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The Basics of Cycle Tracking

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A lot of women don’t understand their bodies the way we should.

Not only is knowing about our cycle good for getting pregnant (or avoiding pregnancy!), our general health can be determined by how healthy and regular our menstrual cycle is.

In this post, I’ll cover what exactly a menstrual cycle is, as well as the ways we can track, chart, and predict what’s to come!


A Little About Your Menstrual Cycle

Tracking your cycle is important. Not only will it help you prepare for your next period, but it is also helpful when trying to conceive, understanding/listening to your body, and even for avoiding pregnancy through good timing. (NOTE: This method does not prevent sexually transmitted diseases.) Most women have a 28 day cycle. That cycle is broken down into four major parts:

  • Days 1-5: Your period (Menstruation), AKA when you bleed

  • Days 6-14: The Follicular Phase, when your body is gearing up to release an egg

  • Days 14-25: Ovulation, the egg is released and you can get pregnant

  • Days 25-28: The Luteal Phase, when the fertilized egg implants in the uterus OR hormonal changes trigger your uterus to shed its lining

There are a few different ways to track your cycle.

Estimating Your Cycle With A Calendar

Perhaps the most common method - the one that most of us have probably been using, either with a paper calendar or an app - is estimating our cycle on the calendar. Using simple math, you can estimate your next expected period and even when you can expect to ovulate. If you want to do it yourself, subtract 18 days from the length of your shortest cycle. This is the first day you can be fertile. Next, subtract 11 days from the length of your longest cycle. This is the last day of your fertile window, or when you are most likely to get pregnant.

Apps are increasingly popular and common in regards to tracking your cycle, and can be excellent for general knowledge, but they aren’t always as accurate as recording the signals your body produces. I recommended Clue for my teen sister, since it’s a fantastic, basic app that helps her track her period. For myself, I use Glow, since it provides more information regarding ovulation and pregnancy, and has a fantastic forum-based community of women.

If you are struggling with getting pregnant and are only using the calendar method, I highly recommend using a combination of the other methods listed below. Many couples are not getting pregnant NOT because of an underlying condition - but simply because they aren't timing it correctly!

Similarly, this is not a reliable method for birth control, as the data is based purely on averages and algorithms, not your unique body and cycle.

Charting Your Basal Body Temperature (BBT)

One of the best and most popular ways to record your cycle is by charting your Basal Body Temperature (BBT). This can be done by taking your temp as soon as you wake up each morning, using a special temperature that can record degrees down to a fraction. Here is a great example of a BBT thermometer. By following the natural rise and fall of your BBT, you can determine ovulation, and even early pregnancy!

Just after you ovulate, your temperature will go up ever so slightly, and stay high until your period starts, at which point it will decrease again. Many women report having sustained high temps as their first indication of pregnancy.

If you're trying to get pregnant, the best time for intercourse is up to five days before, during, and up to three days after confirmed ovulation. Aim to have sex at least every other day.

If you're avoiding pregnancy, either abstain from intercourse during that time, or use non-hormonal contraceptives like condoms.

Charting Your Cervical Mucus (CM)

Another way to track your ovulation - and perhaps the most "in tune" way - is by checking your cervical mucus (CM).

Cervical mucus is the fluid that your body secretes, in varying amounts and consistencies, throughout your cycle. By noting the amount and consistency each day, you can begin to recognize the signs that your body is ovulating. Generally, the "safest" days to avoid pregnancy are after you have confirmed ovulation.

The simplest method to identify ovulation is called the TwoDay Method. Note whether you've seen cervical secretions that are clear, stretchy, wet, and slippery, either today or yesterday. This indicates peak fertility. If "yes", then you can consider yourself fertile and act accordingly (have intercourse if trying to conceive, abstain if not).

You can check your cervical mucus three ways:

  • Wipe the opening of your vagina (before you pee or have sex) with white toilet paper or tissue.

  • Look at the discharge on your underwear.

  • Put clean fingers into your vagina, and then check.

Using Ovulation Test Strips

Some women (like myself) like to use Ovulation Test Strips, also called OPKs (Ovulation Predicator Kits) or LH (luteinizing hormone) strips. Similar in concept to pregnancy tests, these strips indicate rising levels of LH, which signals impending ovulation. Unlike pregnancy tests, there will always be two lines - a control line, and a test line that will go from light to dark to light again as you enter/experience/exit ovulation.

You don’t need to test while you’re bleeding. After your period ends, you should begin to test. Continue testing every morning, and record your results. Keep tracking until you’ve confirmed that the test line became darker than the control line (indicating a positive), and then grew lighter again (indicating that ovulation is complete).

Some women experience differing results with LH strips - sometimes the test lines remain dark for days, or they get dark, light, and then dark again. The former (called a plateau) indicates that there is a lot of luteinizing hormone in the body. My favorite brand of test strips is Pregmate. They make both LH strips and pregnancy tests - perfect for those of us who are TTC and POAS (“pee on a stick”) addicts.

LH strips are not meant to be peed on, unlike how we think of pregnancy tests. They’re thin, and about the size of a golf pencil, so peeing on them would be a gross and kind of messy process. Instead, they are dip sticks. This means you pee into a cup, dip in the stick for a few seconds, and set down face up on a flat surface. The results will be ready to read within 3-5 minutes.

Just like testing for pregnancy, it’s recommended that you use FMU - or first morning urine. As urine sits in your body, hormones - the ones that the tests rely on - collect within your bladder to be discarded. If you simply can’t wait to test, try to wait at least 5 hours since your last pee. Otherwise, you might get a false negative response.

If you’re trying to get pregnant using LH strips, begin having sex every other day of your estimated fertile window (according to your calendar). Have sex within 24 hours of receiving a positive strip, but preferably as close as you can to receiving that positive. Continue to have sex for at least the following three days. Remember, the ovulation strip only indicates that ovulation is coming, not that it is for sure happening right then.

If all of this seems overwhelming and you want technology to do all the work…

Check out an Ava bracelet! While I haven’t used it and I don’t think women who have a really great understanding of their own cycle really need it, this bracelet has helped over 50,000 women get pregnant. It’s backed by peer-reviewed, published scientific studies, uses cutting edge technology, and can be used month after month. It’s a bit pricey, but is totally worth it if you’re really trying to get pregnant or get your cycles back on track. It also has a one year guarantee that you will get pregnant*. If you don’t conceive within the first year of owning this bracelet, you’ll get your money back! The bracelet is perfect if you can’t remember to test daily, or you are just looking for something to tell you it’s time (instead of you trying to understand and potentially missing the signs yourself). * For full terms and conditions on the one year guarantee, click here.

The Fertility Awareness Method To Avoid Pregnancy

Many women use the Fertility Awareness Method(s) (FAMs) to safely have sex, all while avoiding pregnancy and hormonal contraceptives (such as the birth control pill, IUDs, etc.).

The most effective way to avoid pregnancy is by not having sex. You are always at least 1% likely to get pregnant when using any form of birth control during ovulation.

The more and longer your chart your cycle, the better you will be at using FAMs to avoid pregnancy. However, there is still a chance of getting pregnant. This likelihood increases for women with irregular menstrual patterns, which can make charting difficult.

You can make FAMs more effective by combining all four methods (estimating ovulation via calendar, BBT, CM, and test strips), as well as working closely with a professional practitioner. Additionally, incorporate these methods into your daily routine and avoid missing any days when charting. You and your partner should be conscientious and cooperative when it comes to abstaining from sex or using alternative birth control methods during your fertile window.


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