Sometimes I am blown away how I have existed for over three decades, with a full two decades of being a person with a menstrual cycle and never fully understanding or appreciating the magnitude behind the power of our cyclical bleeding. The other day I was listening to the For the Wild podcast (https://forthewild.world/) and the guest Woman Stands Shining (Pat McCabe), quoted it in such an amazing way, she said that it was an honor to create, hold, and release the altar for life each month. It’s amazing how objectivity and perception can really shift our realities. It’s an overused quote, but I find myself often dropping these words when speaking with birth doula clients, “mind over matter”. So much of this journey in our bodily vessel is a physical phenomenon, but it’s also so much more. Whether it be that as humans, we strive to connect symbolism to life to give meaning or if symbolism is the direct result of the reality hiding behind the veil that we cannot see, it certainly has its place in defining and creating a deeply rooted relationship with the natural world. We can change our perception of our reality by changing our perception of our day to day lives through symbolism.
Rather than the first 10 years of my cycle, where I dreaded my period. I thought over and over, “oh no, not again”, as I scrambled to gather tampons in a bag, pop an ibuprofen, and continue on with my daily life, not truly acknowledging the feelings inside my body or any awareness of what actually was physically occurring. I’ll never forget in my early 20’s a dear friend of mine who was from Colombia, she told me not to take ibuprofen for my cramps because her mother told her that the feeling of cramps was like a preparation for childbirth, and it was important to feel it. I was so disconnected from my body at that point that it didn’t make sense, why would it feel like childbirth? Why would I want to feel the pains of childbirth? What a different perspective I have now though. After my first child, once my cycle returned it brought a smile to my face. That feeling each month was exactly like the sensations that occurred when I brought my sweet daughter’s life earthside. There was such a positive correlation to that sensation that I now loved and enjoyed it. Even now, after my second and final child, it brings me such joy to feel those intense menstrual cramp sensations because I know and I honor that the power grew and brought my two children into this world. That is what I am talking about when I say, “mind over matter”, I can tell myself that I feel pain and suffering, or I can tell myself that I feel beautiful limitless strength. We need to shift our perspectives.
It doesn’t stop here though, a shift in perspective is helpful, but there is so much more. After going through my own birth experiences, training to become a doula, and now guiding so many other mothers on their birth journeys, I have found that the health class from sixth grade that we all attended really left a lot to be desired about understanding female reproductive functions, health, hormonal changes affecting human psychology, and the spirituality behind all of it, hidden behind these dark cloaks of patriarchal society encouraging women to hide their true power. First and foremost, I was not aware that there are four cycle phases in the menstrual cycle. No one ever thought it was important to explain that to us as young women. We are all aware of menstruation. Menstruation is the elimination of the thickened lining of the uterus, endometrium, from the body through the vagina. Menstrual fluid contains blood, cells from the lining of the uterus and mucus. Ok, we all know that one. Then we have the follicular phase. The follicular phase starts on the first day of menstruation and ends with ovulation. Prompted by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland releases follicle stimulating hormone. This hormone stimulates the ovary to produce around five to 20 follicles, which bead on the surface. Each follicle houses an immature egg. Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg, while the others die. This can occur around day 10 of a 28-day cycle. The growth of the follicles stimulates the lining of the uterus to thicken in preparation for possible pregnancy. At the end of the follicular phase, we reach ovulation. Ovulation is the release of a mature egg from the surface of the ovary. This usually occurs mid-cycle, around two weeks or so before menstruation starts.
During the follicular phase, the developing follicle causes a rise in the level of estrogen. The hypothalamus in the brain recognizes these rising levels and releases a chemical called gonadotropin-releasing hormone. This hormone prompts the pituitary gland to produce raised levels of luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone.Within two days, ovulation is triggered by the high levels of luteinising hormone. The egg is funneled into the fallopian tube and toward the uterus by waves of small, hair-like projections. The life span of the typical egg is only around 24 hours. Unless it meets a sperm during this time, it will die. This is the phase of ovulation. During ovulation, the cervix creates a thin, tacky, egg-white consistency mucus which you can notice. The majority of women will also experience an increased basal body temperature during ovulation as well, which you can monitor yourself at home. When you want to have a baby you can improve your chance of getting pregnant if you know about ovulation and the ‘fertile window’, or paradoxically if you wish to avoid pregnancy tracking your cycle and understanding the symptoms, functions, and timing of each phase you can achieve fertility awareness which acts as a natural cycle tracking birth control.
Finally, we end with the luteal phase. During ovulation, the egg bursts from its follicle, but the ruptured follicle stays on the surface of the ovary. For the next two weeks or so, the follicle transforms into a structure known as the corpus luteum. This structure starts releasing progesterone, along with small amounts of estrogen. This combination of hormones maintains the thickened lining of the uterus, waiting for a fertilized egg to stick. If a fertilized egg implants in the lining of the uterus, it produces the hormones that are necessary to maintain the corpus luteum. This includes human chorionic gonadotropin, the hormone that is detected in a urine test for pregnancy. The corpus luteum keeps producing the raised levels of progesterone that are needed to maintain the thickened lining of the uterus. If pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum withers and dies, usually around day 22 in a 28-day cycle. The drop in progesterone levels causes the lining of the uterus to fall away. This is known as menstruation. The cycle then repeats.
Now, what’s so amazingly fascinating about these four phases is that when we refer back to the beauty of shifting our perceptions through symbolism, we find numerous extremely unique and special symbols correlated to these phases that sync up with nature. It’s easy to brush off the coincidences, four phases of the menstrual cycle, four phases of the moon, four phases of the seasons, but what really makes them symbolically similar? When we watch the moon start at the new moon, she is dark, she is mysterious. All of the animal and plant kingdoms react to the changes in the moon phases, the entire ocean moves, she is that powerful. For those who enjoy moon rituals, we know that the new moon represents the crone, the wisdom and deepness, it is a time to set intentions, it is a time to plant seeds. As she waxes into the crescent, quarter, and gibbous we feel the energy shift and rise. The waxing phase is similar to the maiden, or the follicular phase in this growth and preparation. The full moon has represented fertility for eons, it also aligns perfectly with the mother, the ovulatory phase. Within the realm of moon rituals, many use this time to release anything they are holding onto, as we simultaneously release the egg, for we cannot make room to grow or create without release. As the hormones drop, the light begins to drop, as the energy of the moon wanes, the luteal phase follows and we return to darkness, the new moon, and turn inwards.
The similarities are loud and clear. This is all ancient knowledge. In 1960, archeologists discovered a notched bone tool handle called the Ishango Bone from over 25,000 years ago. It was first thought these notches were some kind of tally marks as found to record counts all over the world. However, the Ishango bone appears to be much more than a simple tally. Recent studies with microscopes illustrate more markings and it is now understood the bone is also a lunar phase counter. Who but a woman keeping track of her cycles would need a lunar calendar? Were women our first mathematicians? There is so much more to explore, but we can understand the takeaway is the importance of cycle tracking. We now have available many cycle tracking apps which can be paired with daily basal body temperature monitoring to serve as a non-invasive, hormone-free birth control method or ovulation tracker for those wishing to conceive.
As for the seasonal symbolism, it’s quite similar, menstrual, follicular, ovulation, luteal translates to winter, spring, summer, and fall as the seasons correlate to a longer span fertility cycle, that one of our mother earth. The interesting thing to note when we correlate the seasons as a symbolic representation of the menstrual cycle is to note the energy levels, and diet styles for each season. It is said that our bodies mimic those during our monthly cycles as well. For example, during our menstrual cycle we shed blood, we lose nutrients, just like in winter the natural diet is high protein, we need to replenish our bodies. Winter is also a time of rest and reflection, we need to honor that in our bodily cycles as well
As the follicular phase revs our bodies up for our main event, spring evokes that same sensation, we begin to feel our energy rise. We feel the need to eat light and fresh. Summer is the peak, summer is our ovulation, we feel great dancing in the sunshine of those long summer days, ovulation releases hormones making us feel sexy, fertile, playful, and we live and play just like the summer. As we approach the luteal phase, it feels just like fall as our energy wanes and our appetites increase, needing more nourishment for the great work ahead. We are one with nature.
Knowing that the sensations we feel are the same as the life-giving force as childbirth, and the cycles symbolically mimic the moon phases and seasons of mother earth, that we are all one with nature, doesn’t that just really shift your perception on the human body? Women are pretty f*cking amazing, aren’t they? Rock on with your power, you bad mamas, you living goddesses, you life-giving cosmic energy, just remember that on your bad days what your true power is.