Tracking my menstrual cycle used to look like this: I bleed, I mark it on my calendar and when I have a meltdown the following month, I look at my calendar and decide whether or not I can blame said meltdown on my impending period. This was cute and funny until it wasn’t. My “meltdowns” started looking more like bouts of crushing depression and anxiety, and my gynecologist suggested that I might have premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD. It’s basically PMS on steroids that shows up and wrecks your life for one to two weeks every month. She recommended that I track all four phases of my cycle so I could take steps to balance my hormones and get a handle on my mental health. When I scoured the internet to learn exactly how to do that, I found that I wasn’t alone.
It turns out that a lot of bleeding people track their cycles. They’re tracking to get pregnant; they’re tracking to not get pregnant. And they’re tracking to understand what’s happening in their bodies, because no one ever told us how this stuff works. Growing up, most of us were taught that menstruating is an isolated, monthly event, but the menstrual cycle is just that — a cycle. It’s a constant shedding and regeneration that relies on the rise and fall of hormones, and those hormones — namely, estrogen and progesterone — have an enormous impact on how we feel day-to-day. Eventually, tracking my cycle started feeling less like planning around my terrible PMS and more like following a rhythm. Once I identified my varying needs during each phase of my cycle, I was able to take better care of myself overall.
Aligning my life with its hormonal seasons was a far cry from my old habits, because I used to aim for consistency. I expected myself to be equally productive, energized and social every single day. I expected myself to have the same physical and emotional needs all the time. I expected myself to hit my creative peak during traditional 9 to 5 work hours and wind down in the evenings. Most people with periods live with expectations that are at odds with our own biochemistry because our culture runs on the testosterone-dominant biochemical model. In most assigned-male-at-birth, testosterone-dominant bodies, testosterone peaks every morning and drops throughout the day, resulting in a 24 hour hormonal cycle. But when you have a 28 day hormonal cycle as a menstruating person or when you have a weekly or monthly hormonal cycle as a person using hormone replacement therapy, the 24 hour model doesn’t match your body’s rhythm. When you stop forcing yourself to meet standards that don’t fit your natural flow, you might feel more empowered, or at least less frustrated.
When the concept of “cycle syncing,” or organizing your life around your menstrual cycle, entered mainstream consciousness, its intentions seemed virtuous. Encouraging menstruating people to learn more about our bodies is always a good thing, especially in a culture that doesn’t provide adequate sex education and reproductive healthcare. But when author Alisa Vitti, who coined the term “cycle syncing,” started encouraging menstruating people to “hack” our periods to increase our productivity, capitalism swept in. Almost every article about cycle syncing focuses on making menstruating people more prolific workers. Take this quote from Forbes: “With more women than ever in the workforce climbing up the ladder, it’s time to consider what we can do to finally shatter that elusive glass ceiling…What if the secret to successful project planning and execution was embedded in the female hormonal cycle?”
If that grotesquely capitalist and gender-essentialist language makes you want to dump your Diva Cup on every pompous business periodical, you’re not alone. I’m here for cycle syncing that’s rooted in personal growth, not profit. I track my cycle to set goals, conserve my energy and take care of my mental health. In each phase, I get to focus on a different area of my well-being so I can better show up for myself and my community, and I want to help you do that, too!
Who Can Track Their Cycle
If you have a period and you’re not using HRT or birth control that alters your menstruation or ovulation, then you can track your cycle. If you have irregular periods, it might take some extra time to find your body’s rhythm, but you can still track it!
How to Track Your Cycle
Period-tracking apps like Clue and Flo make it easy to collect information about your cycle. You tell the app when your bleeding starts and ends and what symptoms you’re experiencing day-to-day, and the app uses an algorithm to estimate where you’re at in your cycle. But if you understandably don’t trust apps with your health data, you can still track your cycle the old-fashioned way. The book Taking Charge Of Your Fertility outlines this process in detail. If a giant book with aggressively gendered language doesn’t feel accessible for you, here are the basics: track when you bleed, track your temperature and pay attention to your cervical mucus.
You probably already mark your periods in your calendar, but the other tracking tasks might be new for you. Don’t worry — it’s easy if you’re consistent, and if you’re a data nerd, it can be fun. First, take your temperature every morning as soon as you wake up and write it down. This is your basal body temperature (BBT), or your temperature at rest. Your BBT should be fairly consistent until you ovulate, when your BBT will be slightly higher (use a BBT thermometer, which measures temperature in tenths of a degree, for the most accurate reading). Of course, BBT only tells you when you’re ovulating, and it isn’t exact. Stress, changing sleep cycles, illness and medication can all cause fluctuations in your BBT that have nothing to do with your period, so tracking BBT alone won’t give you a clear picture of your cycle.
This is the part where you get to finger yourself on a daily basis to check your cervical mucus. See? I told you that this would be fun! If you’re not comfortable with penetration, you can also check out the mucus that ends up in your underwear. Cervical mucus is always there, but its color and consistency will change during each phase of your cycle. Just after you bleed, you won’t notice much mucus around the cervix, but once your body is preparing to ovulate, you might find stretchy, clear mucus. When your estrogen levels peak, that mucus will turn white and thicken. If it looks like egg whites, then you’re probably ovulating. Once the white mucus has transitioned into clear or cloudy mucus, you’ve likely entered your luteal phase. If your cervical mucus is gray or has a foul odor, you might have an infection, so get to clinic ASAP.
When you start tracking your cycle, you may find that some or all of your phases are longer and shorter than what’s considered “normal.” That’s ok! Everyone’s cycle is different. But if you think that your irregular phases might be due to a medical issue, talk to your doctor.
Onto the phases!
The Menstrual Phase: Stillness and Reflection
What’s Happening In Your Body: If the egg from your previous cycle hasn’t been fertilized, your estrogen and progesterone levels drop and you start to bleed. On average, this phase lasts from three to five days.
How You Probably Feel: While your body is working hard to shed your uterine lining, your physical and mental energy is at its lowest point. This is a time for rest, solitude and introspection. If you typically engage in high-intensity exercise, replace your workout routine with yoga or a walk. Take time to reflect on the past month and set some goals for your new cycle. You might be feeling less social, so lean into your reclusiveness and practice all those self-soothing techniques you learned in therapy. Spend your alone time doing things that spark your creativity. Journal, draw, play an instrument, brainstorm a project — your intuition and creativity are strong right now, so take advantage of the inspiration. This is also a perfect time to celebrate your self-worth. Take yourself on a date to a museum or a park. Cook an elaborate meal that’s just for you. Make a list of things you’re proud of. If you suffer from severe cramps and fatigue during this time, find areas of life where you can stop pushing yourself and rest.
The Follicular Phase: Action and Novelty
What’s Happening In Your Body: The follicular phase partially overlaps with the menstrual phase and typically lasts 10 to 16 days. Your hypothalamus tells your pituitary gland to release follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which tells your ovaries to create follicles, or sacks that contain immature eggs. As the healthiest egg starts to mature, your body starts releasing more estrogen, which cues the uterine lining to thicken and prepare for a potentially fertilized egg.
How You Probably Feel: As estrogen rises, your energy rises, too. Now that your body has finished bleeding, you can take advantage of your greater physical and emotional capacity. Move your body and celebrate its capabilities. You might find that you’re hungry for adventure, so this is the perfect time to get out of your comfort zone. Learn a new skill. Travel. Make new friends. Start tackling the goals you set during your menstrual phase and start scheduling social events for your upcoming ovulatory phase, when you’ll be craving even more stimulation.
The Ovulatory Phase: Sex and Socializing
What’s Happening In Your Body: Your estrogen levels hit their peak. This tells the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH), which tells your ovary to release the mature egg. The egg travels through the fallopian tube from the ovary to the uterus, and body starts producing thicker cervical mucus to aid in fertilization. This is when you’re the most fertile, so keep this in mind if you’re having P-in-V intercourse. If you’re trying to prevent pregnancy, make sure you’re using barriers or avoiding P-in-V sex entirely during this phase (and if you’re trying to get pregant, get it on!). Ovulation typically lasts about five days.
How You Probably Feel: When estrogen peaks, so does your power and confidence. This is a great time to pitch a project, set boundaries, negotiate a raise and finally slide into your crush’s DMs. All of that estrogen might make you feel horny, so put on your sexy briefs and take some nudes. Plan some hot sex with a partner (and/ or masturbate, masturbate, masturbate!). You’re probably feeling extra social, too, so throw you attention to the activities that felt too draining during your reclusive menstrual phase. Spend time with friends, especially in groups. Throw a (socially-distant) party. Attempt a TikTok dance challenge. Compliment a stranger. You’re hungry for connection and attention, so go out there and get it!
The Luteal Phase: Concentration and Preparation
What’s Happening In Your Body: Your estrogen starts to dip and progesterone rises, which causes the uterine lining to thicken in preparation for a fertilized egg. If the egg is fertilized, your body will start producing human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which maintains the uterine lining while an egg develops into an embryo. If the egg isn’t fertilized, it dissolves, and your uterus prepares to shed its lining. This phase usually lasts between 12 and 14 days.
How You Might Feel: Your energy starts to dip as your body prepares to bleed. Your high progesterone has a sedating effect, stabilizing your blood sugar and generally slowing you down. If you experience PMS symptoms, you might be feeling physically and mentally “blegh.” It’s easier to fall into negative self-talk during this time, so make sure you’re staying on top of therapy, journaling, daily affirmations or whatever else you do to stay clear-headed and practice self-compassion. As your brain and body wind down, let go of the big picture stuff and focus on the details. This is the perfect time to wrap up projects and take care of those pesky life admin tasks like scheduling appointments, actually checking your bank account and reminding yourself that you do, in fact, need to get your oil changed. If you take care of business now, you’ll be able to rest and rejuvenate once you start to bleed. If you have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), the luteal phase might be a traumatizing time for you, so prepare for it in advance. Plan to have some one-on-one time with close friends, make sure that your schedule isn’t too packed when you know your brain will be freaking out and remember that this phase will pass.
Do you already track your cycle? What changes do you notice during each phase? Drop your thoughts in the comments.
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