Charting your menstrual cycle

31 May 2019
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Before I quit hormonal birth control, I knew pretty much nothing, if anything, about the inner workings of my body. I’d been on the pill ever since I was 15, and the only thing I knew about my menstrual cycle was that it involved blood, cramps and the risk of getting a baby. I didn’t know why, how or even when all these things were happening in my body. All I knew, back then, was that taking a hormonal birth control pill for 21 days straight was “the right thing to do” if you wanted to regulate your cycle. It wasn’t even about preventing pregnancy at that time. I had an irregular cycle and suffered from heavy menstrual cramps, and according to the doctor, the pill was the way to go. For a long time, I never even questioned that. Why would I?

Fast forward to 2014. I’d been vegan for about a year, and increasingly interested in a natural lifestyle. In my free time, I consumed all kinds of information about a healthy lifestyle, so it was only a matter of time before I came across the notion of quitting the pill.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure what went through my head at the time I decided to quit. Maybe it was the promise of better energy, mood, and overall health. Surely I didn’t have an alternative form of birth control in mind. But I also wasn’t in a relationship at the time, so it wasn’t that much of an issue. Impulsively, I quit.

What followed was about a year of irregular cycles, hormonal imbalance, and that one time where I had to ask for a pregnancy test in Japanese. More about that in a different blog, but what it all boils down to is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. And I didn’t know what was really going on.

In a moment of utter ignorance, I even started using the pill again for a brief period in 2015. I know, I have no idea what I was thinking. But I was in a relationship again and solely using condoms just seemed like too much hassle.

Until, on a sunny day in San Diego, I stumbled upon the book that changed everything: Taking Charge of your Fertility by Toni Weschler.

Taking charge of your fertility

The book provided me with all the information I wish I had received during my biology classes. In a whopping 400 pages, Toni Weschler gives you the lowdown on your menstrual cycle and fertility: how it works, how to recognise your fertility signs, and how to chart these in order to understand your cycle. When I read the book, I finally find out that the menstrual cycle has four phases, and not just two (menstruation and non-menstruation). I was surprised to learn that discharge is actually a very healthy and NORMAL part of your cycle and that there are very basic biologically signs, such as your basal body temperature, that tell you everything you need to know about your cycle.

Needless to say, I was equal amounts amazed and embarrassed. Because why the hell didn’t I know these things before? Speaking to other friends or fellow cyclical beings, I realised that pretty much no one knew what was really going on throughout our cycle. You would almost start to believe that the government hates women.

As I don’t want to keep this crucial information to myself, I will jot down the basic ideas behind the fertility awareness method. But if you’re a person with a period, please invest in this book or any other form of basic menstrual education – even if you are still on hormonal birth control. You can learn so much from understanding how the body works. It’s knowledge that you shouldn’t take for granted.

Here are some of the basic points of fertility awareness:

Fertility awareness in a nutshell

The menstrual cycle consists of four phases. You probably know what ovulation is, and that the ovaries produce an egg for fertilisation. That happens only once a month (or twice, if both ovaries release an egg). After this happens, there are 24 hours for the egg to be fertilised. This means that, if you look at it strictly, you can only get pregnant one day a month.

A very important caveat here is that sperm can live up to 6 days after sex. That means that if you had sex on day 9 of your cycle and there’s still sperm hanging out in your body, you can still get pregnant. That’s why, you should always take precaution around your fertile phase, which lasts for about 5-7 days of your cycle.

But wait a minute! This raises two questions. First, if you’re only fertile for a maximum of 7 days of your cycle, why use anti-conception on every day of your cycle? And my answer to you is: well, you really don’t need to, my friend. Ditch the hormones and be a free person! (Of course, still use condoms against STDs)

Secondly, how the hell do you know when you’re gonna ovulate every month? Isn’t ovulation affected by stress, illness, or disruption of normal routines? (Rhetorical question, the answer is yes) Well, luckily, our bodies have offered us period people a few very clear fertility signs:

  • Basal body temperature: this is the temperature of your body immediately upon waking. Your body temperature should rise slightly (about 0,5°C) after ovulation. So if you chart your basal body temperature every single morning, you should be able to tell whether you’ve ovulated.
  • Vaginal discharge: I know, this sounds a bit gross. But you probably know what I’m talking about, and I can assure you that this is very NORMAL. I can’t stress this enough. Either way, looking at the amount and consistency of your discharge, you can tell when you’re at your most fertile. On your most fertile days, this discharge should have the consistency of raw egg whites.
  • Cervical position: throughout your cycle, you can feel inside and check the position of your cycle. When you’re fertile, the cervix will be open, soft, and high. When you’re not fertile, it will be closed, firm, and dry.

If you accurately monitor these three fertility signs, you can safely prevent pregnancy (or plan it better). If used perfectly, the fertility awareness method is about as effective as hormonal birth control.

Now that we got this technical bit out of the way, let’s move on to the fun stuff. Because although the fertility awareness method has a bit of a learning curve, it has given me a lot more than the mere absence of a baby.

I feel more connected to my body 

When I quit the pill and was still under the assumption that my menstrual cycle only consisted of two phases, I had no idea what was going on in my body. I’m sure that I did experience slight changes in my energy levels, mood, and physical appearance, but I never really connected the dots. If I had good energy, I blamed it on my vegan diet. If I was feeling sleepy, I blamed it on being overwhelmed. Though I do know that these two things are a major influence on my overall well-being, they don’t tell the complete story. My hormones do.

Because you see, as you start charting your cycle, you begin to see patterns. You notice that quickly after your menstruation, energy starts to pick up. And around ovulation time, oh gosh, that’s when you feel on top of the world. I also understand now that the tiredness after ovulation is simply the sudden drop of estrogen.

But that’s just the hormonal story. Ultimately, what fertility awareness has given me a sense of awe about my body. Because every 29 days or so, my body does the same thing over and over again. I truly feel taken care of. Which brings me to the next point…

I’ve come to appreciate my menstruation

Really? Yes, really. Until that very moment that I found Taking Charge of Your Fertility, I considered my period to be a nuisance. Especially when I was still taking the pill, I thought of my period as “that thing that happens in the week I don’t take the pill”. It never was something exciting, or even special to me. It just was something I had to endure.

But then, while reading the book by Toni Weschler, things changed. I remember this vividly. I was in San Diego, with my then boyfriend, and I had just gotten my period. But instead of dreading it, I felt something different. What I felt was a sense of belonging in my body. A sense of nurture, a sense of peace. Like things falling into place.

As I was learning more about my body and the things it does to ensure that everything works the way it should, I felt a deep sense of appreciation for my body. And I haven’t stopped feeling that way since. Even when I’m suffering from massive cramps and when I’m bound to the couch with no energy to do anything but binge-watch Netflix, I still love my period.

My period has begun to feel somewhat like a clean slate. Every month, I get the opportunity to check in with my body and with myself. As soon as the bleeding starts, I know that all I have to do is to just be present with myself. I take care of myself, eat well and take a lot of rest. It’s like a mini vacation. And who doesn’t love that?

It makes me feel more in tune with nature

Before I charted my cycle, I was under the impression that I always had to be “on”.

You might be familiar with that saying of how there is nothing in nature that blooms all year long, so you shouldn’t expect yourself to do so either. But despite the appeal of such platitudes, it is still difficult to hold ourselves to the same standard. We still often expect ourselves to feel constant in our energy, appetite, sexual needs, and desire to socialise. And we get upset when we don’t feel as “good” as we think we should.

But when you start charting your cycle, you will realise that your body is constantly changing. And with that, you become to feel more attuned to nature. Just like the phases of the moon and the seasons, we go through cycles. At some moments in our cycle, we will feel the fresh energy of the spring. At other times, you will feel the need to retreat inward, just like in autumn. We constantly go through waves. And that’s totally okay. Nature does it all the time.

Now that I’ve become so used to my body’s cyclical nature, I have a deeper appreciation for the cycles in nature. I celebrate every season and the specific quality it brings. And every day, I look up at the moon, to see what she’s doing.

Starting with fertility awareness

Although I do understand that the information above may have been slightly overwhelming, I hope that it at least sparked a little bit of interest in the fertility awareness method. But a word of caution, don’t just haphazardly start experimenting with your mother’s old thermometer. If you consider using this method, please buy the book first, because it gives you all the tools you need to track your cycle safely. Trust me.

When you’re just starting out with tracking your cycle, I suggest doing it in the traditional way: with pen and paper. This is the most elaborate way to chart and it gives you a lot of insight into your body’s fluctuations. Buy a good basal body thermometer and start measuring your temperature every single morning. Check out your cervical fluid as well, and chart these (and other) fertility symptoms for a few months in a row. Don’t completely rely on apps to predict your cycle for you. Although apps such as Clue can be great tools to keep track of some basic fertility info, they will never provide the full picture. As much as I love Clue’s beautiful design and user-friendliness, I feel like the app lacks some more detailed tracking options.

If you have become more skilled at charting your cycle and you have figured out that fertility awareness is your contraceptive method of choice, you can consider investing in a more expensive thermometer, such as a Ladycomp or a Daysy. About a year ago, I bought the Daysy thermometer for myself. It was quite an investment but has made charting so much easier. Instead of comparing the temperatures myself, the Daysy thermometer basically does the work for me. It just shows a green, orange or red light to indicate my fertility, and that’s all I need to know. When I want more info, I sync up the Daysy with an app on my phone. Easy does it.

Consider for yourself what your priorities are. Learning how to chart your cycle takes time, so honour that process. But know that despite the time and effort it takes to get used to charting, it will give you so much in return. You will get to know your body. You will start to love the things it does for you. And you will start to feel more connected with the things around you.

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