How to Track and Decode the Signals of Your Menstrual Cycle
Through the practice of Fertility Awareness, you can pinpoint your ovulation and make decisions that are in tune with your body
I was 28 years old when I discovered the basic truths that have since guided the course of my life. I’d already been suffering through my “period” for roughly fifteen years; a seasoned rider of the crimson wave, I thought I knew all there was to know about the whole bloody mess. Fed up with taking a pill when I wasn’t sick, I sought other effective ways to remain successfully baby-free.
In my search, I stumbled upon the principle of Fertility Awareness (FA)—the ability to track the cycle between periods of fertility and infertility, and how one can positively identify these periods through observation of the subtle changes we experience on each day of the cycle.
Despite coming from a family full of medical professionals and my top-notch education, it was the first time I had ever been introduced to the idea that my period held more pertinent information for me than the reassurance that I wasn’t pregnant.
Of course, I was familiar with the basics: that every month my body released an egg and if it wasn’t fertilized it was shed—duh.
And though I was vaguely aware (and afraid) of my ability to conceive, I was totally ignorant of the specifics, like what actually happened inside me on each cycle day, how and when conception occurs, and the many ways these changes affected me daily. I had never bothered to think beyond the blood because I never knew there was anything else to notice.
As it turns out, your period is more than a pain in the cooch.
Just as the moon waxes and wanes and begins anew every cycle, so does every fertile woman experience cycles. At times parts of the moon’s face are hidden to our eyes, yet we know she is still there and her powerful pull on our planet is not diminished just because we can’t see her. The fertility cycle also has its influential phases both obvious and subtle. Menstruation and ovulation are phases that occur in tandem, in a predictable rhythm much like the full and new moon.
Our cycles contain vital information that many of us have been deaf to. This information contains the keys to finally making our reproductive power work for rather than against us.
The definitive resource on FA is “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” by Toni Weschler—in-depth explanation and user’s guide, a must- read for anyone with a uterus. Weschler is the pioneer in the field and a champion for people harnessing their reproductive power by first understanding it.
The book breaks down the mechanics of conception, the changes our bodies cycle through, and answers a million questions you might never even thought to ask. Fascinating and informative, Weschler’s heavily researched work blew my mind wide open. It explains, in detail, how to correctly track your cycle and interpret your findings, positively identify your own ovulation and effectively use this knowledge to ease anxieties and make more informed choices. Today advocates for FA number in the hundreds of thousands, and FABMs are over 97% effective when used correctly.
Once I discovered what I could track about my cycle, I was able to make decisions in tune with my body, not in spite of it. I was able to anticipate the changes before they happened and to use caution when caution was necessary. Through simple observation, tracking, and research, I came to trust and rely on my natural rhythms.
That was 12 years ago, and I am now speaking to you from beyond the veil of pregnancies and parenthood.
Thanks to what I learned, I have never stressed a late period. I have avoided years of ingesting hormones to stop my natural functions and have still enjoyed almost ZERO unwanted pregnancy anxiety. I was able to naturally avoid conception until I was ready, and when it was time to put my creative power to use, I had the reassurance of a very real target to aim for.
And now, after having all the kids I can handle, I don’t feel the pressure to get back on the pill or implant an IUD, tie my tubes, or make my husband get snipped. But most profoundly, I have come to understand and anticipate my physical and mental states and to honor and even love this beautiful body of mine after a lifetime of loathing.
Getting to know your cycle is the first step in true self-care—it costs little money or effort, and it is the most valuable gift you will ever give yourself. It isn’t hard, but there is plenty of misinformation so be sure to follow the right sources. The best thing is to trust yourself and listen to your inner wisdom.
Here are the three steps I recommend for working with your cycle. I’ll go into more detail about all of them below.
- Understand the science. Familiarize yourself with the phases of the cycle and the specifics of conception.
- Prove it to yourself. Chart your signs, including basal body temperature (BBT), for at least three cycles. Your objective is to positively identify your ovulation day and the set of sensations you feel around fertile time. Identify patterns for yourself and become aware of your own fertile period.
- Continue to use reliable resources to educate yourself on FABMs and the ways to make choices in tune with your pregnancy and life goals.
Profound and rapid self-discovery is yours to be had, and it’s all right there at your fingertips.
The Science of Your Cycle
Whatever your level of schooling or street-smarts, much of the fundamental information about the ovulatory cycle may be new to you. We are not commonly taught to notice and understand the miraculous way our bodies work. There’s a tacit gag order on speaking about the more unpleasant sights, smells, and sensations. We are left feeling isolated, freakish, and afraid, even though much of what we experience is normal and simultaneously being experienced by others.
In truth, if there was collective acknowledgment and understanding of our cycle and the way it affects our lives, many of our anxieties would be put to rest.
Fertility Awareness is based on the following fundamentals, which are true for most people most of the time:
1. A person ovulates only once and at around the same time per cycle, and they release only one egg at a time.
Some years after puberty, a person’s cycle falls into a pattern uniquely their own. Cycle days are counted starting with Day 1 as the first day of menstruation. Every cycle has one menstrual period AND one fertile period, and they occur in tandem, like the full and new moon. Just as the bloody arrival of Aunt Flo, ovulation comes on roughly the same cycle day for the individual, usually around the middle of the cycle.
Ovulation, the release of the egg, is preceded by a four- to five-day window of fertility (sperm can live for up to five days, and their presence in the fallopian tube when the egg is released creates the right conditions for conception). The chances of releasing more than one egg in one cycle are low, and the chance of ovulating more than once even lower. It happens—but so does hitting the lotto.
Various factors can delay ovulation, such as stress, fatigue, and illness—and some cycles are more sensitive to these influences. But once ovulation has occurred, there is a fixed number of days until the next cycle begins.
Cycle lengths and ovulation dates vary among people and can vary within one person. Though the “average” cycle length is noted to be 28 days, variations are not “irregular.” For example, not everyone who has a 28-day cycle will ovulate on day 14, and a person with a consistent cycle length will not always ovulate on the same cycle day.
However, ovulation and menstruation do occur at intervals, and in most cases in a detectible rhythm. Fertile time doesn’t just happen at random: It is predictable in most cases and detectable to those who are looking.
2. Your body tells you loud and clear when you’re fertile.
Your biology wants you knocked up regardless of your personal feelings. Leading up to ovulation, a person’s body will undergo many subtle physical changes designed to help pregnancy—this is your womb opening up the gates, throwing some cookies in the oven, and fluffing the cushions to make the place as inviting as possible.
These are the signs you can be looking for:
- A spike in your resting temperature (Basal Body Temperature, or BBT) the day after an egg is released is the most obvious indicator. If you become pregnant, your BBT will continue to rise.
- The presence of a cervical fluid of a sticky, egg-white consistency. This fluid is vital for sperm to live.
- A lifting, softening, and opening of the cervix, the opening to the womb
- Abdominal pain or cramp low on the left or right side
- Changes in mood and energy levels
- Emotional sensitivity, irritability, anxiety
There a myriad of other secondary indicators specific to each person. Hormones are surging and, like with PMS, there are a set of feelings unique to you that will happen around ovulation and your fertile time. For me, it’s sadness and anxiety, ruminating thoughts, heightened sense of smell, and vivid dreams.
People can experience and ignore dozens of signals monthly simply because we have had no idea that anything was going on. Often these unknowns can trigger a fear of abnormality, even though they are the natural and normal functions of our bodies. Tracking your cycle increases your awareness and can ease your mind about these signals.
For years I periodically felt a random pain in the side that I vaguely attributed to some terrible illness, though I never vocalized it. Turns out, I was feeling the egg breaking free from my ovary, and it always happened at the same time in my cycle, around Day 15 or 16. When I had the information to put this together, this lifelong background anxiety was put to rest completely.
Recently, I told a friend about the small gland on each upper thigh that slightly swells during your fertile period depending on which side you ovulate from. I was going to point it out when she said, “I know exactly what you’re talking about and was sure it was cancer!”
3. Pregnancy can only occur in a healthy womb when an egg is fertilized by sperm that has been kept alive in fertile cervical fluid.
Of course, the first part is Reproduction 101. Conception can’t happen without an egg and the presence of live sperm — you don’t worry about an oops moment if you haven’t engaged in “risky” behavior.
The crux lies in the second part. The goo produced during ejaculation will only sustain sperm for a short while outside of a body. Ejected sperm will die within a few hours, unless they are lucky enough to get sucked up by the sticky and life-giving cervical fluid only produced during the fertile time of the month. This magic medium can keep the eager buggers alive inside of you for three to five days, just waiting for the egg-drop soup.
The presence of an egg, viable sperm and the cervical fluid are equally vital to conception, and even with all three, there is no guarantee of fertilization.
This is to say that it is absolutely not the case that you can get pregnant at any point in the cycle, as many are given to believe. It also means that if you are trying to get pregnant at the wrong time in your cycle, you will be unsuccessful even if you are fertile.
4. Therefore, a person only has one potential pregnancy per cycle, and only during the one-week fertile period.
An egg lives for 24 hours after it is released; if it isn’t fertilized, it will be shed. Healthy sperm can live from three to five days inside the womb sustained by cervical fluid. This means that the window for fertilization is at most five days before and two days after ovulation. After this seven-day window, pregnancy is biologically impossible until the next cycle (barring a medical anomaly). In a person who regularly ovulates around the same cycle day, pregnancy before the expected window is highly unlikely—a person has little to no chance of becoming pregnant on their non-fertile days.
Just as a person has only one menstrual period per cycle, they have only one fertile period every cycle, meaning the fluctuate between periods of fertility and infertility every month. Harnessing this oscillation is the key to gaining control over your reproductive power.
Once a person identifies their rhythm, they know exactly what week of their cycle has the highest potential for pregnancy and can avoid reproductive sex if they don’t want a baby.
If you knew exactly when you could and couldn’t become pregnant, how might that information impact your choices? If you don’t want to have a child right now, you might think twice about that one-night stand on your peak fertility day. Or if you are trying to conceive, it gives you a very specific target to improve your chances drastically.
5. Today, more than ever before, it is easy for a person to detect their ovulation day with inexpensive and harmless methods.
Thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone and the widely-available digital thermometer, a person can now easily detect ovulation with great simplicity and accuracy. Period tracker apps and ovulation strips are wildly popular, but unless you are taking your temperature, you cannot verify ovulation. BBT is our only proof on paper, and we need proof on paper. To do this you have to take your temp every morning. That’s it.
The implication is this: If you know that you have ovulated, you know you cannot become pregnant again until the next cycle. If you know when you will ovulate, you will be able to accurately pinpoint your monthly fertile period, the only time you can physically get pregnant.
My Own Journey
At first, I was skeptical this would work for me, despite the solid science. So I set about to prove it to myself and began taking my temperature and tracking the subtle changes happening within.
Instantly, there was a click on a soul level as so many things finally made sense. When I first saw the temperature shift that indicated my ovulation, I experienced joy and gratitude for my cycle for the first time in my life. Soon, I was able to see a distinct pattern that I have lived by ever since. From that point I have been as sure of my fertile period as of my menstrual—my husband and I began using FABM as our birth control and successfully avoided and achieved pregnancies according to our intentions.
Everyone deserves a chance to feel this deep sense of inner peace and body-love, this sense of agency over your own awesome power.
The 3-cycle Challenge
The objective here is for you to identify ovulation. You will need:
- A digital thermometer or smart thermometer.
- A charting app: Kindara, Clue, or Fertility Friend are all solid choices.
Step 1: Begin recording your BBT.
Start charting on the first day of your menstrual period—Day 1. Take your temperature before you get out of bed—you want your resting temperature, so the less you move the better. Do it as soon as you open your eyes, before you sit up, even before you roll over if you can. Record the results (a smart thermometer will record it for you). You will notice it is lower than normal because our body temperature drops while we sleep.
This habit is the hardest part, the biggest commitment. It may seem like a pain but I’m sure you can handle it, and unlike taking the pill, it’s no sweat if you miss a day here or there. Building this habit is a small price to pay for huge amounts of self-discovery.
Step 2: Start feeling yourself.
Record other signs and sensations you feel. Any of the above charting apps have specifics on what to check for. I also recommend the book I previously mentioned, “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” by Toni Weschler, as a resource for learning what to look for and why.
This will require you getting to know yourself from the inside, so give yourself permission to go there. Become familiar with the changes that happen every cycle and you will experience a sense of wonder for the way your body works.
In addition to BBT, a primary physical observation to make is tracking the consistency of your cervical mucus. Your tracking app will ask you to look for properties like color, consistency, and stickiness, and you will become familiar with how these change throughout the cycle.
But also pay attention to the subtle and strange things you experience: Emotions, sensations, and states of being are all significant. I believe this knowledge is what has been dismissed as intuition. Chances are, you are not the only person to experience the same thing, no matter how weird.
Once you learn what to look for, it becomes second nature to detect the changes.
Step 3: Record and observe for at least 3 cycles.
After tracking BBT and secondary signs for three cycles, you will begin to see your own patterns. You can then begin to predict future ovulation and menstruation with great accuracy. The physical, mental, and emotional changes surrounding ovulation and menstruation can be anticipated, planned for, and honored altogether—and no longer feared and suffered through in isolation.
Some say, “Well, I have a good idea of when I’m ovulating,” and that is really great. But how likely are you to catch a train if you know around when the train is coming versus exactly when the train is coming? Would you ever choose to remain uninformed when the schedule is right there in front of you? Why would you settle for less than certainty about something so crucial to your daily life?
If you take this challenge, you will understand the direct connections of these signals to the fertile or menstrual periods of your cycle. After three cycles, you will have enough data to make some solid conclusions about your own rhythm. You will discover everything is working as it should (or, on rare occasion, be alerted if something isn’t).
If you decide to keep charting or not, at least you have gained valuable insight that will undoubtedly come in handy someday.
My cycle has been the trusty compass to help me navigate these most transitional years of my life. And while the bleeding isn’t pleasant, I have also experienced pride, reassurance, and comfort in my body’s amazing shifting magic.
I wish the same peace of mind for everyone, and it begins with simply taking a moment to bend your ear inward. The spirit within speaks to us, so it is time to listen up.
Take the challenge. Spread the word. May the force be with us.