Your menstrual cycle is intimately linked with your general health. At a meeting held at the National Institute of Health, leading endocrinologists, obstetricians, gynecologists, epidemiologists, and pediatricians concluded that the menstrual cycle is as significant a “vital sign” for women as blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature.
One way to effectively learn more about your cycles is to chart them. You can keep track using a calendar, journal or a fertility tracking App. Some symptoms you may wish to track include: (source) :
In addition to tracking bleeding and mood symptoms, some women use the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) to learn even more about their cycles and fertility. Some of the common FAM methods are as follows (source):
Many temporary factors can cause unusual cycles, including stress, pregnancy, and childbirth. Experiencing the occasional anovulatory chart or unusual cervical fluid pattern is likely nothing to be concerned about. But sometimes irregularities on your chart can be indicative of something that requires professional treatment, particularly if they are accompanied by symptoms such as pain and excessive bleeding. Here are some of the most common conditions your healthcare provider may be able to discover by looking at your charts:
Ovarian cysts are so common that most women will experience at least one cyst during their lifetime, whether they are aware of it or not. Cysts manifest as enlarged fluid-filled sacs on the ovary. Most ovarian cysts are completely benign and resolve on their own without treatment, but they may cause complications if they twist or rupture.
There are several kinds of ovarian cysts and each can manifest differently on your chart. If your charts shows an anovulatory cycle, an unusually long luteal phase with negative pregnancy tests, or other unusual patterns on your chart, then you should ask your healthcare provider about ovarian cysts. These cysts are usually not painful and resolve on their own in a few weeks, but if you experience pain the cyst may have ruptured and should be treated by a doctor.
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Endometriosis affects about 10% of women. This condition can be tricky to diagnose because while some women with endometriosis experience symptoms such as pelvic pain and pain during intercourse, others do not experience any symptoms at all and may not realize they have endometriosis until they struggle to conceive.
Endometriosis is a disorder where some of the uterine cells that normally shed during menstruation implant in other places in the body. After they implant, these cells continue to behave as uterine cells and thicken and shed during menstruation. This process creates scar tissue that may cause pain and infertility (source).
The most common symptoms of endometriosis include intense menstrual cramps, pain during intercourse, and infertility. Your doctor may consider whether or not you have endometriosis if they see a chart with the following patterns (source):
Pain during intercourse, premenstrual spotting, and fatigue throughout your cycle are all symptoms you can talk to your doctor about, as treatment can ease the symptoms of endometriosis. You can learn more about endometriosis here.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is another condition that affects about 10% of women. PCOS is too challenging a subject to address fully in this short summary, but it’s important to mention because it is so prevalent and can lead to serious health risks later in life if left untreated.
PCOS is a hormonal disorder resulting from overproduction of male hormones. The symptoms of PCOS can vary from woman to woman, but most experience the following symptoms to varying degrees:
On your chart, your doctor may consider PCOS if they see cycles that are irregular and usually long (over 35 days), irregular patches of cervical fluid that do not follow the typical pattern of dry to increasingly wet as ovulation approaches, and a lack of temperature shifts indicating that ovulation did not occur (source).
PCOS cycles may vary greatly in length, up to 100 days. Women with PCOS can still get pregnant and carry a child to term, but it may be more difficult for them to conceive. If you think you might have PCOS, it’s important to be assessed by a doctor as soon as possible whether you plan on getting pregnant or not. You can read more about PCOS here.
Hypothyroidism & Hyperthyroidism
The thyroid is an important gland in your body that controls a variety of body functions, including maintaining your body’s internal temperature. When this gland isn’t functioning properly, it can cause a host of health issues, cycle irregularities and even infertility.
Menstrual signs of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Menstrual signs of hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
Luckily, thyroid disorders respond well to medication and lifestyle adjustments, so don’t wait to talk to your doctor.
Taking Responsibility For Your Health
It may seem intimidating to face the possibility of encountering a health problem through charting, but remember that it’s often easier to treat issues that are diagnosed early rather than diagnosed later. Many of these conditions may even provide physical relief from pain or other undesirable symptoms when your doctor can correctly diagnose and treat them. Charting is a window into your well-being and allows you to ensure that you’re healthy, happy, and productive.
Weschler, T. (2015). Taking Charge of Your Fertility. HarperCollins Publishers Inc.