menstrual cycle tracking for beginners fertility charting

I often recommend my clients use cycle tracking to track their menstrual cycles, not only for fertility / family planning, but also for self-awareness and an understanding of your cycle. Rather than blabber on myself about how to do it, I decided to bring in an expert. I am super excited to bring you this guest post by Jenna McDonald. She’s a fertility expert, and I’m sure you’ll love her as much as I do! So, without further ado, here’s Jenna….

To cycle track for contraception I advise tracking one cycle and engaging directly with a cycle tracking expert.

What is cycle tracking?

Cycle tracking is simply recording the signs and symptoms our bodies give us to tell us which of the approximately 78 days of the year we are fertile.

What’s the point?

Knowing when we are potentially able to conceive allows us to either have sex or abstain to either prevent or support conception.

But it’s not just about babies (or not-babies).  It can indicate all sorts of things about your health, metabolism and hormone system to both you and a health practitioner.  In addition, as women, it helps give us a better understanding of our own bodies, minds and emotions.

How does it work?

Cycle tracking for contraception or conception relies on these four facts:

  • Women can ovulate once per reproductive cycle

  • Sperm can live in the uterus for up to 5 days

  • An ovum (aka, egg) can live for 24–48 hours, but is likely only fertile for 12–24 hours

  • Throughout the reproductive cycle, hormone changes result in observable signs and symptoms

Isn’t there an app for that?

There are a stack of great apps — they are essentially just well organized calendars and recording tools. They’re nice, but they don’t actually do anything more than what you can do with a pen and paper and counting days on your fingers.

How do I get started?

  1. Choose your recording method. Period Tracker is my preferred app.  Its inexpensive and simple to use. (Editor’s note: Fertility Friend, Ovia, and Clue are other popular options.) For a hard copy version, Pen and Paper Fertility have just dropped a super beautiful customizable diary. Or, you can download a chart online.
  2. Buy a BBT specific thermometer.  You don’t need a $300 one that links to an app.  A $15 one from the pharmacy is fine, but it must be BBT specific. (Editor’s note: We like this one from Amazon.)
  3. Begin ideally on Day One of your cycle — The first day of menstrual bleeding.
  4. Record record record.

Recording your bleed

It’s a great place to start because it’s the beginning of your cycle. Plus recording your bleed is very simple, even if you’ve not had much practice observing signs and symptoms. Note which days you are bleeding, if your flow is spotting, light, medium or heavy. If you’re working with a TCM practitioner, also record any clotting and the color of your bleed.

At the same time… Basal Body Temperature (BBT) Tracking

The Science:  The first half of the reproductive cycle is estrogen driven with a post-ovulation switch to progesterone. Estrogen is cooler and progesterone is warmer, so a noticeable temperature rise can be seen after ovulation. BBT will only confirm ovulation and may help for future cycles, but is NOT a reliable form of ovulatory prediction on its own.

  • Take your temperature first thing on waking while still lying in bed.

  • Mark it on your chart or record in your diary

  • A rise in temperature indicates progesterone has increased which means ovulation has occurred.

  • If you haven’t seen a rise — don’t panic, there are number of reasons this could occur.

(Often this information is more useful to your health practitioner than to you).

Cervical Fluid Tracking

The science:  A pre-ovulatory rise in estradiol drives an increase in the amount of cervical fluid secreted and changes the physiological make up to be thinner and more alkaline. This is “fertile fluid” and it helps sperm swim and activates the head of the sperm (called “capacitation”), so it is able to fertilize an egg.  Fascinating right? Bodies are amazing!   You don’t have to agree… but what you do need to know is that cervical fluid CHANGES.

The easiest way to check is to wipe the opening of your vagina before you pee and check the paper, feeling the fluid between your thumb and forefinger. It’s likely to go from:

  • dry right after your period

  • to sticky

  • to thin and watery

  • to thin and elastic and able to be stretched out like an egg white

  • back to thick or sticky

  • back to dry

In a normal healthy cycle, “dry days” are non-fertile days and “thick and sticky” days are in the maybe zone and “thin and elastic” are definitely fertile.

I urge you not to skip this step!  Recent research has important findings pertaining to cervical mucus as an ovulatory indicator.

LH surge (aka Ovulation Prediction Kit, aka OPK, aka pee sticks)

These are super useful to use alongside BBT and cervical fluid charting.  An OPK’s function is to PREDICT (not confirm) ovulation. Most kits come with 5 or 7 test sticks. (Editor’s note: We like these cheapies from Amazon.)

It may take a few cycles to sort out, but the aim is to start testing your urine daily, usually somewhere between day 8 and 11.  A positive test indicates you should ovulate in the next 24–36 hours and you are therefore in the fertile window.

Chart other signs

As a response to these hormonal changes as part of a normal ovulatory cycle, there are other changes that occur around ovulation including;

  • Breast enlargement and/or tenderness

  • Mittelschmerz (mid-cycle ovarian pain or twinges)

  • A change in sex drive around ovulation (a rise in testosterone can increase sex drive around ovulation — clever mamma nature)

  • Change in cervix position

For the first 3 or 4 months, record everything! Grumpy? Cravings?  Tired? Motivated? Frisky? Cramps? Abdominal pain? Headaches?  These things all contribute to give a greater picture of emerging patterns and aside from just telling us about our “fertile window” can give a clear picture of what is going on with our hormonal health.

So how does cycle tracking tell me when I’m fertile?

Your “fertility window” is the 5 days up to ovulation and the day of ovulation.  If you can predict the day you ovulate, you have predicted your fertility window.  After a few cycles a pattern will most likely emerge — encompassing change in cervical mucus, that temperature rise, and other personal signs and symptoms. Count back the 5 days from your predicted ovulation and you have just predicted your fertile days.

What if I’m not seeing the temperature rise or change in cervical fluid at mid-cycle?

But don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t look perfect. We are all unique bodies living in a hectic world and we shouldn’t expect to see the exact same cycle information.  If it is wildly off, you’re confused, or have concerns, the great news is that you now have a solid record of signs and symptoms to take to your chosen health practitioner. Not only that, but there are so many ways to help support a healthy cycle.

Current research has shown:

  • Traditional Chinese Medical herbs can drive the healthy temperature change at the half way point of your cycle [1]

  • Acupuncture can normalize cervical fluid [2]

  • Acupuncture can regulate the hormones of the reproductive cycle through its effects on the hypothalamic-piturity-ovarian axis [3]

  • There are a plethora of studies available on supporting healthy reproductive cycles through an appropriate diet

Recap on all your data points

It might seem heavy handed to collect so many data points, but remember –

  • BBT: confirms ovulation

  • Cervical fluid: predicts ovulation

  • LH surge/OPK: predicts ovulation

  • Other: predicts ovulation

A final note on the OCP aka The Pill

All of this information is irrelevant if you on the Oral Contraceptive Pill (OCP) or any hormone contraception (including hormone-containing IUDs). It is important you are aware that the pill actually shuts down the reproductive system and leaves you fixed in your reproductive cycle, perpetually somewhere in the early PMS-zone of your cycle.

Cycle tracking for contraception is reliable — when done correctly and adhered to!  For more information, speak with a cycle tracking expert.

Best

Jenna 

Jenna McDonald Fertility

Jenna helps couples to maximize their health and reach their fertility potential as naturally as possible. She is a bachelor qualified acupuncturist and Chinese herbal medicine practitioner, with an additional bachelor’s degree in Human Movement and a masters in Reproductive Medicine underway. She has a goal-oriented treatment method, and uses a variety of tools to investigate, treat and support men and women to achieve their dreams of healthy reproductive systems, cycles, or of starting a family.

Based in the Northern Beaches of Sydney Australia, Jenna juggles patients, study while bringing up her two young children, and is currently in the process of establishing her practice in Manly, Sydney.  

You can read more about Jenna here or follow her on Instagram @jenna.mcdonald_fertility.

Join my FREE Facebook support group for women TTC here

fertility tracking charting BBT CM

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