Get to Know Your Cycle: The Follicular Phase


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Well, hello, again. It's been a bit since I worked on this series, but some new inspiration has hit and I'm ready to get back to writing about your cycle! 

In the first post of this "Get to Know Your Cycle" series, we discussed the hypothalamus and pituitary gland and their importance in your cycle. If you missed it, find the post here. This time, we're discussing the Follicular Phase. 

What is the Follicular Phase?

Let's start with the breakdown of what the four phases of our cycle are. You will often see only three phases on hormone tests that you may have done, but the four phases give greater clarity to our cycles and what our bodies need during each phase. Alissa Vitti, the hormone whisperer and founder of FloLiving, has delved deep into our cycles and makes some of the best recommendations on how we can support each phase. Her book WomanCode is my biggest reference for this series. 

The Four Phases

Follicular: Starts right after your period ends and lasts between 7-10 days

Ovulatory: Follicular phase leads up to ovulation, or the release of the egg from the follicle. It can last between 3-5 days.

Luteal: When the egg has released and peak ovulation (your most fertile point) decreases, your luteal phase begins. This phase lasts 10-14 days.

Menstrual: Begins the first day you bleed. This phases can last 3-7 days, but can be longer or shorter depending on hormonal imbalances.

Follicular Phase

While technically the second phase, as menstruation is considered the first, this is the phase that starts everything over again. Hormone levels have dropped during menstruation as the lining is shed from the uterus, but they slowly begin to increase in concentration. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to send Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) to the ovaries. This helps mature an egg for release, swelling several egg follicles in response. The uterine lining starts to thicken thanks to an increase in estrogen to prepare your uterus for an egg. This phase peaks at ovulation when an egg is released from the follicle. 

Vitti has a lot more to say on this phase from what the body's energy is like to how to harness your creativity during this time, but I'll let her book (and app!) tell you about those. I want to focus on food and herbs. 

Food and Herbs for the Follicular Phase

The follicular phase is the time when the body is being prepped for ovulation while also flushing out the old hormones from the system at the start. I can't stress enough how important proper elimination (aka pooping!) is during this cycle (and all others). Our bodies flush out our sex hormones from the liver, while they can be reabsorbed by the large intestine. If the system is not eliminating on a regular basis (e.g. you're constipated, or have less frequent bowel movements) those sex hormones that the body is trying to get rid of can go back into the system, causing hormonal imbalances. Light, fresh food is important during the follicular phase to help keep your body energized and lots of fiber help promote regular bowel movements. 

Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli can help your body metabolize the estrogen through their phytochemical Indole-3-Carbinol which breaks down into Diindolylmethane (DIM). DIM can also reduce the amount of estrogen in the body. So as estrogen is increasing in the body during the follicular phase, it's good to have a way to keep it in check in the body, especially if you have estrogen dominance, but we also don't want to thoroughly decrease it through too many cruciferous veggies. Save that for luteal phase when estrogen is at its highest. 

Herbs such as red clover and marshmallow leaf and root can promote moisture in the body and increase cervical mucus as the body nears ovulation. To continue helping with estrogen balance and flushing the detoxification system, roots like burdock, dandelion, and yellow dock, as well as milk thistle, can be of assistance during this phase. As with all things herbal, slow is best, so I recommend a tea blend that can be tailored to your needs at this time. 

Have you adjusted your eating habits to your cycle? How has the change affected your cycle and symptoms?

Stay tuned for the next post in this series when we discuss Ovulation!

Get to Know Your Cycle: The Hypothalamus and Pituitary Gland


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I've been reflecting on why the word "hormones" seems to pop into my mouth any time I talk about my passions or what I want to do with my life. My hormone journey really started with my skin. My acne was embarrassing and painful. Even today, I still struggle with it, and it affects more than just what my face looks like. It affects my mental state. It's an endless cycle of stress, acne, and shame and anger. For me, hormones in balance indicate a thriving life. And THAT is what I want for you. 

For a while, birth control was a bandage for my imbalanced hormones. When I realized that not only were the birth control hormones interrupting my body's natural processes, but they could not actually fix the problem, I knew I needed to get off the pill and figure out what was really going on. Debilitating cramps, acne, and digestive issues were alarm bells I didn't know to pay attention to, because I wasn't educated enough to know there was a problem. When I finally started paying attention and listening to what my body was telling me, I stopped feeling out of control and started to feel that there was something I could do to help. Understanding your cycle is knowledge and knowledge is power, at least when it comes to bringing your body back into balance. 

This is going to be the first in a series I like to call "Get to Know Your Cycle". I've gotten to know my cycle better over the past year and am continuing to experiment with how I can prevent further hormonal imbalances. I want to share that information with you through a monthly series getting to know the female reproductive system. It may seem daunting to figure these scientific things out, but it is amazing how simple (and, at the same time, complex) our bodies are to understand. Everything has a purpose within the body and everything connects together. It really is a magical thing once you start to understand how everything works! We're starting from the top this time to find out where our cycles begin: the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland.

No one talks about hormones better than Alissa Vitti, the hormone whisperer and author of WomanCode. She writes, "Hormones that flow from glands in your brain dictate what organs throughout your entire body--all the way down to your ovaries--do. The hormones that those glands release, in turn, govern every major process your body performs, from setting your internal thermostat, to metabolizing food, to keeping your heart beating, to regulating your mood, to determining your fertility, and so much more." And this flow of hormones starts in your hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is an almond-shaped region in your brain that receives information from the bloodstream about concentrations of hormones in the body and speaks to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland lies below the hypothalamus and speaks to other glands and organs in the endocrine system: the thyroid, parathyroid, pancreas, adrenals, and ovaries. For example, beginning in puberty, the hypothalamus releases gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) to signal the pituitary to send out follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) to signal to the ovaries when it's time to start maturing an egg, the start of your cycle. Through the hormones it produces, the pituitary gland controls many vital processes and functions of the body, including growth, metabolism, blood pressure, reproduction, and sexual maturation.  

The little hypothalamus is also tied to the limbic system of the brain which controls the emotions and feelings, has a direct pathway to the adrenals, bypassing the pituitary gland in times of stress, and is also directly connected to the digestive system. It's such an important part of our brain!

So to simplify: A little region in the brain named the hypothalamus reads your blood to learn how much hormones flows throughout your body. That region talks to a gland below it, called the pituitary, by releasing hormones. In turn the pituitary is signaled to send out hormones of its own to other glands and organs. Those glands and organs then produce their own hormones which compensate for any lack in the system or are needed to release at a specific time in your cycle. 

There are some things we can do to keep our hypothalamus functioning well. According to Dr. Josh Axe, author of one of my favorite books Eat Dirt, healthy fats, good sleep, reduced stress, and exercising regularly are all important to a healthy hypothalamus. Also adding in chromium-rich foods, such as broccoli, apples, bananas, oranges, potatoes, green beans, basil, and garlic and utilizing frankincense and myrrh essential oils are all great ways to keep the hypothalamus happy. Some herbs like vitex berry and maca can also be helpful, though I would recommend working with a practitioner to incorporate them into your routine. 

Next time, we'll talk more about the different phases of your cycle and focus on the follicular phase. 

If you want to dive deeper until then, I found the website You and Your Hormones really helpful at getting at the basic understanding of each layer of your endocrine system. It is a great resource from the Society of Endocrinology. This video from Crash Course is also a good visual lesson to go along with this series.