Charting Your Menstrual Cycle

a woman holding a calendar charting her menstrual cycle AaronAmat/istock

Charting your menstrual cycle can help you get to know your body, learn what is normal for you, and become an advocate for and authority on your own health. You may find it helpful to keep a menstrual calendar, use an app, or use a special fertility awareness chart.

There are two basic approaches, although there are many “schools” and variations on them. Menstrual cycle awareness and fertility awareness are different but can be used together for even greater menstrual self-knowledge.

Any print or online calendar or diary can be used to chart when you bleed, whether and when you have vaginal secretions, and whether you have a range of physical or emotional experiences (including pain or cramps; heavier or lighter flow; change in sexual desire, energy level or mood; swollen or tender breasts; skin breakouts, or any difference in your general physical or mental health). You can easily find menstrual charts or period tracking apps online.

Benefits of Charting

By charting, we can notice cycle-related changes in mood, energy, or health, which we could only guess about without keeping a chart. You may find there are times in your cycle when you typically are full of energy or exhausted; feeling sexy or recoiling at being touched; sociable or introverted; anxious, angry, or serene. Identifying your cyclical trends can help you plan to take advantage of your fluctuations as you live your life. Charting your menstrual cycles, at least for a while, may help you feel more in tune with your body and your psyche. Knowledge of your cycles can also help you make sense of physical and emotional changes that otherwise seem to come out of the blue.

Charting our menstrual cycles is a good tool to assess and keep track of our gynecological health as well. Are our cycles regular—roughly the same length from period to period? How much menstrual pain do we suffer, and how long does it last? How much do we bleed—how many tampons, pads, or menstrual cups do we use? Do we go through emotional changes that are aligned with our cycles? If something gynecological is troubling us, our charts can provide valuable information to learn from and bring to our health care providers.

When we go through perimenopause, the transition before our periods permanently stop, charting can help us to keep track of how long it’s been since our last period, how long it lasts, whether bleeding is heavy, and any symptoms we may be having. This knowledge can be extremely helpful for our own knowledge of our perimenopausal process. It can also be valuable if we see a healthcare provider to help us manage our symptoms.

Fertility Awareness Methods

You can chart your menstrual cycles using a Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) to help you get pregnant, or as a form of birth control. In addition to being a good tool to tune into your body and mind, and assess your gynecological health, FAM is a scientifically validated method of natural birth control and pregnancy achievement (although it is far from the most effective means of preventing pregnancy, and doesn’t prevent the transmission of STIs at all). FAM is based on observing and charting body signs. Changes in your cervical fluid and in the color, size, and shape of your cervix reflect whether you are fertile on any given day.

Different FAM approaches require attention to different biomarkers, or body signs. The Two Day Method, for example, does not require awareness of your temperature or cervical position, but does require cervical fluid awareness and menstrual tracking.

FAM is based on the following scientific principles:

  • Your menstrual cycle can basically be divided into three phases: the preovulatory infertile phase, the fertile phase, and the postovulatory infertile phase. You can determine which phase you are in by observing the three primary fertility signs: early morning (waking, or basal body) temperature, cervical fluid, and cervical position.
  • The menstrual cycle is under the direct influence of estrogen and progesterone, and the body provides daily signs about the status of these hormones. Estrogen dominates the first part of the cycle; progesterone dominates the latter. Another hormone, called luteinizing hormone (LH), is the catalyst that propels the ovary to release the egg. LH is the hormone measured in ovulation predictor kits.
  • Ovulation (the release of an egg) occurs once per cycle. During ovulation, one or more eggs are released. An egg can survive for 12-24 hours. If a second egg is released in one cycle (as in the case of fraternal twins), it will be released within 24 hours of the first.
  • The time from a person’s period until ovulation varies, but it is typically about two weeks.
  • Sperm can live in fertile-quality cervical fluid for up to five days, though typically they live only about two days.

Primary Fertility Signs

Waking or Basal Body Temperature (BBT)

Before ovulation, early morning temperatures typically range from about 97 degrees to 97.5 degrees Fahrenheit (36.11 to 36.38 degrees Celsius). After ovulation, early morning temperatures usually rise to about 97.6 degrees to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (36.44 to 37 Celsius). It’s helpful to use a special basal or digital thermometer to get readings that are precise enough to track such small changes.

After ovulation, your temperature usually remains elevated until your next period, about two weeks later. (If you become pregnant, it remains high for more than 18 days.)

The important thing to understand is your own individual pattern of low and high temperatures. Your temperatures before ovulation fluctuate in a low range, and your temperatures after ovulation fluctuate in a higher range. The goal is to see the whole and not to focus too much on the day-to-day changes. Temperatures typically rise within a day or so after ovulation, indicating that ovulation has already occurred.

A sustained rise in waking temperature almost always indicates that ovulation has occurred. It does not reveal impending ovulation, though, as do the other two fertility signs (cervical fluid and cervical position). After charting a few cycles, if your cycles are consistent, you should be able to see how these three signs interact.

Only a minority of women ovulate at the lowest point of the temperature graph. It’s more common for ovulation to occur the day before your temperature rises.

A number of factors can disrupt your morning temperature, including:

  • Fever
  • Alcohol consumption the night before
  • Fewer than three consecutive hours of sleep before taking temperature
  • Eating or drinking before taking an oral temperature
  • Taking temperature at a substantially different time than usual
  • Heating your body, as with an electric blanket
  • Thyroid conditions

Cervical Fluid

Cervical fluid is the secretion produced around ovulation that allows sperm to reach the egg. Like seminal fluid, cervical fluid provides an alkaline medium to protect the sperm in an otherwise acidic vagina. Cervical fluid also provides nourishment for the sperm, acts as a filtering mechanism, and functions as a medium in which it can move. Also, cervical fluid capacitates the sperm; this process removes the tip of the sperm’s head, preparing it to fertilize the egg.

After your period, and directly under the influence of rising estrogen, your cervical fluid typically starts to become wetter as you approach ovulation. After your period ends, you may have several days of no cervical fluid, followed by fluid that evolves from sticky to creamy and finally to clear, slippery, and stretchy (also known as spinnbarkeit), similar to raw egg white. The most noticeable feature of this fertile cervical fluid is its lubricating quality.

After estrogen has peaked and dropped, the cervical fluid abruptly dries, often within a few hours. This is due to the surge of progesterone following ovulation. The absence of wet cervical fluid usually lasts the duration of the menstrual cycle.

A trick to help you identify the quality of the cervical fluid at your vaginal opening is to notice what it feels like to run a tissue (or your finger) across your vaginal lips. Does it feel dry? Is it smooth? Does it glide across? When you are dry, the tissue won’t pass smoothly across your vaginal lips. But as you approach ovulation, your cervical fluid gets progressively wetter, and the tissue or your finger should glide easily.

If oral sex is part of your sex life, your partner may notice that the taste of your vaginal fluids change throughout your menstrual cycle. This changing taste can be yet another indicator of where you are in your cycle.

As with temperature, certain factors may mask or interfere with cervical fluid:

  • Vaginal infection
  • Semen (from recent sexual intercourse)
  • Arousal vaginal fluid
  • Spermicides, lubricants, and vaginal moisturizers
  • Antihistamines (which can dry out or decrease fluid)
  • Guaifenesin (an expectorant, which can increase fluid)

If you have irregular menstrual cycles, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), or if your periods are suppressed for any reason, it will be much more difficult to use FAM. In addition, if you have recently stopped taking birth control pills, you may notice one of two very different patterns: Either you may not produce much cervical fluid at all, or you may have what appears to be continuous creamy cervical fluid for up to several months.

Cervical Position

In addition to releasing cervical fluid, your cervix goes through changes throughout your cycle. These changes can sometimes be felt by inserting a clean finger into your vagina (your middle finger is usually easiest, since it’s the longest).

The cervix is normally firm, like the tip of your nose, and becomes soft and rather mushy, more like your lips, as you approach ovulation. In addition, it is normally fairly low and closed, and rises and opens only in response to the high levels of estrogen around ovulation. The angle of the cervix also changes around ovulation, becoming straighter when estrogen levels are high.

If you are getting fitted for a diaphragm or cervical cap, knowledge about your cycles will help you to get fitted when your cervix is in its most fertile position.

Secondary Fertility Signs

Secondary fertility signs around ovulation may include pain or achiness near an ovary, increased sexual feelings, and abdominal bloating. Secondary fertility signs do not occur in everyone, and if they do occur, they may not repeat in every cycle. Still, these signs, when apparent, can offer additional information to help identify fertile and infertile phases.

If you are charting your cycles for self-knowledge and gynecological self-awareness, rather than for birth control or to help with conception, these secondary signs may be especially important for you.

For more information on using the Fertility Awareness Method to prevent pregnancy or to conceive, we recommend the book and website Taking Charge Of Your Fertility. It’s a good idea to do your own research before using any menstrual or fertility tracking app, to be sure that your personal information is not being stored on the cloud, shared, or sold in ways that could be used against you if you seek an abortion.

Related:

See How to Keep Your Abortion Private and Secure for more on how to protect your digital privacy.