First things first- as a premenopausal woman, do you have to track your cycle as part of your health journey? The short answer: yes. The longer answer: yes, and I will explain why below.
So many women resist cycle tracking, but it is absolutely one of the most fundamental steps to working with your body. I promise it’s easier than it seems, and it’s more empowering than you would think! Unfortunately, most women only think of cycle tracking in the context of conceiving; most healthcare providers don’t even cover this topic outside of conception conversations. But your menstrual cycle is one of the most important indicators of your health status, a monthly report card so to speak. I can only assume this resistance comes from the overwhelm of getting started so let’s fix that.
Like with any new skill, start simple.
Step 1: Choose how you’re going to track. There are many different apps you can use – Clue and Flo are very popular options (Stardust is my personal fave)- or you can use simple pen and paper. Remember, this is between you and your body and you can keep it as simple or complicated as you’d like, so don’t get too into the weeds on this step – just go with one and you can always change it later.
Step 2: Start by tracking your bleed week. Even if you are completely divorced from your body’s signals, it’s hard to miss this event. A common misconception is that “your cycle” refers to your period, but this is just the beginning of the menstrual cycle which typically lasts 25-35 days and includes unique changes in your hormones throughout the different phases (more on this in a later post). Your first day of menses marks day 1 of your cycle. Once you’ve marked this down- congratulations, you’ve started cycle tracking!
Step 3: Begin to pay attention to your body around the next big event of your cycle- ovulation. Ovulation typically occurs about two weeks after your period starts (~day 14 of the cycle). (P.S. a lot of women don’t know this, but the 3-5 days window surrounding ovulation is actually the only part of the cycle where you can conceive so it’s important to know when this is if you are trying to get pregnant, or actively trying to avoid pregnancy.)
If you are using an app to track, it will usually tell you when to expect ovulation but keep in mind this is an estimate, not a hard rule. Around the predicted time of ovulation, be on the lookout for signs you may not have noticed before. The most obvious sign is usually the occurrence of thin, slippery, clear vaginal discharge (think egg white consistency). Some women also experience mild cramping, known as mittelschmerz (one of my favorite words, honestly), when the follicle ruptures and the egg is released. More subtle signs can include increased libido, increased energy & mood (“Big Ovary Energy”), and better sleep. Other methods for tracking ovulation include measurement of basal body temperature (temperature slightly increases around the time of ovulation), over-the-counter ovulation tracking kits (typically monitor the amount of luteinizing hormone in the urine), ultrasound, and blood tests. We can explore ovulation tracking more in-depth later, but I really want you to keep it simple at first to avoid the overwhelm that often leads to avoidance.
Step 4: Continue tracking for at least a few months (but ideally for as long as you are menstruating). Cycles can vary from month to month based on stress, illness, nutrition, and a variety of other factors, so it may take some time to see what your typical patterns are. Cycles can be more erratic for the first 5-7 years after menarche (your very first menstrual cycle) and up to 10 years before menopause begins (your very last menstrual cycle) but should have little variability between these windows. As you become more aware of your cycle, you may begin to notice subtleties or recurring patterns that you can also track – for example, increased appetite just before your period or changes in sleep throughout the cycle.
Now that you’re a successful cycle tracker (yay, you!), you can begin pairing your nutrition and movement with your cycle and harness the power of working with your body instead of against it. If you find this topic intriguing, the Estima diet is a great place to start.
TLDR; Yes, you have to track your menstrual cycle & no, it is not as overwhelming as it seems.
Use an app, like Stardust or Flo, to keep it simple
Start by monitoring the big events of the cycle (menstruation and ovulation)
Add on tracking of more subtle symptoms as you become more in-tune with your body
Rinse and repeat forevermore
Welt, Corrine. “Evaluation of the Menstrual Cycle and Timing of Ovulation”. UpToDate, Post TW (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA. Accessed 09 Nov. 2021.
Welt, Corrine. “Physiology of the Normal Menstrual Cycle”. UpToDate, Post TW (Ed), UpToDate, Waltham, MA. Accessed 04 Nov. 2021.