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Whether we like it or loathe it, our hormones wield a lot of power over our bodies. They can make you feel calm and more confident or edgy and self-doubting, and that affects how you handle any situation -- whether you freak out when your boss gives you a last-minute project, for instance, or find the willpower to resist a second piece of chocolate cake. "The ups and downs of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone influence your behavior throughout the month," explains Scott Haltzman, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.
Because so many of us are confused about how our hormones affect us on a daily basis, FITNESS asked top experts to demystify these fluctuations -- and explain how you can use hormonal shifts to your advantage. Here, an updated guide to timing life by your cycle.
Days 1-14: From the first day of your period to mid-cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels are low, which means you tend to feel happy and even-keeled. This is an ideal time to stop smoking, because you won't be hit with a double whammy of negative emotions -- kicking the habit is associated with anxiety, depression, and irritability. "Quitting during the first two weeks of your cycle may decrease withdrawal severity and increase your chances of stopping smoking for good," says Kenneth A. Perkins, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In fact, a small study led by Perkins showed that women who attempted to stop smoking during the last two weeks of their menstrual cycle reported significantly greater tobacco withdrawal and depressive symptoms than women who tried to quit during their first 14 days.
Days 1-9: Studies show that during this low-estrogen, low-progesterone phase, breast tissue tends to be less dense, so mammograms are more apt to spot small, hard-to-see tumors. But don't postpone getting this crucial screening if you can't make an appointment during the first two weeks of your cycle, cautions Robert Smith, PhD, director of cancer screening at the American Cancer Society National Home Office in Atlanta. "Getting screened within the recommended time intervals [yearly for women age 40 and older] is crucial to catching breast cancer in its early, most treatable stages," Smith explains.
Days 3-25: You'll find it easiest to resist high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods during this time. That's because cravings for these treats, especially chocolate, tend to increase a few days before your period and linger a day or two after it starts, says Debra Zellner, PhD, professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who has studied the phenomenon. Although it may feel like the cravings are physiological, they're purely emotional, says Zellner. "We tend to crave them because we need a treat when we don't feel well."
Days 15-28: As estrogen and progesterone levels rise during the two weeks before you get your period (called the luteal phase), so does your body's ability to metabolize fat. "You'll burn more fat not only when you're exercising but when you're at rest as well," says Leanne M. Redman, PhD, a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So don't skip your workouts during this time; in fact, try to make them harder or longer to maximize your fat-burning potential.
Days 6-10: "The week following your period is the best time of the month to see the dentist," says Susan Karabin, DDS, president-elect of the American Academy of Periodontology in Chicago. Estrogen/progesterone levels are low, and your dentist will get a more accurate assessment of your gum health. High levels of these hormones, which begin to rise around day 10, marking the ovulatory phase of your cycle, can cause gum inflammation, making it tough for your dentist to distinguish whether gum disease is the source of the inflammation.
Days 10-20: Peaks in the hormones estrogen and progesterone cause cervical mucus to be at its thinnest at this time, which can improve the clarity of a cell sample. (The Pap test examines cervical cells for abnormalities and/or changes, including potentially cancerous ones.) "But more important, this is when cervical cells are very mature and easier to read under a microscope," says Diane Solomon, MD, a cytopathologist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.
Days 10-13: If you have a typical 28-day cycle, you're most likely to ovulate around day 13 or 14, during the ovulatory phase, says Nancy Klein, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at Seattle Reproductive Medicine in Washington. If your cycle doesn't average 28 days, your most fertile time is probably about two weeks plus three to four days before your next period. If you have 35-day cycles, for example, that would be days 18, 19, 20, and 21. In any case, you should have sex every other day during your fertile window. "Sperm can reside in cervical mucus for several days, so you don't have to be that precise," says Dr. Klein. An egg, on the other hand, is viable for less than 24 hours, so it's important to have the sperm on board before ovulation occurs.
Day 13: "The day before you ovulate is when your libido is highest, orgasm is easiest to achieve and is most intense. It's a day you definitely don't want to miss," says Gabrielle Lichterman, author of 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life, Moods, and Potential. This is also nature's way of nudging you into bed, because that's when you're most fertile. It makes sense: If you have sex on day 13, there will likely be sperm waiting for the egg's arrival on day 14. So grab your man and go for it. If you don't want to get pregnant, be extra vigilant about birth control and use a condom to protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases.
Days 3-10: When stress and female sex hormones are low, you're biologically programmed to perform well under pressure, according to Dmitry M. Davydov, MD, PhD, a Moscow-based psychiatrist and physiologist who studied the interaction between sex hormones (which drive the menstrual cycle), stress hormones, and mood. At other times of the month, you may feel less motivated to take on a stressful situation.
Days 3-10: Always wanted to try bungee jumping, snowboarding, or even ask that cute guy out on a date but couldn't get up the nerve? Now's the time to go for it. Not only are you better equipped to deal with stress right now, you're also more willing to do something daring, says Dr. Davydov. Since your levels of the sex hormones progesterone and estrogen are low, activities that boost your stress hormones can help restore your overall hormonal balance. In fact, around this time of the month many women unconsciously seek out stimulating events to elevate their cortisol and epinephrine levels. Otherwise you may start to feel bored or depressed, says Dr. Davydov.
Days 10-13: In addition to hitting your sexual and fertile stride, days 10 to 13 are also the best times to ask for a raise or promotion. "The rise of progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, and other hormones in preparation for ovulation correlates with keener cognitive abilities and verbal skills," says Dr. Haltzman. You're hormonally charged to think on your feet and defend your position if your boss throws you a curve. "Your confidence level also tends to go up, and you're the most clearheaded right now," he adds.
Days 24-28: Progesterone and estrogen levels ebb in the latter part of your cycle, the luteal phase, and you become less impulsive. Your intuition also becomes razor-sharp, so if you've been pondering a big life change, now is the time to trust your instincts. "Days 24 to 28 are when your decisions are more conscious and less driven by hormonal changes you may not even be aware of," says Dr. Haltzman. Use this time to finally decide whether to move in with your boyfriend, tweak your career track, or adopt that kitty in the window.
Not sure when day 1 of your cycle is? Can't tell the difference between the luteal and follicular phases? We hear you! This quick, handy lesson spells out everything you need to know.The Follicular Phase
...is the beginning of your cycle (day 1 refers to the first day of your period). Low levels of estrogen and progesterone cause the lining of the uterus to shed. In the first half of this phase, the level of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) increases slightly and a new egg develops. During the last part (typically starting on day 7), the ovaries begin to produce more estrogen and the uterine lining begins to thicken.The Ovulatory Phase
...starts around day 10 of your cycle, with a surge in FSH and luteinizing hormone (LH), which prompts the egg to be released (ovulation) around day 14. Estrogen peaks and the level of progesterone increases.The Luteal Phase
...starts around day 15, when levels of LH and FSH begin to ebb. The uterine lining finishes thickening. If the egg is not fertilized, the levels of progesterone and estrogen decrease through day 28 and then your period begins. Back to day 1.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, January 2007.