The menstrual cycle, fertility and yoga
The menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle happens ‘on average’ ever 28 days from menarche (first day of first menstrual cycle) to menopause (gradual end of reproductive life).
Day 1 of the cycle, marks the first day of vaginal ‘blood’.
The majority of women begin their period at night or within the first four hours of waking. How long women bleed varies from woman to woman, but is generally between five to seven days, with the heaviest bleeding on the first day. The flow should be not too heavy, nor too light – around 50-80ml is optimum, although of course this is difficult to tell unless you are collecting blood in a moon cup (which I wouldn’t do personally, but you might). Blood should be bright red in colour. Dark or brown blood is old blood. Pink blood is thin and poor quality, while clots indicate stagnation in flow.
Bleeding arises because falling oestrogen and progesterone levels signal to the hypothalamus to release GnRH (gonadotrophin-releasing hormone), which triggers bleeding. This in turn prompts the pituitary to release FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone), which will start the growth of follicles and the development of the egg inside them. During menstruation, two thirds of the lining of the endometrium lining is shed gradually. The endometrium starts to regenerate within two days of the start of menstruation and by day five is already 2mm thick – isn’t the body amazing!
Day 1 also marks the start of the follicular stage of the cycle. This is when the egg (ovum) grows and develops. Every female is born with approximately 2 million eggs, although only 300-400 will mature and be released during her lifetime. The nucleus of the ovum contains half the genetic material (chromosomes) needed to produce a new individual – the other half comes from the sperm.
At the start of the follicular phase, the hypothalamus in the brain (which regulates the pituitary gland) releases GnRH (see above). This signals to the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates the eggs inside the ovary to grow. About 20 immature eggs responds and being to develop within sacs known as follicles that provide the nourishment the eggs need to grow. If you’re trying to conceive then anything you can do to nourish the eggs through diet and lifestyle is essential.
As the eggs develop, the ovaries release oestrogen. This hormone signals to the pituitary gland to reduce FSH production so that only enough is released to stimulate one egg to continue developing. The rest shrivel away. Oestrogen also stimulates the lining of the uterus (womb), known as the endometrium, to begin to thicken, preparing it for implantation of the fertilised egg.
The body’s oestrogen level continues to rise until it triggers a surge of luteinizing hormone (LH) from the pituitary gland. This stimulates ovulation, whereby the follicle ruptures and the egg is gently released along with its follicular fluid on to the surface of the ovary. Follicle rupture can cause one-sided lower abdominal pain and this pinpoints ovulation time. If you’re trying to conceive then please take note! You may experience feelings of heightened sexuality and you might notice a change in secretion. Your cervix will also change so you could become increasingly familiar with this too.
Having released the egg, the ruptured follicle continues to receive pulses of LH. This enables it to turn into a small cyst known as the corpus luteum, whose job is to produce progesterone.
Progesterone has three important functions – it builds and thickens the endometrium, developing glandular structures and blood vessels that supply nutrients to the developing embryo, and it switches off production of FSH and LH. It also raises the basal body temperature (BBT) by half a degree, warming the uterus ready for a fertilised egg.
A fallopian tube is approximately the diameter of a pencil, with a narrow channel within it leading to the uterus. The channel is lined with microscopic hairs which, together with muscular contractions, help to move the egg along the tube to the uterus. The journey from the ovary to the uterus takes approximately 6 days. The egg never completes the journey if it is not fertilised, instead it disintegrates and is absorbed.
Fertilisation needs to occurs within 24 hours of ovulation. Most healthy sperm live in the female reproductive tract for several days, which means that intercourse can take place up to three days before ovulation and fertilisation will still be possible. Cervical mucus acts as a barrier to abnormal sperm, which are unable to swim up the channels in the mucus. This ensures that only strong, well-formed sperm make it through the cervix and uterus to the fallopian tube.
The distance from ejaculation to Fallopian tube is approximately 10cm and takes about 30-60 minutes, with many barriers along the way. An egg is about 550 times wider than the tiny sperm head so provides a large target. The sperm has to make it to, and attach to the egg. Most sperm fail to attach and bounce off.
The fertilised egg, known as a zygote, divides into two after an average of 36 hours. The embryo develops rapidly and travels along the fallopian tube for the next few days until it reaches the uterus, nourished by mucus which is secreted by cells in the lining of the tube.
If fertilisation does not take place, then the egg is absorbed by the body, progesterone levels fall and the endometrium begins to dissolve, the uterus sheds the broken blood tissue through the vagina (menstruation) and the cycle begins again.
If you are trying to conceive then it is really helpful to get intimate with your cycle so that you can notice the signs that indicate that ovulation may be taking place. You might also notice an imbalance or a problem that might be affecting your body’s ability to ovulate. There are several ways to read your body:
Cervical secretions – noticing how these change throughout the cycle. The start of the fertile time is signalled by secretions so it is important you learn to recognise these.
Your cervix – oestrogen and progesterone create subtle changes in the muscles and connective tissue of the cervix. At ovulation the cervix feels high, soft and open. You can feel your own cervix and notice these changes for yourself.
Body temperature - progesterone causes a rise in basal body temperature of at least 0.2 Celsius immediately after ovulation. This lasts until the level of progesterone falls at the start of menstruation. However, a raised body temperature can also indicate an imbalance and could be the effect of viral infections, too much alcohol, medication, stress, late nights etc.
Recording your cycle - there are various Apps that encourage you to connect with, and record changes during your cycle. You could just use the journaling method. Journal each day changes that you are noticing in how you feel and what is going on down there.
Yoga and the menstrual cycle
Bleeding – a time to truly go within. Yoga Nidra is always very nourishing, so too some very gentle movement into the pelvis, listening to womb and blood wisdom. Absolutely no strenuous or hot yoga and no inverting (reverses the flow of blood in an unnatural direction) or strong backbends. You might find that any pose that puts pressure on your tummy feels horrible. Sometimes twisting feels horrible too, and other times it might be welcomed.
Post bleeding to ovulation – you may feel to be more active on your mat and fancy something a little more strenuous and dynamic. However, if you are trying to conceive then remember that you are trying to create healthy and nourished eggs, so make sure that your yoga practice is not exhausting you and perhaps adopt a restorative and womb-centred approach, nourishing from inside out. Yoga Nidra is invaluable too, as is staying positive and taking a well balanced diet.
Ovulation – if you’re trying to conceive then really feel into your body, a slow and gentle approach to yoga is recommended, some womb based yoga like Yoni Yoga may help (there’s a free video on the website). Avoid hot yoga and anything strenuous or exhausting. Take time to rest with a guided relaxation and/or Yoga Nidra, especially the one for menstrual health. Don’t push yourself.
From ovulation to menstruation – a slower and gentler practice is absolutely recommended to reflect your waning energy and the retreat inwards again, supported by good diet.
There is a mixture of guided relaxations and free yoga videos to support fertility, healthy menstrual cycle and menstruation on the website for you to use. But also, perhaps invest in Uma’s book Yoni Shakti, as this is a wonderful resource, also her website www.wombyoga.orgor www.yonishakti.co.uk. Dr Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdomis also a marvellous book. Alexandra Pope also has a fab book called Wild Power, and she offers lots of valuable support through her website www.redschool.net.
If you are experiencing menstrual or fertility issues, then I highly recommend connecting with the Ayurvedic Clinic in Purley Oaks, with whom I am currently studying. They are experts in fertility with amazing results in helping women to conceive. They offer skype appointments, but they are also only about 30 minutes from Gatwick via East Croydon. Have a look at their website at www.theayurvedicclinic.com
For sanitary products, I just love the gorgeous organic cotton reusable cloth menstrual pads from www.honouryourflow.co.uk. The night time ones are the only pads I have ever found that absolutely don’t leak. They’re really comfortable too. And no, I don’t get a commission or freebies from them for promoting them, I just like their products and ethos.