Have you ever charted your menstrual cycle? Thought about it? It is often associated with trying to conceive but I believe strongly that every woman should do it! Body awareness plays a key role in overall health and, whether you want to get pregnant or not, reproductive health is essential to achieve overall health.
It is quite common for women to spend many years of their lives on hormonal contraception, such as the birth control pill, which can result in the loss of this body awareness. The pill is in charge of that part of your body so you don’t have to be, right? Not surprisingly, I disagree. Being on the birth control pill is a personal choice and I am supportive of whatever decision you make in regards to contraception, but I am advocating for charting your cycle no matter what! I don’t want you to lose touch with that part of your body (the length of your cycle will likely be exactly 28 days and you won’t have the typical ovulation signs BUT many women still experience hormonally related symptoms throughout the month that can be helpful to understand).
I believe that empowerment comes from understanding your cycle. It is completely normal for women to have fluctuations in different hormones throughout the month and, therefore, feel different moods and energy levels as well. If you understand these fluctuations and can work with them, you can feel healthier and more in control of your body.
Read on to find out how you can chart your cycle and what exactly you should be charting! It takes more work for the first few months but if you have a regular cycle, you should start to see patterns as you continue to chart it over time.
1. Premenstrual Symptoms
Premenstrual symptoms are very common for a lot of women and vary in type, duration, frequency, and intensity. Charting your specific symptoms, when they occur, and their intensity, will help your healthcare provider treat them appropriately. It might also be interesting to realize, for example, that your migraines that you thought were completely random actually always occur one week before your period. Some common premenstrual symptoms to be aware of are: irritability and other mood changes, increased sensitivity, breast pain/tenderness, acne, increased fatigue, digestive changes, headaches, backaches and other joint/muscle pain, appetite changes, and food cravings.
2. The Beginning Of Your Period
The first day of your period is DAY 1 of your cycle. This will help you chart the rest of your cycle effectively. Often hormonal testing should be done on a specific day of your cycle so knowing your day 1 each month will help you time these tests accurately.
3. Period Specific Symptoms
Chart how many tampons/pads/diva cup changes you make each day, as well as the colour and consistency of your period blood. Too much or too little blood can be an issue and the colour (dark purple, red, pink, brown) can give us information about what is going on inside your body. Also include any symptoms that appear to be related to the onset of your period – cramping, digestive changes, back or pelvic pain, joint pain, headaches, mood changes, breast changes.
4. The Last Day of Your Period
The length of your period is important to note. Really short periods (2-3 days) and really long periods (greater than 7 days) can be a problem. Long and heavy periods are especially important to note because excessive monthly blood loss can predispose you to certain nutrient deficiencies, such as iron deficiency.
Numbers 5 and 6 are a bit more technical but are critical to helping you determine when and if you are ovulating. This is necessary for trying to conceive, as well as using the fertility awareness method of contraception.
5. Cervical Fluid
It is completely normal to have variations in your cervical fluid throughout your cycle. You can get a good idea of the colour and consistency by paying attention when you wipe yourself after urination. Every time you wipe, take a look at the toilet paper. Make sure you take a good look at it and use your fingers to get a feel for the consistency. This makes some women uncomfortable at first but do your best to embrace it! This is your chance to learn about your body! Your body is using this fluid as a way to alert you to what is going on internally.
Usually the first 4-7 days of your cycle is menstruation so you won’t see cervical fluid at this time. When you finish menstruating, you will often have minimal cervical fluid for a few days. As you approach ovulation, you will start to see more and more discharge. It is often thicker and creamier at first and will start to thin out and become more clear and stretchy (like an egg white) right before ovulation. The consistency is important because it allows sperm to enter your cervix easily and get transported into your uterus to meet up with the egg and lead to implantation. This is the perfect time to have intercourse if you’re trying to get pregnant and the time of the month you should avoid intercourse if you’re using natural methods to avoid pregnancy.
Ovulation occurs midway through your cycle, which is approximately day 14. However, it can commonly occur anywhere between day 12 to day 20. Individual variation in amount, colour, and consistency of cervical fluid is very common so don’t panic if you aren’t seeing the exact pattern that I’m describing. However, if you’re concerned that you might not be getting the ovulation signs, it is a good reason to check in with your healthcare provider to make sure there isn’t anything going on that requires treatment.
6. Basal Body Temperature
This can be a challenging measure for a lot of women to accurately record but combining cervical fluid charting and basal body temperature (BBT) charting is the best way to determine whether you’re having a healthy and fertile cycle.
BBT is your body temperature at rest and must be taken when you first wake up in the morning. All you need is a thermometer that you keep beside your bed. It needs to be easily accessible so you can reach for it with minimal movements when you first wake up. Any thermometer is fine, although it can be helpful to buy the specific basal body temperature thermometers because they show you your temperature with 2 decimal places. As with cervical fluid, the change we are looking for with BBT is also around ovulation and this change can be quite minimal (it can be only 0.2-0.4 degrees). To get an accurate graph, you should also do your best to take your temperature at the same time every morning, as well as making sure you’re getting at least 4 hours of sleep before taking your temperature. You should be taking it everyday throughout your cycle. This will give you a general idea of your average temperature and make it easier to see the change at ovulation.
You should be around the same temperature for the first half of your cycle (from menstruation to ovulation). Before ovulation happens, you will see a dip in your temperature. During this dip, ovulation will happen and you will see a spike in your temperature right after ovulation has occured. Then, during the second half of your cycle you tend to have a slightly higher temperature than the first half of your cycle. These changes in temperature occur due to changes in hormone levels of estrogen, progesterone, FSH, and LH. As I just said, this spike happens after ovulation. This isn’t very helpful if you want to get pregnant because you need to know BEFORE you ovulate so you’re ready to time your intercourse appropriately. However, after you take your BBT regularly for a few months, you’ll start to see a pattern and learn how to predict ovulation before it happens.
I’m Ready To Get Started!
The easiest way to chart your cycle is to use an app that helps you remember what information you need to enter. They will often graph your basal body temperature for you, as well as calculate your likely ovulation and menstruation dates for the upcoming months. Fertility Friend is a great one! It is free and sends you lots of information about how to chart your cycle when you first sign up. Kindara and Clue are two other apps that I have tried and find very user friendly. There are many options out there so do your best to find one that is compatible with your smart phone and is easy and understandable to you!
Whether you are using the above tips to conceive or to avoid pregnancy, it is important to know that sperm can live inside the female body for up to 5 days and the egg lives for 12-24 hours. This means that your fertile window for conception, or the window of time to avoid intercourse if using the fertility awareness method of contraception, is 5 days pre-ovulation plus 24 hours post-ovulation, for a total of 6 days. When trying to avoid pregnancy, it is safest to use a back-up form of contraception until you’re very comfortable with understanding your cycle.
I hope you find this information educational and empowering! Do you have more questions about your menstrual cycle? Book an appointment with Dr. Emily Casey, ND to get more individualized advice and information.