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How To Use Period Tracking To Monitor Your Health

How To Use Period Tracking To Monitor Your Health

Kindara | August 4, 2021 | Cervical Mucus
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Your menstrual cycle and your overall physical health are intertwined. Staying on top of what's going on with your period can do more than help you avoid staining your favorite jeans (it happens to us all). In addition to cramps, spotting, and cravings, tracking your period can give you insight into your health. For example, irregular cycles may indicate hormonal imbalances. If the hormonal imbalances are not addressed, this can actually lead to long term chronic health complications (1). 

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What is a healthy menstrual cycle?

Before you start tracking, it is helpful to know the details about your cycle. A menstrual cycle is what happens in your body as it prepares each month for a potential pregnancy. It includes your period, but the bleeding is actually only a single aspect of it. An entire menstrual cycle consists of: 

    • Menses: Typically from Day 1 to Day 8, this is when your uterine lining is actually being shed from your body (unless you're pregnant), also known as your period. Bleeding can last anywhere between 3-8 days. 
    • Follicular Phase: Typically from Day 6 to Day 14, during which your estrogen levels rise, your uterine lining thickens, and an egg fully forms. 
    • Ovulation: Ovulation typically happens once a month and is why you have periods in the first place. The release of an egg driven by a surge of Luteinizing Hormone (LH). Once you ovulate, you will have a rise in progesterone until your next period starts. If you are pregnant, progesterone levels will remain elevated. Ovulation is an essential part of a healthy menstrual cycle. 
    • Luteal Phase: After ovulation (Day 15-28) that released egg travels down the fallopian tubes towards your uterus, and your levels of progesterone rise to make your uterine lining a hospitable place for pregnancy. If a sperm happens to come along and fertilize the egg, the resulting embryo will implant and attach to the uterine wall. If not, your levels of estrogen and progesterone will drop, and that thickened uterine lining will be shed during your period. 

If you were taught that a normal menstrual cycle was 28 days, you're not alone, but it turns out that's not necessarily true. According to ACOG (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), a normal menstrual cycle is usually between 24 and 38 days, and a normal period can last up to 8 days (2). 

A 2019 analysis of 600,000 menstrual cycles and 124,648 women revealed that rather than a 28 day cycle, the average length of a cycle was more like 29.3 days, and 65 percent of women had a cycle lasting between 25 and 30 days (3). 

What does this mean? For starters, it means if your cycle isn't 28 days long, you don't need to panic. It also means that ovulation doesn't necessarily take place on day 14, like you may have been told, which is even more of a reason to start getting to know your cycle now before you start trying to conceive.  How can you find out what your normal is?

Here's how you can use period tracking to keep an eye on your health and learn about your cycle. 

How to track your cycle 101 

According to the Mayo Clinic, the way to find out what's normal for your menstrual cycle is to start keeping track of, for several months in a row: 

  • your start date
  • your end date
  • premenstrual symptoms
  • how heavy your flow is
  • any abnormal bleeding between your periods,
  • pain that comes with menstruation
  • other changes in mood and behavior (4). 
  • any hormonal birth control you're taking, and how long you've been taking it. 

You might also take note of the colors of your blood, which vary depending on how long it stays inside your uterus and vagina the longer it hangs out, the darker it is, and it can also mix with your cervical fluid to create a lighter pink (5). It is normal for the colors to change over the course of your period, and your lifetime, so you don't need to panic if those colors look different from day to day. 

The above list is a great starting point. If you are using a fertility tracking app, you will see options to also keep track of cervical mucus and temperature. Cervical mucus can tell you if you are fertile or not and temperature can predict and confirm ovulation. If you are trying to get pregnant or tracking your cycles for health, knowing when you ovulate and if you did indeed ovulate are key to knowing if you have a healthy cycle or not. You can learn more about your cycle by utilizing methods such as cervical mucus tracking and tracking basal body temperature, or continuous core body temperature.  

PMS Symptoms are Important to Track

What goes on before your period is important. If you are experiencing infertility, your doctor will want to know if you have PMS symptoms. Fairview Health Services explains that having different symptoms throughout your cycle are highly correlated with hormonal changes, indicating you may be ovulating or not. These symptoms include bloating and perhaps being extra sensitive in the time leading up to your flow. However, if those symptoms of PMS become amplified and start disrupting your daily life, you may want to talk to your doctor. 

Here is a list of symptoms to track: 
  • Details about your mood throughout your entire cycle 
  • Details about your diet: what you're eating, how often, any recent changes (especially if experiencing disruptive PMS and/or infertility)
  • How much you're exercising, and what you're doing for exercise 
  • If you live with depression, which can impact your PMS symptoms and indicate the presence of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) (6). 
  • Your family history of menopause, as much as you know about.  When did your mother, maternal grandmother, etc, start menopause? That can indicate when you might expect to begin it, and may explain some changes in your menstrual cycle (7).  
  • Your history of STIs and/or your concerns about them. Worsening PMS can also be a sign of an untreated sexually transmitted infection (8).
What can tracking your cycle tell you? 

If you're trying to conceive, getting acquainted with your cycle can help you pinpoint that all- important fertile window, typically (but not always) the day you ovulate and the five days leading up to it, when you're most likely to get pregnant (9). Identifying your fertile window allows you to time intercourse for when you’re most likely to conceive, which can significantly increase your chances of getting pregnant.

If you're not TTC, there's still much to be gained from noting when your period begins, ends, and what it brings with it. A vital part of figuring it out, though, is remaining loyal to the process, since it might take a few months for patterns to emerge. Once they do, things like headaches, increased sex drive, and mood swings will start to seem less random and more part of an overall, well, cycle. 

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Changes to your period and your menstrual cycle don't necessarily mean anything is panic-worthy, but keeping track will help you see if something's happening that's not normal for you.

 If you are having menstrual cycle problems, depending on what they are, they may be flags to indicate issues, or amplify conditions such as: 

    • Anemia, or lack of iron due to heavy bleeding, causing you to feel weak and tired. Menorrhagia is the medical term for periods that are super heavy and last for longer than 7 days, and are often caused by conditions such as uterine fibroids and hypothyroidism (9).  
    • Type 2 Diabetes. Those with polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition often (but not always) marked by irregular menstrual cycles, may be more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, since insulin resistance is often associated with PCOS (10). 
    • Heart disease and stroke. Amenorrhea is the absence of one's period, which can be caused by eating disorders, excessive exercise, as well as hormonal imbalances and PCOS, among other things.  If your body isn't producing enough estrogen for you to have a menstrual cycle, it's also likely that it's not producing enough to do the other important tasks that estrogen does, which include regulating cholesterol (the good and bad kind) and increasing blood flow (11). 
    • Infertility/Fertility challenges. PCOS, uterine fibroids, and other conditions which cause issues with the menstrual cycle can also impact your ability to conceive, so if you suspect something is up, it's important to get diagnosed and treated ASAP. 
    • Thyroid issues. Because your thyroid dictates so much about your hormones, problems with it, like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, can negatively impact ovulation and cause your periods to be heavier, lighter, irregular, or non-existent, depending on what's up (12). 
    • Infections/STIs. Undiagnosed sexually transmitted infections can cause your PMS symptoms to worsen, which is why it's super important to get tested for them even if you don't think you've been exposed (13). Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is a bacterial infection that can result in irregular periods, as well as spotting and cramping during the month. Untreated PID can lead to fertility challenges, so don't hesitate to address your concerns with your healthcare provider (14). 
    • Endometriosis. If you're experiencing painful periods, also called dysmenorrhea, one explanation could be endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that's supposed to grow inside your uterus grows outside of it. Painful periods alone don't mean you have endometriosis, there are other symptoms associated with it, but it can look like other conditions (PID, for example), so zero-ing in on why exactly you're in pain is vital (15). 

An important note to end on: Tracking your period is a great idea for keeping on top of your health, and for trying to conceive, but it can also be super empowering to have information about your body, rather than depending on someone to give you that information. Your menstrual cycle shouldn't be a source of stigma, or something that's relegated to whispers and secrecy. You can take your health into your own hands, starting with your period.

Looking for a new way to identify your fertile window? Check out the Priya Personal Fertility System!

 

About the author: 

Chanel Dubofsky's writing on gender, reproductive health, popular culture, and religion, can be found in New York Magazine, Lilith, Rewire, Modern Fertility, Cosmopolitan, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Instagram at cdubofsky.

References +
1

The Effects of Hormones on Brain Health. (2018, December 8). Retrieved July 15, 2021, from https://womensbrainhealth.org/better-thinking/the-effects-of-hormones-on-brain-health

4

Menstrual cycle: What's normal, what's not. (2021, April 29). Retrieved June 5, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/womens-health/in-depth/menstrual-cycle/art-20047186

5

What does the color of your period mean? (2020, September 28). Retrieved June 5, 2021 from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-does-the-color-of-your-period-mean/

9

Why is my period lasting so long? (2019, May 17). Retrieved June 5, 2021, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-is-my-period-lasting-so-long/.

11

Estrogen and Hormones. (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16979-estrogen--hormones

13

"Undiagnosed STIs can increase negative PMS symptoms." (2018, September 17). Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180917111535.htm

14

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. (2020, November 23). Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9129-pelvic-inflammatory-disease-pid

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