Why you should track your menstrual cycle (even if you’re on the pill)
For those of us on hormonal birth control, it may seem unnecessary to track your period. While you may be (99.9%) confident that you are not pregnant, your menstrual cycle is actually a super important indicator of your overall health. Beyond fertility, knowing your cycles can help you notice irregularities sooner, show you how your cycle affects your mood and mental health, and explain fluctuations in your sex drive. Also, knowing what to expect around your period can help you be better prepared for your next cycle.
Your menstrual cycle is your body’s way of telling you that everything is working as it should. Having an extremely irregular, long, or heavy cycle, or losing your period altogether can be signs of an underlying health issue. By tracking your cycle, you can detect early symptoms of thyroid disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, uterine cancer, and pituitary tumors. Recognizing these symptoms early can lead to faster treatment and better outcomes.
Your menstrual cycle is not just the days you bleed, but the entire month — and it affects you every day of the year. The entire cycle has to be tracked, and it can provide you with tons of info about yourself. Your cycle has four phases, each with its own symptoms. A quick break down: the menstrual phase is when you bleed, the follicular phase is when your body is preparing to release an egg, the ovulation phase is the 24-hour window when the egg is released and able to be fertilized, and the luteal phase is the time between ovulation and your next period.
There are several factors you can track during your cycle, each with its own significance to your health:
Period duration and heaviness
If you want to keep it simple, the most important aspects to log are the length and heaviness of your period. Track when menstruation occurs to get an idea of your average cycle length — the average cycle is 28 days, but every body is different. Noting the heaviness of your flow by day is not only a great way to anticipate the different strengths of pads or tampons you may need, but is also an important way to detect health issues. If you have to change a tampon or pad hourly, or a menstrual cup every 2-4 hours, talk to your healthcare provider.
It’s more difficult to not notice painful symptoms like cramps. When tracking pain such as cramps, headaches, or nausea, take note of what made them worse and what eased them— how do certain foods, alcohol, exercise, or sleep affect you? Talk to your healthcare provider if you have unusually painful cramps (i.e. cramps are debilitating or do not respond to standard over the counter pain medications) or period-like cramping mid-cycle.
PMS is notorious for messing with your emotions, but hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle can also cause mood swings. Your mood does not just mean feeling happy or sad — your cycle can affect your creativity, productivity, focus, motivation, and sociability. Knowing when your good and bad days are likely coming makes it easier to prepare for them. For those with depression, anxiety, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), your symptoms may intensify before your period. During this time it may be hard to separate PMS symptoms from other health issues, which is why keeping track will help you identify patterns more easily.
Fluctuating hormone levels during your cycle have a huge effect on your sex drive. During ovulation, your libido is at its highest. Not only will you crave sex more, but you will often feel sexier too. If you are on hormonal birth control, your libido may work a bit differently. Tracking your sex drive and sexual activity in tandem with ovulation is crucial: whether you want to get pregnant or not, knowing when you are most fertile means knowing when to be extra careful with protection and when to get it on twice as often.
The longer you track your cycle, the sooner you will be able to tell if something is out of the ordinary. Watch out for signs that can indicate a more serious health issue: irregular or long cycles, persistent heavy bleeding, change in color and consistency of your menses, unusually painful cramps, anemia, intense fatigue, or the absence of a period. Tracking discharge throughout the month is also helpful — in the first half of your cycle, discharge tends to be mucus and clear, while in the second half it is more white, milky, and thick. If you experience thicker discharge at the beginning of your cycle, it could be a sign that something is off. Some symptoms might be more concerning depending on when they occur in your cycle. For example, if you find a lump on your breast right before your period, it is less worrying than if you have just finished it, as many people develop cysts and bumps right before their period that tend to go away on their own.
Keeping track of symptoms during your cycle can help you manage them better and prepare yourself each month. For example, if you know that you (hello, me) always crave carbs while you are PMS-ing but feel bloated and gross after binging on them, you can plan ahead to have healthier snacks around for that time of the month. Or if you realize that you have super low energy around your period, you can schedule gentler workouts like restorative yoga or Pilates. It’s all about working with your cycle rather than fighting against it.
So how do you track your cycle? At the bare minimum, you should log the first day of your period each month. If you want to get more sophisticated, there are a few methods you can try. The simplest way is to write down symptoms on a calendar, or put notes on your phone’s calendar. There are several apps as well. Clue is an inclusive (i.e. no bubblegum pink), AI-driven app that becomes more accurate at predicting your cycle the longer you use it. Eve is a period tracking app with a focus on sex, featuring daily “cyclescopes” and a community forum. Glow, an app from the same brand as Eve, is more focused on ovulation and fertility, whether you are avoiding or attempting pregnancy. Finally, Flo is a simple, straightforward app that sends you daily healthy insights and tips based on how much info you track.