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Luteal Phase Symptoms Are Why You Look Like Hell Around Your Period

Have you ever looked in the mirror during the week before your period and thought, Who is she? No, really, who the f*ck is she? Niche reference incoming, but I always think of the scene in the criminally underrated feminist horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body when Megan Fox (yes, the otherworldly beautiful Megan Fox) laments that her skin is breaking out and her hair is dull and lifeless. When she feasts on the fresh blood of boys, her life force is restored. She’s back to being her badass, beautiful self.

Taking away the whole “high school student by day, cannibal by night” vibes, I find myself caught so off-guard each month by this overnight transformation. I’ll notice that my eyes look sunken in, my whole body feels puffy, and my hair looks sallow. Makeup doesn’t sit right on my skin, which is somehow both dry and oily at once. I’m also extra sweaty, bloated, and generally just uncomfortable as hell. And while a makeup artist probably had to work some serious magic to make Megan Fox look “ugly,” for me, it’s just the thing that happens like clockwork ahead of my period. And it’s terrible!

So, what’s the deal with this, and is there any way to, you know… make it stop? An OB-GYN is here to break it all down.

What is the luteal phase, anyway?

First, it’s worth noting that these physical changes are “very normal,” and no, it’s not in your head, as Dr. Sarah Jordan, board-certified OB-GYN and medical director at Pediatrix Medical Group in Fort Worth, Texas, explains.

These changes take place during the second phase of your menstrual cycle, the luteal phase. This occurs after ovulation, when your uterine lining thickens to prepare for pregnancy. The luteal phase ends when your period starts, and you slowly begin to feel a little more human again.

Typical symptoms of the luteal phase include:

  • Mood changes
  • Breast tenderness
  • Bloating and fluid retention
  • Appetite changes
  • Acne and breakouts
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain

That said, Jordan notes that “the luteal phase does, in fact, change your appearance,” and you might even notice facial asymmetry, acne breakouts, changes to your skin’s texture, and a rise in your basal body temperature, all of which contribute to discomfort during this time.

What do progesterone levels have to do with it?

As for why this happens, it’s all due to the hormonal shift that occurs during this point in your cycle. In preparation for a fertilized egg, your body produces extra progesterone to help thicken the uterine lining. Estrogen levels also plummet, which is why you’ll wake up one day feeling normal and then the next like someone you don’t even recognize in the mirror.

Jordan notes that progesterone and other pregnancy-promoting hormones “can lead to increased sebum production and acne, which can also contribute to water retention leading to swelling and slow gut motility leading to bloating, two of the most common symptoms. Other ones include breast tenderness, bowel movement changes, headaches, mood changes, skin changes, muscle pain, and thick, dry, paste-like vaginal discharge.” With your body preparing for pregnancy, you’ll also notice a decreased desire for sex or other physical activity, while fatigue leaves you feeling sleepy.

This hormonal shift can leave you feeling more sensitive about your appearance, which Jordan says compounds the issue, even though those around you likely won’t notice anything different. So being nice to yourself is the most important thing since your body’s just going through something totally normal and natural, even if it hijacks your self-esteem just a little bit. Because really, you’re just as beautiful as you are any other time of the month, and there’s not a single thing “ugly” about you, friend.

What can you do to cope during luteal-phase hell?

Still, if you’re hoping to minimize the impacts, Jordan says, “There are definitely ways to ease the impact of the luteal phase.” Gentle movement can help you feel good in your skin, as can eating a balanced diet composed of whole foods, reducing stress wherever possible, and getting enough sleep. She also notes that limiting caffeine and alcohol during this time can help.

“If these methods are not helpful, speak to your doctor. Some patients can benefit from birth control pills and/or antidepressants to help with the symptoms of the luteal phase,” Jordan suggests, especially if you might have an underlying health concern exacerbating symptoms, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and/or endometriosis.

Taking those days to amp up self-care — whatever it looks like and however you can squeeze it in — can help until the red tide turns and you’re back to feeling like your own badass, beautiful self. Even a 20-minute nap or a solo drive around the block sans kids can help you reset, but if you find the changes cause you to experience body dysmorphia, chatting with a therapist is a great tool in any self-care toolbox.

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