(Originally written for LiveWell Collective)
With all the cute planners, digital calendars, and fancy phone apps available, keeping track of your period is easier than ever. Whether you write little dots on your wall calendar or record it in your phone, many of us want to remember when our last period started.
But there is so much more knowledge to be gained than simply keeping track of when you bleed. I’m referring to the practice known as ‘cycle charting’. Have you ever heard of it? Cycle charting is simply observing and recording your body’s signs of fertility, which include cervical fluid, basal body temperature, vaginal sensation, and cervical position.
By doing this, you can create a visual chart mapping the various hormonal phases and events in your cycle, such as the pre-ovulatory estrogen build up, the tell-tale high progesterone phase that dominates the second half of your cycle, and of course, menstruation itself. Learning to chart is a fascinating process that often sets a woman on a journey of self-discovery.
Besides being simply interesting, cycle charting actually has practical applications as well. Here are my three favorites.
1. Cycle charting promotes body literacy.
Cycle charting will probably teach you more about your body than you ever knew before. For example, did you know that you can only get pregnant about 6 days each cycle? Did you know that your cycle can be divided into distinct phases? Or that your cervix changes shape and position throughout your cycle? Or that you don’t need to pee on a stick to know when you ovulate? Not only does charting give you a deeper understanding of how your body works physically, but it can also help you to discover how your cycle effects your relationships and emotional experiences on a day to day basis.
2. Cycle charting can be used to plan your family.
As I mentioned before, pregnancy is only possible during a short handful of days each cycle. Your fertile window is determined by hormonal and physiological conditions being just right for conception to occur, along with the timely presence of sperm and an egg. Your body has observable signs of fertility that allow you to accurately determine when the fertile window begins and ends. This knowledge can be used to practice natural family planning, or NFP. Not to be confused with the outdated Rhythm Method, which relies on counting days and knowledge of past cycles guess at the timing of the fertile window, NFP relies on real-time physical observations so you can identify the fertile window as soon as it starts, whether your periods come regularly or not. You can simply avoid intercourse during the fertile time, resulting in a 99.4% effective way to avoid pregnancy. This can mean freedom from the risks and side effects of the Pill and other forms of birth control. This is a game changer!
As you can imagine, this same skill set can be used to maximize your chances at conceiving. Not only does cycle charting allow you to accurately identify the best days for conception, but it also helps you asses if you have optimal fertility.
3. Cycle charting helps you to manage your health.
When you learn to chart your cycle, you are creating a visual record of your hormonal and reproductive health. You’ll be able to tell if and when you are ovulating, whether you should be tested for a hormone imbalance, and if the phases of your cycle are in harmony with one another. Our cycles can only be as healthy as we are, so if your cycle or period is unhealthy, that reflects your overall health. Abnormal cycles can be a wake-up call to make a change in lifestyle, improve nutrition, or seek a holistically minded medical professional who wants to investigate the root of the problem. Charting your cycle equips you with the knowledge and confidence to advocate for yourself and your body.
So where to begin?
All of this information can seem overwhelming at first, so don’t be afraid to start slowly. One idea would be to simply start a diary of how you feel each day of your cycle. You could join a Facebook group of cycle charting women, talk with your girlfriends who chart, or find a reputable book detailing the method.
For maximum comfort and confidence while charting, getting a qualified instructor is important. A certified natural family planning or fertility awareness method instructor will show you specific techniques to accurately observe and chart your fertility signs, as well as provide studied and established guidelines for effectively avoiding pregnancy. An instructor can also help you to interpret your cycles if they aren’t quite ‘textbook’ (irregular periods, coming off the Pill, breastfeeding, perimenopause, etc.), help you troubleshoot simple period problems, or refer you to a cycle-savvy medical provider.
Charting my cycle has dramatically affected my life for the better, and I challenge you to try it and see if it does the same for you.