Developing a Relationship to your cycle
Keeping track of my cycle is an incredible tool that led me to a deeper level of understanding and communicating with my body than I ever imagined possible. Like many of us, I started tracking my periods originally in my diary and then with an app called Clue.
That was just the beginning as I soon discovered how to tap into the four distinct phases of the menstrual cycle – what is known cycle awareness. In February 2019 I started charting for health reasons and for contraception after I experienced an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage.
I had to get to the bottom of understanding my hormonal health to protect myself from repeating those experiences. Here I’ve laid out what I call the “Levels of Awareness” and represent my journey of self-discovery, body literacy, hormone balance, and natural birth control.
Level One: Period Tracking
Period tracking is often our first entry into understanding and recording our cycles. This is simply recording when menstruation occurs. Traditionally this was done using a calendar or diary but is becoming more and more common with the assistance of applications. Apps like Clue, Flo and others can assist in recording and predicting when menstruation will next occur. These apps should not be used as a form of birth control as their algorithms have proved inaccurate when predicting ovulation, and menstruation, when unusual circumstances occur such as travel, digestive issues or other stressors which can impact our cycles.
A new cycle starts with the first day of menstrual bleeding. This is known as cycle day one. Menstrual bleeding is bright red. Darker brown blood is known as spotting and it is older, oxidized blood. Spotting can occur before or after menstruation, or around ovulation and is not considered to be menstruation. If you experience premenstrual spotting this is not the beginning of a new cycle and cycle day one would not be recorded until the presence of bright red menstrual blood.
An optimal cycle is a regular 26-35 days. Anything shorter or longer than this (regularly or irregularly) could be a sign of hormonal imbalance or other underlying health issues. Recording hormonal symptoms such as length of cycles, pain, emotions, digestive issues, skin issues and energy levels can be helpful in recognizing patterns and identifying hormonal imbalances.
Level Two: Cycle Awareness
Throughout the monthly cycle we experience four distinct phases. Menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. These phases are often compared to the seasons of the year and this form of cycle awareness can be used to guide which activities are best supported at certain times of the month. During menstruation our hormone levels are at their lowest as they are being flushed out with our bleed.
This phase is known as “inner winter” because energy levels are generally low. Activities that are supported during this phase include: rest, restorative practices, self-care rituals, intention setting, meditation and recording dreams (as intuition is heightened during this time), avoiding intense exercise and eating warm, nourishing and easily-digestible foods such as soups and stews. This phase gives us permission to slow down and reserve our energy for the upcoming month.
Estrogen levels begin to rise around the time bleeding slows down (between day three and seven) and this is known as the follicular phase or the start of “inner spring.” You may feel a spike in energy and want to rush into new projects and ideas but over-exertion often leads to a meltdown on day seven or eight. Emerging slowly from the stillness of winter will result in more sustained growth. With each passing day, as estrogen levels rise, more and more outgoing activities will be supported, such as: goal setting, creating organizational lists, turning ideas into actions, starting projects and making plans to spend time with family and friends.
As we move closer to ovulation, hormone levels are at their highest (not only estrogen but also testosterone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) join the party). This phase is known as “inner summer” because we may experience feeling outgoing, confident, social, sexy and physically and emotionally strong. Activities that are supported during this time are: completing projects, presentations and public speaking, confronting challenging situations, celebrating, dancing and strong forms of exercise.
After ovulation the hormone progesterone comes into play and other hormone levels drop during the luteal phase. Progesterone is the calming hormone and you may notice energy levels begin to lower as you get closer to menstruation. This phase is known as “inner autumn” and is a time to begin slowing down the outgoing activities of “summer”. Give yourself permission to schedule less social and professional commitments. Activities supported during this phase include: reflection, editing and refining, administrative and home-based tasks and pressure-free creative projects.
Level Three: Charting for Health Reasons
Charting your cycle is more in depth than what we call “tracking.” Charting would include indicators such as basal body temperature (a.k.a waking or resting temperature) and cervical fluid. Keeping track of these indicators can assist in reading signs of hormonal imbalance and other underlying health issues. Charting body basal temperature is done with a thermometer that reads two decimal places and is done at approximately the same time every morning after at least three hours of sleep, immediately upon waking up.
Estrogen (the dominant hormone present in the follicular phase) keeps the body relatively cool whereas progesterone (produced by the corpus luteum after ovulation) warms the body. Reading into these two hormonal phases can give us in-depth clues about our health. Some signs of hormonal imbalance relating to temperature include:
- No noticeable shift in temperature (ovulation is not occuring)
- A long follicular phase (multiple attempts at ovulation)
- A smaller than 0.4C temperature shift
- A very short luteal phase
- Very high or very low temperatures throughout the cycle
Cervical fluid is what we commonly refer to as “discharge.” This is a very basic (and not very nice) word for a complex substance (or substances!) that are signs of our vital health. The presence, timing and quantity of cervical fluid can give us information about our hormonal health. Cervical fluid can be checked externally, by looking at your panties, or internally by scooping a finger around your cervix and seeing what comes out. Here are the general guidelines for charting cervical fluid
- Spotting: this is not menstrual bleeding and is sometimes charted as cervical fluid
- After menstruation there are *usually* a few dry days with no cervical fluid
- The first noticeable fluid may be quite dry, crumbly and sticky
- As we progress closer to ovulation, cervical fluid becomes creamy and tends to increase in quantity
- Around ovulation we may see a “egg-white” looking fluid that is clear and stretchy
- This may be accompanied by a watery fluid and sometimes a “gushing” sensation that feels similar to a menstrual bleed
Disruptions to this pattern may be signs of hormonal imbalance, for example:
- Little or no cervical fluid
- Little or no “fertile” fluids (egg-white and watery)
- The presence of fertile fluids, then drying up for a few days and then experiencing fertile fluids again (this could be a sign the body is making multiple attempts at ovulation)
- Spotting during ovulation or pre- or post- menstruation
If you recognize any of these patterns and are concerned about hormonal imbalance, please contact us
Level Four: Fertility Awareness for Contraception and Conception
Fertility Awareness is the most advanced level of cycle tracking and can be used both as a natural contraceptive method and for easy conception. It is highly recommended, especially if you are trying to avoid pregnancy, to find a qualified fertility awareness educator to train you in this method. From 2019, Beatrice Rabkin of Hormonal Harmony will be one of three qualified fertility awareness method (FAM) educators in South Africa.
FA methods of contraception and conception are based on the scientific fact that women are only fertile for a certain amount of time during their cycle. This is known as the “fertile window” and in an optimal cycle lasts approximately seven days (12-48 hours of the ovum’s journey from ovary + the 5 day lifespan of sperm in fertile cervical fluid). During this fertile window, abstinence, withdrawal or barrier methods of contraception are used to prevent pregnancy. Obviously, if attempting conception this would be the optimal time to have unprotected sex.
These methods use the same indicators as charting for health reasons but may also include cervical position and vaginal sensation as secondary indicators if the others are not clear. Basal body temperature and cervical fluid are used to confirm ovulation. Once ovulation has been confirmed, we are no longer fertile and it is safe to have unprotected sex (provided there is no risk of STIs!).
The start of the fertile window is a little more difficult to calculate but is generally understood to have opened with the presence of any cervical fluid. There are rules (dry day rule, 5 day rule, doering day rule) that can be used to used to calculate the start of the fertile window once you have been charting consistently for 12 or more months.
There is a rise of technological devices and apps that use FAM for contraception (Natural Cycles, Daysy) but we would urge you to be careful of relying on algorithms to predict the start of your fertile window. These devices tend to only use one indicator (temperature) to calculate fertility and do not take into account other indicators such as cervical fluid. There are many methods of FA but we use a Sympto-Thermal Method which uses double-checks to confirm ovulation and the opening of the fertile window. This method teaches us to treat each cycle as completely new, rather than based on previous cycles (like with an algorithm), as ovulation can sometimes occur much earlier than expected thus increasing the risk of unplanned pregnancy.