Last week, I fully intended to sit down and write the piece you’re reading, but I just couldn’t seem to get beyond a blank screen. This happens, of course. I encounter plenty of moments of writer’s block and can’t seem to get something started for the life of me. But last week I was greeted by the full-on brain fog experience.
The thoughts I had were half formed and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get them to translate to actual words that others would understand. I was incredibly frustrated with myself, agitated by my inability to produce what I wanted. I noticed I was getting meaner with myself too, starting to doubt that I would ever be able to get it together, much less write the book I’ve been dreaming up. My irritability with myself seeped into my interactions with my family, and before I knew it I was snapping at my kids and telling myself that not only was a bad writer, but I was a crappy mom too.
When I was just about to get in my car to drive as far away from other humans as possible, my period started. Right on time, which is to say it surprised me, as it has every single time for the last several decades.
The last time I thought I had a good reason to track my menstrual cycle was when I was trying – and failing – to have a baby. After several rounds of IVF – and my eventual petri-dish brood to show for it – I never wanted to pee on a stick or use a tracking app again.
So a few years ago when a few of the thought leaders I follow online suggested aligning your work life to your menstrual cycle, I said a big old no thank you very much.
Infertility had gotten me exceedingly well acquainted with the nuances of cycles, so the concept of hormonal shifts producing bodily changes didn’t seem strange, of course. But I’d never really thought about it beyond how those shifts changed things like body temperature and the elasticity of cervical mucus. If I wasn’t trying to have a baby – or to avoid it – it all seemed kind of irrelevant.
But these women were suggesting actually studying our cycles to organize our routines. They claimed that we were more apt to be productive, for instance, during the early part of our cycle, and that our energy and creativity would likely wane later. Knowing how these hormonal shifts could impact our motivation and capacity could help us work with our bodies instead of against them, they said.
After growing up as a female in America and on the heels of infertility, the idea of working with my body seemed foreign, if not impossible. My body was something to be kept in line, I’d been taught. It could hardly be trusted. Bodies are messy and unreliable and inconvenient and need to be managed.
Let it lead? I don’t think so.
I might have assumed that, just infertility warriors, professional athletes would be another group of people who aren’t going to sit idly by and let their bodies take the lead. With their reputation, opportunities, and paycheck on the line, I imagined menstruating athletes would do whatever it took to override the inconveniences of periods.
So after the U.S. Women’s National Team dominated the World Cup a few years ago and their coach, Dawn Scott, revealed that the team had used cycle syncing to prepare, I was intrigued. Scott had apparently been tracking her players’ menstrual cycles for years, and noticed shifts in performance that correlated with phases of their cycles. She collaborated with research scientists to develop profiles for each player and implement changes to their routines corresponding to different phases.
This approach hasn’t been rigorously scientifically evaluated yet, and so it’s hard to say how much of an impact this cycle syncing had on the USNT’s performance. That said, what we do know about the science of menstruation and hormonal phases lines up with the observations that cycle-syncing enthusiasts have been making for years.
If you’re like most of us, you probably haven’t given a ton of thought to the phases of your cycle. In fact, you’ve probably thought very little about your period outside of considering it a nuisance for all the skipping and swimming that tampon commercials would suggest we do. So, let me break down the basics of the menstrual phases and what implications biology would suggest they have.
We can think about a person’s monthly cycle starting with the menstrual phases, which for most lasts between 5-7 days. This is when you are actively bleeding because a big dip in estrogen has signaled the endometrium to shed. Estrogen being at its lowest point also has an impact on our energy, and so this tends to be the lowest as well.
If there was a rockstar part of your cycle, it would be the next stage – the follicular phase. During this time, your estrogen and follicle stimulating hormones are rising to rebuild the endometrium and prepare to release an egg. This is the time in a cycle where we tend to be most resilient to stress and can recover the most quickly, physically. It’s a time of the highest creative energy as well, so it tends to be the time where we are ready to take on new projects, meet new people, and brainstorm ideas.
The ovulation phases comes next and lasts only a couple days. Ovulation occurs on one day, of course, but this period might last anywhere from one to three days in terms of the hormonal effects. Testosterone and estrogen peak at this point, and energy tends to be high. Some cycle-syncing proponents say that this is a time when communication skills tend to be strong and our drive toward people makes collaborating effective.
The final phase before starting to bleed again is the luteal phase, which is also the longest phase of a cycle. This is when the empty sac left behind by a released egg is producing progesterone to prepare for fertilization. If fertilization doesn’t happen, progesterone starts to decrease. Falling progesterone at the end of the luteal phase is what produces the PMS symptoms with which most of us are familiar – anxiety, fatigue, irritability, bloating, and headaches. What this means is that the luteal phase, particularly the end, could necessitate lower intensity activity and more time to recover between tasks.
Once you get to know your phases – including the average length of each and your unique experiences within them – you can adjust your schedule and your expectations to account for them. You might, for example, plan most of your strategic work for your follicular phases, and try to ease up deadlines at close to and during your period to account for lower energy levels.
Capitalizing on an aspect of women’s biology that’s hardly new or novel, cycle syncing proponents have developed all kinds of tracking apps, nutritional supplements, and fancy guides. Turning menstruation into a trendy wellness hack always seemed lame to me, which was part of why I’d tuned out the concept.
But as I look more closely at the potential of this approach, I also see something else. I see a way for menstruating people to reclaim their connection with their bodies in a way that helps us understand the mind-body integration.
Perhaps most importantly, recognizing how the phases impact our functioning helps us re-conceptualize changes in mood, energy, focus, and interests from being personal or moral failings to aspects of our biological rhythms. I’m not a lazy piece of trash for not being able to focus on that project this week. There is a reason that makes sense. (To be clear, nothing would make us a lazy piece of trash – regardless of which phase we’re in.)
Further, the conversation on cycle syncing gets us talking about and recognizing how much our expectations are shaped with an absence of a woman’s body in mind. Our traditional models of work and productivity assume a consistent level of energy, motivation, and more, and don’t account for – or leverage – the fluctuations that exist. How do the traditional models penalize women? How much more potential might exist if we tuned into this?
It might seem out there to consider how we could reorganize our lives to align with our cycles, but all paradigm shifting ideas do at first. Even if you’re not ready to go all full-force period on your to do list, you might start just by tracking your phases and the fluctuations you notice to get to know your own cycles better.