I started tracking my menstrual cycles 40 years ago. It was 1981, I was 15 years old, not yet sexually active, but curious about my body and already on the path to studying midwifery. I’d happened on a book called A Cooperative Method of Natural Birth Control by Margaret Nofziger, first published in 1976, and I was fascinated by the idea that the simple regular signs my body was exhibiting could tell me so much, and that a large modicum of control over my reproductive health was at my fingertips (in fact, literally, as you’ll see when it comes to cervical mucus tracking – but don’t worry, you don’t have to touch it to track it if that’s not your thing). This powerful knowledge also meant that when I was ready to become sexually active I didn’t have to use the Pill, the main alternative to condoms available to teenagers back then. So in I dove to the magical wonderful world of my menstrual cycles – and charting them was how I learned.
I followed what was then often called Natural Family Planning, or the Sympto-Thermal Method: sympto for symptoms, thermo for checking basal body temperature. I still have my handwritten charts and ‘moon calendars’ which, now that I’m in menopause, are even more fun to look at and reflect back on, because they’re punctuated with all kinds of little ‘notes to self’ as well as being punctuated and demarcated by noticeable absences of my menstrual cycle during my pregnancies.
While I eventually stopped keeping a written record, so ‘in my bones’ was my awareness of my cycles, charting and understanding my cycles has been some of the best “me-search” I’ve ever done. It’s deeply centering and empowering to have such an intimate understanding of your own rhythms, what’s normal for you, and how that compares to what’s inherently normal for menstrual cycles.
Tracking my cycles taught me how my innate hormonal blueprint shows up in my life – my moods, food preferences, energy, sleep, creativity, and so much more – month in and month out, so much so that its patterns allowed much more predictability in my life. I hope it's something you'll start doing as a daily practice, because it also gives you a few minutes each day to ‘drop in' on yourself – to see how you're doing – and use this moment of awareness to ask yourself what you really need right now for hormone health and balance. And I hope, if you have daughters or nieces, you'll let them in on the secrets of cycle self-awareness and the beauty of their hormonal blueprint with this and the other articles/podcasts linked below.
Tapping into Your Sixth Vital Sign
Your menstrual cycle is also your 6th Vital Sign, an important monthly reflection and ‘score card’ of your overall health. Intentionally tracking your cycle can help you learn whether and when you're ovulating, determine whether symptoms like pelvic pain, low sex drive, acne, sleep, migraines, digestive, or other symptoms are cyclic and therefore likely hormonally related, and can help you have more control over your reproductive and gynecologic health in general. It can help you to know when the best time is to conceive – or avoid pregnancy – depending on your goals right now, and help you recognize when you're entering peri-menopause or menopause. It's a guide to where you are in your cycles and lifecycles at any stage – and a perfect way to assess your hormone health and balance – because your cycle health is dependent on healthy hormone levels, and also in turn determines your hormone levels (i.e,, if you're not ovulating, you can't produce adequate progesterone).
As every woman’s cycle is a little different, tracking your cycle can help you identify your own unique rhythms, and if you’re having trouble with your cycles, they can help you to get a clearer picture of what might be going on. Over time, this information becomes a personal health compass – giving you important information not only about whether your cycle and related hormones are working optimally but if other signs and symptoms are cycle-related. Understanding your personal cycle can therefore be a tremendous source of health empowerment. It's also one of the best ways to tune into the inner guidance that your menstrual cycle provides.
Let’s dive into how to track and chart your cycle! Soon you’ll be on your way to using tracking as a powerful hormone health diagnostic tool – making you the best expert on YOU that there is.
Reclaim your power. Feel at home in your body. And be the force of nature you really are!
How to Start Tracking Your Cycle
There are three methods involved in cycle tracking, all falling under the umbrella of Fertility Awareness (FA). They can be used individually, or together – which is how I started, eventually dropping the temperature taking that I’ll tell you about in a minute.
For the clearest picture, I recommend women track at least the first two methods for three months minimum to get a good sense of your typical cycle. If you’re not sure whether you’re ovulating and want to find out, or if you’re using FA to prevent pregnancy, then including method 3 can tell you if and when you’re ovulating, which in turn indicates the fertility window in which you can achieve – or need to make sure to avoid – pregnancy.
Think of tracking your cycle as developing your Cycle Sense – an awareness of how your body, moods, energy, sleep, food preferences and other subtle signs change throughout your menstrual cycle – from the first day of each period to the last day before your next period starts. As long as you’re still menstruating, even if irregularly or heading into perimenopause, you can start learning about your cycles – it’s never too late and it’s always a beautiful thing because it connects us to all women who have ever lived and cycled going back to time immemorial. And there are always new mysteries to uncover.
Method 1: Menstrual Cycle Charting
You likely have a general idea about how often your period comes and maybe you think that’s enough information to go off of, but what we tend to think is happening compared to what’s actually happening may be two different stories. Studies have found that women often report having regular cycles of about 28 days, but when they are asked to actively record their cycle lengths, they have cycles much shorter or longer than they knew.
Menstrual cycle charting is like opening a wide lens on what’s really going on cycle to cycle. It’s also the simplest and the least expensive of all methods, so why not go for it?
At its most basic, menstrual cycle charting involves paying attention to and documenting when you’re getting your period and how long it lasts. You can level that up by charting your daily experience of your menstrual cycles, each chart going from day 1 of your period to the last day before your next period start, noting how you’re feeling physically, emotionally, and even intellectually and spiritually. You can download my Cycle Sense Chart here to get a sense of what this looks like, what to pay attention to, and what to note on the chart. It’s not all or nothing – you can include as much or as little information as you’d like, as long as you note when you’re menstruating, and ideally, signs of ovulation, too – which I’ll talk about in a minute when we get to cervical mucus and basal body temperature. But you can also learn more about the subtle signs of ovulation you might want to note down, too, right here. You can learn all about what a healthy menstrual cycle really is right here – and then compare yours to those parameters.
How to Start Tracking:
- Download the menstrual cycle chart here or find one you like on the internet. (I’ll talk about cycle tracking devices in a minute. While that’s an option, I do think there’s value in a pen and paper chart initially.)
- Record the first day of your period and the last day of your period on a calendar monthly, for at least 3 consecutive months.
- Optionally, record your cervical mucus throughout the month and your daily basal body temperature if you’re tracking these – you’ll learn about both next.
- Consider jotting down your daily moods, cravings, energy levels, and other Cycle Sense signs and observe how these shift over the month, and also month to month. Note how your emotions shift at different times in your cycle – you might even note how you dress, ebbs and flows in your personal drives, creativity, and ambitions, and your sexual attractions – you are capturing all the data from your inner guidance system!
Method 2: Cervical Mucus Tracking
Along with tracking your menstrual cycle, you can also track your cervical mucus tracking (also sometimes called cervical fluid). Cervical mucus is normal liquid produced by your cervix during the course of the menstrual cycle. It changes in color, texture, and amount predictably in a healthy cycle and can be used quite reliably to help you determine where you are in your menstrual cycle.
Here’s how it works:
- After your period, when you are not as likely to be fertile, you will notice little or no discharge.
- During the mid-follicular phase, as your body starts to ramp up estrogen production, you will begin to notice that your mucus is thicker, creamy, whitish, yellowish, and not stretchy or elastic. Towards the end of this phase, it typically becomes thinner, may be a little cloudy, and you might feel ‘damp.’
- You know you’re ovulating (and fertile) when your vaginal discharge becomes plentiful, clear and stretchy, with a texture that is usually described as being like egg whites. This is due to increased production of cervical mucus called Spinnbarkheit. It’s different in quality than the vaginal secretions you might produce when you get sexually aroused. It’s notably more stretchy if you pull it between your fingers, and it’s produced specifically in the few days prior to and until just after you ovulate. This is peak fertile mucus and signals the best time for conception. The amount is different for every woman; not every woman produces a significant amount (still normal), but it is generally more plentiful than at other times in your cycle. In some women, it can be up to 20 times more than the usual amount of discharge.
- After you ovulate you produce progesterone, which causes cervical mucus to get much thicker and drier and actually creates a mucus plug in the cervix, acting as a physical barrier preventing sperm from making their way in.
- A few days after you ovulate, you’ll likely notice that your mucus becomes scanter and “tackier” again, signaling a lower fertility phase. As your period approaches, your discharge may become more paste-like and become drier (and less hospitable for conception). If you conceive, it may continue to increase rather than subside.
Things that can affect your cervical mucus readings include having recently used emergency contraception or hormonal contraception, douching, and use of some medications like antidepressants and Tamoxifan. Also note that post-sex, semen in the vagina makes it harder to assess the volume and quality of your cervical mucus, so take that into consideration when you’re tracking. If you’re in a hetero relationship, you can do ‘other things’ or use a condom for the first month that you’re learning this method.
How to Start Tracking:
Check your cervical mucus each morning for the next 6 weeks. Record what you notice on your Cycle Sense chart: your bleeding days, dry days, wet days, sticky days, cloudy days, and slippery days. If you don’t have a 28-day cycle, or any regular cycle, that’s okay – just track the pattern according to your cycle. If your cycle is irregular, or you’re not ovulating, seeing mucus production come on-line indicates that you’re moving toward a more natural cycle.
There are a few ways to check your cervical mucus, depending how up-close-and-personal you want to get with yourself:
- Option 1: Check out the color and texture of the discharge on your underwear each day.
- Option 2: Wipe your vaginal opening with white toilet paper or tissue before you go pee. Look at the color and feel of the mucus with your fingers.
- Option 3: Insert a clean index finger just inside your vaginal opening, then look at the color and notice the texture of mucus between your index finger and thumb.
Method 3: Basal Body Temperature Tracking
This step definitely takes more work, but I recommend it if you aren’t sure whether or not you’re ovulating. Basal body temperature (aka BBT) is your internal body temperature when resting. Right after ovulation, your BBT increases approximately 0.5-1 degree Fahrenheit and remains at this new temperature until right before your next period. This rise lasts for about 10 days. Temperature drops back down coinciding with the follicular phase, just before your next period comes.
Keep in mind that your BBT is very sensitive to even subtle changes in your biology, as might happen with fever, stress, lack of sleep, moving around early in the morning, or even getting up to pee before you check your temp. It can also be influenced by travel, time zone changes, sipping anything hot or cold – any of these things could skew your readings.
How to Start Tracking:
- To record BBT, you need a Basal Body Thermometer that records 2 decimal points (e.g. so you see something like 98.21, not 98.2). You can get this online or at a pharmacy.
- You have to check your BBT first thing in the morning, ideally at the same time every day, while you’re still in bed and haven’t started drinking, eating, or moving around yet.
- Keep your thermometer by your bedside (and maybe on top of your phone!) to help you remember to use it first thing.
- Place the thermometer under your tongue for 5 minutes, and then record the results on your Cycle Sense Chart (see download link above).
Recording your BBT for at least 3 months will give you a sense of whether and when you’re ovulating. If you notice that your BBT isn’t going up as described above, that may be a sign that you’re not ovulating. And remember, combining all THREE methods as a daily self-check practice gives you the clearest picture and the most information about your cycle.
Additional Menstrual Cycle Tracking Signs
Naturally, our body gives us more signs than even just the tracking methods described above. While it takes some extra tuning into, increasing your body awareness and paying attention to the following signs can offer even more cycle clues:
- Ovulation twinges, also called mittelschmerz (German for “middle pain”) is a mild pain that some women feel either the in lower left or right side of the abdomen – near one or the other ovary – around ovulation. Not everyone experiences this, and you may not experience it every cycle, so be wary of relying on this as a primary sign of ovulation – especially if you're using FA to avoid pregnancy.
- The position of your cervix gives you more information about your cycle. Close to ovulation, your cervix is higher in your vaginal canal, noticeably softer and mushier to the touch (like your lips), the os (opening) is slightly wider, and your cervix points more to the back of your vaginal canal rather than hanging out more midline. Progesterone does the opposite, causing your cervix to sit lower in your vagina and feel firmer. A cervix that is high, soft, and open indicates fertility.. A cervix that is low, firm and closed suggests taht you're not ovulating yet or that you've already ovulated. To really get a sense of these changes, you have to daily, and not a whole lot is noticeable until you’re ovulating.
- If you want to get more technical, you can use a fertility monitor. Fertility monitors track estrogen and luteinizing hormone (LH) to tell you when you are close to ovulation.
Can’t I Just Use a Cycle Tracking App?
You absolutely can use a smartphone app to track your menstrual cycle. Just know that most apps are based on the premise that most women have a 28-day menstrual cycle with regular mid-cycle ovulation – which isn’t necessarily the case! Therefore, using these for pregnancy prevention can be risky. Furthermore, a 2016 study found that at least 20% of these apps contained inaccurate or erroneous information. So if you use an app to help keep track of your personal cycle deets rather than tracking them on paper or on a spreadsheet, awesome; just please always heed your own hormone intelligence alongside, using the methods and insights described above.
You also might have heard of fertility trackers on the market now that allow you to take your temperature each morning and automatically transfer that information to an app that – in theory – tells you if you’re within your fertile window or not. It sounds great considering it takes some of the work of tracking out, but please know that these aren’t perfect predictors. Most studies are company funded and some specific studies claiming accuracy rates have been retracted, which makes knowing how reliable they actually are really difficult. If you choose to use them – it’s certainly more information than not tracking at all – but I wouldn’t count on it as your sole method of information.
Most women find that after some time, they no longer need to record changes in mucus, or even chart anything at all – it just kicks in as a 6th sense. Just a few years into charting my cycle, I ditched the pen and moon calendar (there was no such thing as an “app” in 1983), because I reliably knew that when I had an energy boost and found myself choosing a slinkier top to wear, getting jazzed about a new idea, or wanting to jump my boyfriend, I was ovulating. Flash forward to the few days before my period, and sure enough, I always managed to find myself wearing my favorite red sweater. Is that enough to rely on for contraception? No. Keep checking your daily basal body temperature and cervical mucus for that, and if you have sex during that fertility window – use a reliable form of contraception (i.e., condoms).
Want to learn more? Check out my new book, Hormone Intelligence, my colleague Lisa Hendrickson-Jack's fertility awareness classes, and some of these oldie-but-goodie books for learning how to chart like a pro including: A Cooperative Method of Natural Birth Control by Margaret Nofziger and Taking Charge of Your Fertility 20th Anniversary Edition by Toni Weschler.
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Bigelow JL, Dunson DB, Stanford JB, Ecochard R, Gnoth C, Colombo B. 2004. Mucus observations in the fertile window: a better predictor of conception than timing of intercourse. Human Reproduction. 19(4):889-92.
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