I remember growing up and being mortified to discuss the start of my period. It was such a foreign, scary subject. Even as I got older, I never really embraced the workings of my female body. As I look back, I think this was because it was a taboo topic. No one really talked about their dreaded time of the month. What never, ever, ever entered my brain was all the other weeks in the month that my body was changing. I never heard anyone talk about ovulation let alone cervical fluid or how to understand what was going on in the female body.
When I was about 14/15 and a freshman in high school I began having really painful periods. I remember being in the bathroom and my track coach coming in to check on me because I was in such terrible pain. I soon had my first trip to the gynecologist. Completely mortified and in pain, I was chastised for crying and told by the male gynecologist that there was no way I hurt that bad and that I needed to toughen up. Nothing was explained to me about my body. I was simply given birth control pills and sent on my way. The one thing I did learn that day was that I could “skip” periods when I needed to by continuously staying on the pill. This would be for times that it might be more convenient, like when I was competing in sports or had a dance performance.
As I look back on that initial “education” about my body and knowing what I know now, it leaves me in disbelief. However, I know this is still the experience for many. I also know that the lack of early education continues to plague women who are trying to conceive and women who are trying to avoid getting pregnant and don’t wish to be on the pill. It even inhibits women from being able to identify when there are real problems with their reproductive organs or knowing that everything is totally normal. The truth is, understanding your cycle is pretty darn easy and every woman can do it. Even young women can learn how to follow their cycle with a little education and a few simple steps. I think the start though has to be adults discussing these topics without shame and with confidence so this sort of knowledge can be easily passed to our daughters and even our sons. Fellas can certainly benefit and be enriched by understanding their female counterparts inner workings.
Every woman’s cycle is different. Much like other parts of the body, there are no hard and fast rules about the cycle but more general guidelines. The first variation is the total amount of time it takes from beginning to end of cycle. Most cycles are between 28 and 32 days long. The first day is defined as the first day of bleeding. Bleeding can last from days to a week or more for some. Somewhere in the middle of the cycle, the woman ovulates. This is when she releases the egg from her ovary and it travels down the fallopian tube to the uterus. There is a MYTH that this happens on day 14 of the cycle. While for some individuals this may happen on day 14, this can vary greatly from woman to woman. It can occur anywhere really but usually happens between 10 and 18 days. For women with long cycles or under stress, this can happen with much greater variation. If there is no sperm present to fertilize the egg, then the uterine lining will shed and bleeding will occur to begin the next cycle. So the cycle is defined as the first day of bleeding until the last day before the next period.
There are a few basic hormones that ebb and flow throughout the menstrual cycle. They are estrogen, follicle stimulating hormone(FSH), luteinizing hormone(LH), and progesterone. They each play a unique role in when women ovulate and how the egg will either implant or how shedding will proceed.
1st key to understanding YOUR cycle: Cervical fluid
Cervical fluid is the secretion that a woman experiences throughout her cycle. The amazing thing (that is a secret for many) is that the fluid changes throughout the cycle and can give loads of information about where one is in her cycle. The cervical fluid is a direct response from hormone signals. Directly after bleeding stops, there is an absence of cervical fluid or dryness. Typically, there won’t be any fluid that leaks during this initial phase following the period. This isnot a good environment for sperm to survive and is considered an infertile phase. This lasts until estrogen begins to rise. Cervical fluid becomes present and has a liquid or sticky consistency. Flaky cervical fluid may also be present at this time. This fluid becomes more ideal for sperm survival and a woman may begin to be fertile at this time if ovulation occurs early in the cycle. After a few days of sticky/liquid fluid, is wetter and/or creamy cervical fluid. It may resemble lotion and may be stretchy, but will break before stretching an inch. The final type of fluid is like raw egg white, clear, stretchy, very wet. This type of cervical fluid signals ovulation and is the peak of fertility. Sperm can survive up to 5 days in the best cervical fluid. After the egg white cervical fluid dissipates, there will be a more dry feel to the vagina and fertility will be at its lowest again leading into uterine shedding. Start to notice the patterns that are unique to your body. Use these as a guidelines and keep track of each cycle. While your pattern may be quite similar with each cycle, it could vary time to time based on environmental factors such as stress. By knowing what each phase of cervical fluids signifies in you, you can know when you are most fertile and when you are not. Use the cervical fluid pattern in conjunction with basal temperature and cervical position to best predict fertility.
Basal temperature is your body’s resting temperature first thing in the morning before any movement. The temperature varies slightly during ovulation and will be consistently high during the post ovulation phase if the egg is fertilized. Below is a sample chart but temperatures may greatly vary. What is consistent is the drop and rise peak in the temperature on the day and after ovulation. The temperature taking ritual should be done first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. This is a great job for your partner. Your partner can also chart for your temperature so he can know when exactly you are at your peak for fertility whether or not you are trying to get pregnant.
Cervical positioning is not necessary to track fertility but can be helpful if you are adventurous and wish to palpate your cervix for additional information. When you are not fertile then your cervix sits low (is long) and is hard and closed. When you are fertile and ovulating, the cervix sits high and is soft and open. This is directly to accommodate sperm entering the uterus. In summary, these are all starting points to understanding your menstrual cycle. This information can empower you to be off the birth control pill and feel confident in preventing or achieving pregnancy. One important thing is to remember that every woman’s cycle is slightly different and it is important to pattern and chart your cycle before using fertility awareness as your primary birth control method. There are many apps to chart your cycle that make it much easier. I personally utilize the iPeriod app as it allows me to enter in all the details about cervical fluid,temperature, cervical position as well as mood and other details. There are many more and I encourage you to find the method of charting that works best for you! If you’d like to learn more about tracking and understanding your cycle I also encourage you to read Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Tony Weschler or visit her website, http://www.tcoyf.com/. We can also help you understand and answer questions at your appointment! Happy cycle charting!