To understand the menstrual cycle, start by thinking of it day by day, grouping the days into separate phases which help to explain what’s going on for you during the “month”.
I have used a sample chart taken from the Kindara app, and drawn the hormone levels on top. There are many period and fertility tracking apps out there but Kindara is the one I learned to use and is still my favorite. And, it’s free!
The blue lines & dots are this persons’ basal body temperature, the pink and grey shadowing in the background is her cervical fluid. There are three primary fertility signs:
While all three of these things are important for understanding the full picture of your fertility status, I’m only going to use basal body temperature in this “skimmed down” explanation of cycle phases because the other two require a bit more depth and interpretation.
*Please keep in mind that if you are on any form of hormonal birth control (pill, patch, ring, mirena), none of this applies to you. Your body does not have a true cycle, because the artificial hormones are what control it. There are no “phases”. Learn how Hormonal birth control alters your cycle here.
- The Menstrual Phase (3-7 days long)
Pretty straightforward. You count day one as the first day that you have a FLOW of blood (spotting is not included). The phase lasts until the last day of your flow. All of the reproductive hormones are low at this point, and the plummet of progesterone and estrogen is what signals the uterine lining to begin shedding (bleeding). It is normal to bleed for 3-7 days. Some sources include this phase as part of the follicular phase, I’ve just included it to explain how long it should be. If you only bleed for one day, I would be hesitant to call it a period – it may be ovulatory spotting.
The menstrual phase is often accompanied by cramps, food cravings, fatigue.
- The Follicular Phase (Avg. 7-21 days)
During this phase “FSH”, or Follicle Stimulating Hormone, begins to increase and help to develop one follicle (which contains an egg) to grow and produce estrogen, so you can see estrogen begins to rise during this phase. Estrogen has many purposes, but with respect to this graph, it helps promote the surge of “LH”, or, Luteinizing Hormone, which triggers ovulation.
I like to describe the follicular phase as me living my best life, because this is when my energy seems to be the highest, my skin clears up, my exercise performance and sleep are at a high.
- Ovulation (1 day)
Luteinizing hormone surges and an egg is spouted out from the follicle that you’ve been cookin’ up for the last 3-21 days. If you were trying to become pregnant, this would be the time to get down. A lot of women trying to conceive use at-home LH testing strips (which look like at home pregnancy tests) to help them identify exactly when they should be attempting to conceive. Keep in mind, for the purposes of contraception, sperm can live inside a woman for 5 days, so you CAN become pregnant outside of the one day you ovulate, but that’s for another post.
This time is often associated with feelings warmth, sensuality and increased awareness and concentration.
- The Luteal Phase (10 – max 16 days)
The follicle that produced the egg now turns into something called a “corpus luteum” which produces a hormone called progesterone. Progesterone promotes a healthy and thick uterine lining, preparing for an embryo to implant into it (A pregnancy). When progesterone increases, your basal body temperature increases.
You can see in this graph that on cycle day 19, this woman’s temperature began to rise and stay consistently higher than the previous temperatures, as distinguished by the straight purple line across the entire graph. In the Kindara app, this is called the “coverline”. It is a visual tool we use to see when the temperatures have increased.
The luteal phase is a fixed length of time, 10-16 days. In the chart I’ve provided, this persons luteal phase is numbered starting with her first high temperature, on cycle day 19. You can see it is 12 days long which is a healthy length of time. If her luteal phase extended beyond 16 days, that is, her temperatures stayed high for 16 days and beyond, it would likely indicate that she was pregnant, because that would mean progesterone was still being produced instead of dropping with the shedding of the uterine lining, and therefore, her temperature would stay elevated.
Progesterone is essential to sustain a pregnancy in its early days, so often people who have issues with miscarrying are prescribed progesterone therapy to help the embryo “stick” (or to stay implanted) to the uterine lining.
I describe this phase as my least favorite because this is when the PMS sets in. For someone who has healthy levels of estrogen and progesterone, progesterone is supposed to promote calmness, reduce inflammation, and promote sleep. If you are like me and you experience the opposite of these things plus some other less than desirable side effects, it may indicate that your hormones are out of balance. (See Estrogen Dominance for more information). It is not uncommon to experience breast pain, irritability, moodiness, and food cravings during this phase.
Benefits of tracking your cycles, whether you’re trying to conceive or avoid pregnancy:
- If you track your temperatures regularly, you would know if you were pregnant or if your period is actually just late because it’s been a stressful month.
- If you are preggo’s, it provides you with information that can help you narrow down exactly which day you conceived, meaning you would know your exact, true, due date.
- Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS or some other condition and the doctor has told you that you probably won’t ever be able to get pregnant, so you’ve dubbed yourself as infertile. Unable to get pregnant. Not gonna happen. But… are you really infertile? Track a couple of your cycles and you’ll have a much more realistic idea of whether you truly are “infertile”.
- Female reproductive hormones play such a huge role in our mood, mental health, weight control, appetite control, sleep patterns, even sex drive. If any of these things are out of check for you, what’s going on with your reproductive hormones?
- What I’ve found most helpful about tracking my cycle is how it has allowed me to learn the cyclical changes that occur for me, to be aware of them and therefore do things to help my quality of life. For example, during certain phases I experience increased anxiety and moodiness. I now know when during my cycle this will occur, and that it is directly related to hormone shifts rather than being a defect of my being. Because I know when these changes will occur, I’ve nailed down a pretty awesome supplement regime that I start ahead of time. As a result, I experience less anxiety and moodiness during this time.
Basal Body Temperature:
The body’s lowest temperature at rest. Attained by taking an ORAL temperature immediately upon waking up with a basal body thermometer, which reads to the tenth degree. This is not the same as a fever thermometer, which would read “37.1”, where a basal body thermometer may read “37.13”. In order to track your temperatures, you need the accuracy. Some methods of FAM encourage taking your temperature vaginally – but it is not necessary. Before I purchased my Daysy Fertility monitor, I used a $20 BBT from shoppers drug mart for 4 years – very inexpensive.
How to take your BBT: In order to get an accurate reading, you should take your temperature at around the same time everyday (obviously waking times sometimes differ) and you should have had 3-4 hours of undisturbed sleep. Before I go to bed, I place my thermometer on my phone. When I wake up, I reach over to shut off my alarm/check the time and then while I’m lying down before I’ve done anything, I take my temperature. If I wake up and have to go to the bathroom at 530, ill take my temperature, get up to go bathroom, and then go back to bed.
Essentially, vaginal discharge. You likely have noticed how your discharge changes from day to day. At the start of your cycle it may seem sticky or crumbly, but closer to ovulation it becomes creamy and then slippery and clear. Very fertile fluid appears stretchy and “egg-white”. Like you can literally make a string between your fingers with it.
Imagine a small upright balloon with the stem facing down. Imagine that the balloon is your uterus and the opening to this balloon as your cervix which is the opening to your uterus. The cervix makes small changes throughout the month with regards to fertility. During times when you’re less fertile, the cervix is firm (think firmness of your forehead) and low in your vagina. It is not uncommon to feel a bit of pain with sexual intercourse during this time, especially in certain positions, because there is physically less room up in there and can feel like you’re getting “poked”. During the more fertile phase of your cycle, the cervix feels soft (think softness of your chin) and is much higher in your vagina, creating more space. You may find that sexual intercourse is effortlessly fantastic during this time because a.) there’s more room and b.) there is more lubricative cervical fluid.
*For a more, in depth understanding of FAM, and if you’re considering using it as an effective form of contraception, you need to be properly educated in it. I recommend reading Taking Charge of your Fertility, which will set you up with all you need to know.