Tracking your menstrual cycle can provide more information than just an estimation of when your next period is. It can provide insight into your hormonal and reproductive health and give you more clarity as to when you are more fertile, therefore providing a better understanding of when your chances of conceiving are higher during each month. Additionally, by becoming more aware of your cycle you can better predict symptoms of PMS, can support the phases of your cycle, regulate your body and document when changes occur such as a skipped or late period.
The average menstrual cycle is around 28-32 days with day 1 of a cycle being the first day of menses and ovulation often occurring around day 14, but this can vary depending on the individual. The first half of our cycle is known as the follicular phase, in which levels of estrogen and progesterone are low and FSH stimulates the development of follicles in the ovary. The ovulatory phase is when the egg is released from the follicle into the fallopian tube. From ovulation to the first day of menses is known as the luteal phase, in which progesterone rises and the lining of the uterus thickens in preparation for pregnancy. If the egg is not fertilized, the empty follicle (corpus luteum) degenerates, stops producing progesterone, estrogen decreases and the lining is shed.
There is a window when pregnancy may be possible, which often includes five days before ovulation, the day of ovulation and 12-24 hours afterwards. In clinical guidelines this occurs between days 10 and 17, however only 30% of women fall within this range so the timing of this window is very unpredictable and often occurs earlier or later than these guidelines suggest. Since the length of a typical cycle can vary, and not everyone has 28 day cycles it can be useful to keep track of your cycles for a few months so you know when your window is and can become more aware of your hormonal and reproductive health. Below are a few tools that can be used to track your cycles:
Basal Body Temperature (BBT)
Your body temperature rises very slightly around 1-2 days after ovulation until the beginning of your period. Therefore, tracking your temperature cannot tell you when ovulation will occur but it can confirm that ovulation already occurred and can help predict ovulation after tracking for several months.
The temperature rise is due to the hormone progesterone, which is required to maintain pregnancy and nurture a fertilized egg. If the released egg is not fertilized, the lining of your uterus will be shed around 12-16 days after the temperature rise. By recording your temperature every morning you can track these changes and gain more understanding as to when ovulation occurs, which is often one or two days before the thermal shift.
The rise is typically between 0.2-0.5C, but sometimes it rises less than a degree so it is recommended to use tools that can help you visualize this change. Kindara, Clue and Glow are apps for your phone that allows you to enter your temperature each morning and creates a graph for you to visualize the changes throughout each phase. You can also enter cervical fluid consistency, information about intercourse and additional notes that may be useful for you.
How to track ovulation with basal body temperature
It is important to do this first thing in the morning before you have even gotten out of bed, and it is recommended to record around the same time each morning. This way you can get an accurate reading, without any interference from an increased metabolism during activity. Try keeping your thermometer on your nightstand, along with a pen and notepad or your cellphone (on airplane mode at night ;)) to track right afterwards. You are more fertile 2-3 days before ovulation and for 1-2 days afterwards so if your BBT has spiked for over 3 days your chances of getting pregnant become reduced. Keep in mind that fever, alcohol and receiving less than 3 hours of sleep will affect your temperature reading.
The hormones that control your menstrual cycle also affect the consistency, color and amount of cervical mucous present. This mucous is very important in fertility as it protects the sperm from the acidic environment of the vagina and assists in the movement through the female reproductive tract. Estrogen stimulates the production of cervical fluid, so as these levels fluctuate you may notice changes that can be used to predict more fertile days of your cycle.
How to track cervical fluid
You can keep track cervical fluid by writing it down or by using an app such as the ones mentioned above. A few days before ovulation, estrogen levels increase and the cervical mucous is often sticky and cloudy. During ovulation it becomes slippery and watery, almost like egg whites – this is the stage when you are most fertile as this cervical mucous is the most protective for the sperm, and provides a slippery medium for sperm to travel to the egg. After ovulation, the consistency becomes thicker and mucous production begins to decline, therefore decreasing the chances of conceiving. Insufficient production of fertile quality mucous may be affected by factors such as diet, lifestyle and medications. Talk to your Naturopathic Doctor if you are concerned with the quality or production of your cervical fluid.
LH Strips of Ovulation Predictor Kits (OPKs)
These tests detect luteinizing hormone (LH) in the urine. This hormone spikes around 36 hours before ovulation to fully mature the developing egg. When using LH tests, it is recommended to have intercourse the day of the positive test or the day after if trying to conceive.
Newer tests can detect both estrogen and LH in the urine. These provide a larger window when trying to conceive because estrogen peaks before LH. Therefore, there is more warning that ovulation is approaching.
Tracking the days that you are on your period is important to gain more understanding of how long your cycles are, how regular they are and become more in tune with certain symptoms that may arise before or after this time. Short (<21 days) or long (>35 days) cycles may indicate a need for further hormone testing.
It is a good idea to track your cycle on paper or in an app so you can easily compare past cycles. It is also important to track factors such as heavy or light bleeding, clotting, bloating, headache, fatigue, acne breakouts and mood as these symptoms may help to better understand hormonal relationships.
Listen to your body
Some women can actually feel when they ovulate, a sign known as Mittelschmerz, which comes from the German words “middle” and “pain” indicating pain in the pelvic region in the middle of our cycle (around day 14). This is generally felt on one side of the abdomen, as it is a result of the release of an egg from one ovary. If you notice any changes at any particular time of your cycle, take note and observe for subsequent cycles to confirm if it is a recurrent symptom.
These tools are a great start to become more in tune with your body and understand your cycle, however they are intended for educational purposes only. If you are seeking additional support in the area of women’s health, book an appointment with a Naturopathic Doctors who will be able to further assess your health and provide and individualized treatment plan to support your goals.
“Fertility Awareness: Natural Family Planning (NFP).” American Pregnancy Association, 2 Sept. 2016, americanpregnancy.org/preventing-pregnancy/natural-family-planning/.
Wilcox, Allen J, et al. “The Timing of the ‘Fertile Window’ in the Menstrual Cycle: Day Specific Estimates from a Prospective Study.” BMJ : British Medical Journal, BMJ, 18 Nov. 2000, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC27529/.