How to start tracking your menstrual cycle

If there is one thing I would recommend for women to improve health, it is to start tracking your cycle. It sounds so simple but actually it will give you insights that allow you to start being your own health coach!

There are different levels to cycle tracking, depending on your goals:

Newbie tracker – if you just want to get a basic awareness of your hormonal pattern, track your cycle length each month by recording the first day of bleeding (excluding any spotting) as Day 1. Also record any noticeable symptoms or moods each day of the cycle. Becoming aware of these monthly fluctuations will mean you are less likely taken by surprise and have a better understanding of what is going on in your body.

Cycle syncer – if you want to start exploring cycle syncing, you can also start to identify which of the 4 phases you are in each day (see my post here for more information on this). Record your energy levels, sex drive, sleep quality and hunger levels and see if you spot any patterns after tracking for a few cycles. Once you have an idea of your pattern you can start to think about making lifestyle changes which will help you flow through each phase without feeling like you’re swimming upstream and fighting against your natural rhythms.

Menstrual guru – if you are trying to get pregnant or want to be more accurate with identifying which cycle phase you are in (specifically finding out when/if you ovulate), you can also record your Basal Body Temperature (BBT) each morning (see here for how to do this). You can also record any cervical discharge you notice as the amount and consistency will change depending on the level of hormones as shown on the chart below. If you have some period problems you want to troubleshoot, checking your flow during your period is also a good idea as the amount, colour and consistency can tell you a lot about your hormonal health!

CM cycle

This is just one “typical” example, there are variations which can be part of a normal cycle for you. It can be confusing at first but once you get used to it, this can be a really useful tool for troubleshooting your cycle and finding out if your lifestyle is helping you to achieve healthy. balanced hormones.

My favourite way to track my cycle is using the Maya app. But for those who prefer a paper version I have created a spreadsheet with templates for the 3 options above – feel free to use them online or print them out and edit to what suits you. Enjoy!

The 4 phases of your menstrual cycle

I love that menstrual cycle awareness is becoming a thing. There are so many resources on this topic but I wanted to make a note of it here for completeness and so I can refer to it in other posts. There are four phases of your hormonal cycle:

Cycle phase moon

The changing hormones in each phase lead to a different energy and physical state. The amount of time spent in each phase and the experience you have will depend on your genetics and lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, sleep and stress – no two women are the same.

Cycle phases

Above is a example of what a “typical cycle” might look like when in balance and when things might not be so good. However, I can’t stress enough the importance of tracking your cycle to see what your own patterns are. Watch out for my new post on how to track your cycle!

The pre-menstrual power of losing it

Right now I am in my pre-menstrual phase and I have been struggling a lot with difficult emotions. I am feeling unsettled, sad, angry, lost and confused. Luckily because I track my cycle I know that this is the time of the month when things like this are most likely come up. As women we are so good at hiding how we really feel and getting on with things, often trying to keep others happy at the expense of our own wellbeing. This ability to override our darkest emotions is much stronger in the first half of our cycle when estrogen is high. And it’s not like its a conscious decision, our bodies do this automatically so we can actually experience it as feeling fine one week and then crazy the next.

losing it

So what should we do when these feelings come up shake our sense of self? It can be tempting to squash the feelings down through distraction or coping mechanisms such as emotional eating or to dismiss them as PMS or just “being hormonal”. But if we take the time to listen we can really learn something about how we feel about our lives and use it to make positive changes. Something I have been trying to do is to sit in the stew of emotions, just letting myself feel whatever comes up without judging or trying to change things. If I am feeling depressed one day letting that be and not using any of the “make yourself happy” techniques like fake positive affirmations which never really worked for me anyway. Every emotion is valid and is just a signal from your body trying to tell you something.

Another GREAT thing to do is just allow yourself to lose it. Some women, myself included, tend to be pretty controlled with their emotions on a daily basis. At work, many of us are in male-dominated environment and we don’t want to come across as weak or over-emotional. At home, we don’t want to offend or upset our partners or families with our anger or sadness. But actually letting go of control and just letting it all out is exactly what we need. Its better to do it consciously rather than being hit by an emotional outburst out of the blue. Scream, shout, cry, punch a pillow, dance like crazy.. anything to get that energy moving up and out of your body. Maybe you feel embarrassed and don’t want to look stupid? Some of my favourites are screaming as loud as I can whilst driving on the motorway, letting myself lie down and cry even if I don’t know exactly why I am crying and putting on music and just shaking my body.

If you aren’t comfortable with any of these try writing it out in a journal or making a video-diary but honestly I think the physical aspect is super important. When put our emotions to one side, they don’t go away but stay in our bodies as tension and stress. Eventually we have to release them otherwise we will manifest sickness and disease. Many conditions that are common today are influenced by chronic stress as a factor including diabetes, fatigue and auto-immune conditions (which affect women much more than men!). Our cycle provides us with the pre-menstrual phase as the perfect time to have this energy release so that we can go into the deep resting and healing menstrual phase with a clean slate.

So try it out if you’re interested. If you are tracking your cycle then from day 21-28 (or around a week before your period is due to start if your cycle is less/more than 28 days) create some free time in your schedule to just do nothing and see what comes up emotionally. If this is the first time you are doing this don’t be surprised to feel some pretty intense emotions. Sometimes tension can be stored deep in the body for a long time and it can be overwhelming to have a wave of old emotions hit you. But trust that if you practice this monthly ritual of processing and releasing what has come up that cycle then it will become much easier over time and will become something to look forward to as you shed what is no longer serving you and create space for new energy to come in.

A new perspective on your lady cycle

If I ask women which part of their cycle they like the least I can almost guarantee it will either be the menstrual or pre-menstrual phases. For some, extreme pain and heavy bleeding can make menses a horrible time of the month. For others, suffering from mood swings, fatigue, headaches and a whole range of other PMS symptoms in the run up to our period means that by the time we finally start bleeding it is a relief. If either of both of these situations are familiar to you, I hope I can offer a different perspective which might help you to embrace your cycle and perhaps ease some of your pain.

In order to understand what is happening during these stages, we need to consider the menstrual cycle as a whole. I did write about getting to know the different phases of the cycle through menstrual cycle awareness here for those who are interested. The key part here is realising that the cycle can be separated into two: the first part beginning after your period until a few days after ovulation (we’ll call this the expansion phase) and the second part from here until you finish bleeding (this is the contraction phase). You can imagine your cycle like a tide, moving upwards and reaching high tide at ovulation and then slowly retreating until low tide during your bleeding days.

A similar tide is happening internally. During our period we tend to feel more introverted with lower energy to go out and do things. We feel like hibernating at home with comfy blankets and food and often can find people annoying and demanding. Afterwards, our energy starts to rise along with our oestrogen levels and our curiosity about the world outside increases. We start to get more motivation to go out into the world, start new projects, be active etc. and the feeling keeps rising for the next couple of weeks until ovulation when we tend to feel our most outgoing and confident. For obvious reasons this is usually the more preferred part of our cycle. Especially in the crazy modern world where we constantly having things to do and people to see, this ongoing energy is what we crave.

However, if we continue with the “doing all of the things” energy we would eventually burn out. So thankfully our bodies have a built in mechanism to slow us down and force us to retreat inwards and recharge our batteries. After ovulation when oestrogen levels peak, they fall off a cliff and progesterone takes over. This is the luteal phase which lasts until we start bleeding. If we accept this as a time of relaxation and surrender, it can actually be very enjoyable. It is only when we feel that things should be different than they are that we start to feel resentful. Now, I understand that we still have things to do during this time. Unfortunately work, families and other demands don’t just stop because of changes in our hormones but we can learn to work with the changes rather than continuing to force the outgoing energy and burning out.

This could look like changing our work schedule if possible to avoid any big meetings or presentations during the second half of our cycle (and we will be much more engaging and confident if we can arrange these around ovulation so win-win). Also switching up our workout routine to include more gentle exercise such as walking, yoga or short resistance training sessions rather than high-intensity cardio circuits. It might seem counter-productive if we have fitness goals to achieve but actually working with our bodies we will see much better results. At home we can try to make things easier by doing as much of the intense cleaning and admin we need to do during the first half of our cycle so that we can allow ourselves more space to relax in the second half. Finally, not pushing ourselves to go out and socialise when we really want to stay in and read a book. This can be a difficult one too as we aren’t in control of other people’s calendars and there will be events that we don’t want to miss but the best thing to do is listen to our bodies and do what feels right in the moment.

Now, it is common to feel in a funk during this time which might make us more grumpy than usual. People around us (by this I mean fathers, husbands, boyfriends..) may start to dread this time or criticise us for being hormonal and moody. If things aren’t going as we would like in our lives this is the time when our intuition will be screaming at us that things aren’t right which can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and depression. It is true that we are more critical than usual during the second half of our cycle but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The reason is that we are much more insightful during this time as the excessive optimism rose tinted glasses attitude of ovulation has rapidly disintegrated and we are finally able to see clearly. If we can work on our communication skills with those around us, we can be really good at giving advice as we can see the big picture.

Our intuition is also strongest at this time, especially during bleeding days, and we have a strong sense of purpose and direction. If we channel this energy through spending quiet time in meditation or through reflective writing we can get some huge insights about our life and what we want. If we have projects ongoing this is a great time to take stock of where we are up to, what is going well and what needs to change. This is not the time to keep pushing if we are in the middle of something but a time to take time out and reflect. Although, if we are coming to end of a project the luteal phase is the perfect time to finish up and tie off loose ends as our heightened criticism means we can easily pay attention to detail.

I hope this offers another way to think about your cycle if you are struggling. Its not always easy but trying to see this hormonal rollercoaster as bringing different strengths and skills rather than focusing on the challenges can really help!

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How (not) to manage your inner Autumn

I haven’t posted for a while but today is the first day of my period and after a hellish week of crazy PMS I feel inspired to write about how to manage your “inner Autumn” to avoid this kind of situation. Also known as the luteal phase, your inner Autumn is the time between your ovaries releasing  an egg and the start of your period (assuming you don’t become pregnant in between!). Of all the stages of the menstrual cycle it’s the one that tends to have the worst reputation. Mood swings, cravings, fatigue, depression and anxiety are all symptoms that can arise when we don’t look after ourselves properly during this phase. And this week I had the whole lot thrown at me.

I’ve been so busy lately with finishing up things with my current job, planning my relocation, writing my final research project for my uni degree and supporting my partner through a tough family situation that I haven’t been paying too much attention to my hormonal health. My cycles have become irregular again, ranging from 25 to 48 days in the last few months. My boobs have been so sore for weeks that I even took a test to make sure I wasn’t pregnant. My insomnia is back with a vengeance and I have fallen back into the old caffeine trap so that I can carry on doing all of the things even though my body is clearly telling me to slow down.

The last couple of days I thought I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was so exhausted, running on caffeine and adrenaline. No wonder I was tired with busy days in the office and evenings writing my thesis with 200 mile drives at the weekends to view houses. But when I suddenly lost control of my emotions and cried in the office, in the car, at home, at university, argued with my parents and felt an overwhelming sense of despair, I couldn’t understand what was going on. However, this morning I started my period and it all became clear. No wonder I was burned out! Being so busy would be overwhelming at any time but at the end of my luteal phase it is a recipe for disaster.

So as of today I have felt a new wave of motivation to get back into cycle synching and really tune into what my body needs during each phase. I just love that wave of relief that comes on the first day of my period. I felt so much better today even though I am still exhausted and spent the day resting and organising things at home. I’ve been reading Wild Power my favourite resource on menstrual cycle awareness and I feel called to share some of the insights on this interesting time of the month.

Inner Autumn is the time when we have to pay the price if we have neglected our needs during the first half of our cycle. Often we feel limitless after our menstrual phase ends and we take on too much. We can handle some extra pressure during this time as we naturally have more energy and we might still feel ok after working too hard or burning the candle at both ends. But if we overdo it or try to keep going when our energy starts to decline and ignore the call to turn inwards after ovulation we can easily feel overwhelmed and overworked.

Our intuition is heightened during the luteal phase and we can feel extra sensitive. Our inner critic is also most alive at this time which can show up internally through negative thoughts and anxieties or externally as we need to tell the truth as we see it, whether people like it or not. We stop caring so much about being a polite, functioning member of society and the rebel inside us is getting stronger. If not managed well we can find ourselves picking fights with loved ones or complaining excessively to colleagues. But we can also use this energy to create positive change.

Actually this intuitive time can bring us great insights into what is working (or not working) in our lives and what is important to us. Channelling the inner critic through a reflective journalling practice is an amazing way to learn lessons and develop with each cycle. Our creative fire is also high during this time and by  expressing our sometimes crazy emotions through whatever creative outlet we chose we can feel alive and inspired. We might not have the energy for extreme projects right now but we can plant seeds that we can start to grow in the next cycle and beyond.

So the luteal phase is the time to wind down, try to bring projects to a close or park them until we arrive refreshed at our inner Spring. Its the time to create more space in our days so we don’t need to rush around and have the time for reflection and processing of any emotions that arise. We really need to look after ourselves, making sure we get enough rest, wholesome food and gentle, meditative movement such as yoga or walking in nature. If we are feeling overwhelmed this is the time to review the to do list and be honest about what we can spend our energy on. If like me you have responsibilities that can’t be avoided, prioritising and setting boundaries is key.

We might be warriors but even they need to rest and recharge if they want to save the world.

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P.S. These are photos from January this year – I have been working on improving my balance and flexibility for the last couple of months. Progress photos coming soon!

 

 

 

 

Menstrual cycle awareness

Recently I have been completely enthralled by the book Wild Power by Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer. I love all things hormone related so I was really excited to read this one and I really think it is a must read for all women! I know when I first started my periods as a teenager I didn’t really think much of it, it was usually just  a monthly surprise that made me moody and stopped me from doing sports. It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I actually started to dive in and learn about the intricacies of the full female cycle.

One of the best things I started doing along the way was tracking my cycle which is referred to in the book as “Menstrual Cycle Awareness”. I started off pretty basic tracking my basal body temperature and my bleeding days so that I had a rough idea of when I was ovulating and how long my cycles were. In the beginning they were all over the place with annovulatory cycles and sometimes skipping periods altogether but it was so interesting to see my body start to regulate again. Now, 2 years later, cycle tracking has become an important part of my daily routine.

I use an app called Maya to record any symptoms such as bloating, cravings, insomnia as well as my mood. The app estimates when my next period will be, when I am most fertile and alerts me to any expected symptoms based on my historical data. It might seem a bit excessive but I have been so surprised at the patterns I have seen and actually it has been a really great way to become more present and tune into my body on a daily basis. There are loads of apps such as Clue and Flo that do a pretty similar thing. You can also use them for tracking your fertile window if you are trying to (or trying to avoid!) getting pregnant.

Now this book takes Menstrual Cycle Awareness to the next level. They describe the four phases of the cycle or the “inner seasons” which this video sums up pretty well. Most women, including myself until pretty recently, see the cycle as either bleeding or not bleeding. You might be aware of mood changes in the run up to your period. especially for those who struggle with PMS but when we start to pay close attention we can see subtle shifts in energy all throughout the cycle as our hormone levels change.

female cycle

The four phases can be put into two main vibes. Phases 3 and 4, the follicular and ovulatory phases are when the womb lining building itself up ready for the release of an egg. This represents the masculine or yang energy phase when energy levels are higher and is the time when we tend to feel like being out there in the world and getting stuff done. Phases 1 and 2, the menstrual and pre-menstrual phases are when the womb waits for the arrival of the egg then releases the lining if you aren’t pregnant. This represents the feminine, yin energy and usually is the call to retreat and move more slowly in the world, allowing time for intuition and reflection.

Unfortunately today’s world doesn’t seem to appreciate this feminine energy. We always feel the need to be productive and in control and this lower energy is not welcome. But just becoming aware of these changes in my body and mind through menstrual cycle awareness made me start to wonder, what if I did allow myself to listen to my body? And what happens when I don’t? I recently I had a busy weekend that just happened to fall when my period was due. I had a lot of work to do then I had a couple of late nights with my boyfriend and friends and it completely wiped me out. I was exhausted all of the next week and I couldn’t understand why. It was only later when I looked back and I realised that I hadn’t allowed myself the rest and time out I needed on those days. How could I expect to run without recharging my batteries!

So since then I have started paying more attention to my cycle, my energy levels and my moods. I find it very hard to say no to things, even when I don’t feel like it but I know this is going to be key to getting my health back on track. I have started writing a moon journal, not every day but when I feel like it and honestly I feel like superwoman. I feel like I have a secret weapon that no one knows about and it is amazing. It is early days but I really feel like I am starting to understand my own rhythms better than ever and hopefully I can use it to start organising my life in a way that I can do all of the things I want to but without exhausting myself in the process.