your inner summer is the bright summer days of your mind, when everything blooms, and you are outgoing, carefree, generous, more spontaneous and feel you can handle almost anything. It is a creative period and the optimal time to present or implement a project.”
Biologically, you are also the most fertile. During the ovulation phase, when estrogen peaks, the follicle bursts and the egg is released, you experience the greatest desire for sex and can become pregnant.
This abundance of energy can cause you to pencil in too many dates in your diary, which later in your cycle feel overwhelming.
“That's why I say that you shouldn’t leave your diary in the hands of your inner summer girl. To avoid burnout, it’s important to remember that after summer comes autumn,” Laila says.
“Just as autumn is synonymous with harvesting crops, your inner autumn is also a time when your body provides feedback on how you have lived during the remainder of your menstrual cycle. There may be feelings that have gone unrecognized, and which now come out as there is a thinner layer to our unconscious. Physically, you experience mood swings and maybe even headaches and fatigue,” Laila explains, emphasizing that not everyone experiences these changes equally.
“For many, it's just a shift in energy; a smooth, almost imperceptible transition where your state of mind gradually turns more inward and your sensitivity and vulnerability increase. You may find that you become more critical. There may be a voice inside you that says, ‘Was it really a good idea?’ In such cases it is important to get to know your inner critic and use it to your advantage: clean up, edit and evaluate to become sharper.”
Perhaps you are more direct in this phase. You don’t want to sugar coat things and are more confrontational. Many know this phase as PMS, or premenstrual syndrome, but it is such a catch-all term and a bit like saying that an infant has colic, Laila believes.
“It can cover a thousand things. I would rather call it premenstrual strength,” she says, because she believes it is important to harness the vulnerability that comes with this phase in a more constructive way.
“Meet yourself with honesty and appreciate the monthly reality check. Perhaps it’s good to write down your thoughts. Let them sit for a while before tackling them later. Maybe it’s helpful to talk to someone about it and not let your inner critic paralyze or override your actions.”
To show and listen to one’s vulnerability is a strength, she believes, and points to studies by the American psychologist Brené Brown that show how happier individuals have in common the courage to be vulnerable.
“Inner autumn is a time when we are given corporeal feedback on our emotional state. What is going on inside us that we need to look at or listen to a little more closely?”
But how we feel leading up to and during menstruation is also an indicator of our physical health, she explains, and says that the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists characterizes the menstrual cycle as women’s fifth vital sign.
“That's why you shouldn't trivialize the inconvenience and discomfort up to and during a period with trite statements like ‘that’s just the way it is’. They can be harbingers of more serious lifestyle diseases.”
Estrogen and progesterone levels decline in the days leading up to menstruation. It is this drop that triggers a period. Changes in the days leading up to a period affect many women’s mood, and a need for more rest often arises.
Many do not like this phase of the cycle as it is more lethargic.
“We live in a society that celebrates efficiency, but changing gears is a welcome opportunity to slow down. In my experience, we actually become more efficient by taking a break. It’s like spraying a tree with artificial fertilizer: at some point the soil can't take it anymore. It’s the same with people,” Laila says.
Many women can relate to that feeling. Statistics from the Danish Health Authority show that Danes experiencing a high level of stress increased from 21 percent in 2013 to 29 percent in 2021. It is also estimated that one in three women is affected by stress-like symptoms during their working life.
“Everything points to these numbers increasing more. We have created a society where we must constantly perform and run faster for longer.”
Inner winter is a metaphor for the time when you bleed, and is the season of rest and quiet. It may seem unproductive, but just as a tree gathers energy so that it is ready to bud in the spring, the same can be said of the female body.
Physiologically, this phase is called menstruation. If the egg is not fertilized, the corpus luteum degenerates after approximately 14 days. This causes the production of estrogen and progesterone to fall, and the body expels the mucous membrane and bleeding begins. Here, sex hormones are at their lowest and signal to the pituitary gland to produce the follicle-stimulating hormone FSH. A new cycle begins, and estrogen rises again.
“It is in this phase that you recharge, physically and mentally—if you surrender to calmness and slowness. Step back and examine your life from a more intuitive place. Try to think of this phase as a built-in pause and time for introspection.”
Of course, it is not always possible for you to withdraw from your obligations just because you have your period, and you can probably still perform at the same level as usual. But perhaps you can allow yourself to slow down a little and refrain from taking on too much.
“For some it’s a period of pain and discomfort; others just find it difficult and annoying. If you aim for calmness and let go of your plans in this phase, it’s my experience that a reward awaits. It may be new insights or ideas,” Laila says, and suggests that you replace the maxim ‘to sleep on it’ with a new one: ‘to bleed on it’. “If you have a major decision to make, your period is the perfect time to seek the answer.”
Respect for the cyclical
Each phase of the menstrual cycle can feel different from woman to woman and from time to time. And that's okay. According to Laila, it is important to gain a sense of how the four phases can be used to one’s advantage, allowing women to sense the power that lies within them.
“Just like nature and the moon, we also have something cyclical in us. We are connected and we can learn to respect the rhythmical and cyclical in our bodies—if we take the time to do so. By understanding our inner nature, we can gain a deeper connection to the nature that surrounds us. Everything in us that is messy and vulnerable makes us more empathic,” Laila says. “Being connected to our inner self helps to connect us to each other and to our surroundings.”