I've Been Tracking My Cycle Meticulously For 2 Years & I've Learned A Lot About My Hormones
I'm the health editor at mindbodygreen, so it probably won't surprise you much to learn that I'm a huge nerd about health. I've been obsessed with all things wellness and integrative medicine since high school—and there's nowhere that my obsession is stronger than in the world of women's health and hormones.
I started tracking my monthly hormone cycle off and on a few years ago and have been doing so meticulously for about two years. During this time, I've learned a lot about my health and gained some important hormone knowledge that I think we should all be walking around with.
How to track your cycle.
Back in the day, women used to track their cycle by hand or in a calendar (some even used graph paper to plot their basal body temperature data by hand, which you'll learn more about later). These days, though, tracking your cycle is painfully easy. You just download a cycle tracking app—many of them are free!—and then you start adding data. The most important info to keep track of is your period start and stop date, any spotting you experience, and many apps also have a place for you to enter symptoms like moodiness, breast tenderness, or hormonal breakouts.
Some popular apps include MyFlo and Clue, but if you want to really get into the details of your monthly hormone cycle, you can use an app like Dot or Natural Cycles, which are actually being studied (or in Natural Cycles' case, have been approved by the FDA) as a form of contraception. Science has come a long way, and these apps are getting extremely good at getting to know your body and predicting your fertile days, making them a viable option for preventing pregnancy (more on that here).
Taking your cycle tracking to the next level.
Taking your cycle tracking to the next level basically just means adding additional data, like basal body temperature readings and LH test results. I use Natural Cycles as my tracker, so I take my temperature every morning right when I wake up. This helps the app identify your ovulation day since your temperature spikes (about a half a degree to a full degree) after you release an egg.
You can also take LH tests and add those to your cycle tracking routine. LH stands for luteinizing hormone, which is the one that controls the production of estrogen from the ovaries. About two weeks into your cycle, there's a surge in LH, causing the ovaries to release an egg during ovulation. You can check for the LH surge with an at-home test and then add that data to your cycle tracker as well. This will improve the strength of the data, acting as a double confirmation of ovulation, which is a great bonus if you're using cycle tracking as your primary birth control method.
What you can learn from tracking your cycle.
When I started tracking, I wasn't sure exactly what I would learn, but I knew I wanted to find out everything I could about how my hormones were working month by month (again, I'm a big nerd). In a practical sense, you'll learn if your cycle is regular and if it's a length that is considered "normal." This seems basic, but it's more important than you might think. An irregular cycle, or one that is very short or extremely long, can be a sign that something isn't quite working and might encourage you to go see an OB/GYN or endocrinologist to get some answers.
One of the most interesting things I noticed was that my intake of caffeine, sugar, and refined carbs influenced my cycle and the symptoms I experience. The unhealthier my lifestyle is one month, the more I tend to pay for it at the end of my cycle in the form of PMS symptoms. It's not a perfect science, but I have been doing it long enough to notice a connection. In addition, if I happen to come down with a cold or catch some sort of virus, my period is often late. Interesting, right?
Many of the apps let you enter data about the symptoms you experience throughout the month and some even send you push notifications that warn you in future months that those symptoms are likely on the way. As a result, I've gotten extremely good at predicting what will occur and when. For example, about three days before my period starts, I have a day when I'm borderline depressed and extremely emotional. I also start feeling a little headachy for about two or three days. I've been combating this with plenty of omega-3s, turmeric, and magnesium glycinate supplements (plus an Epsom salt bath or two!).
For a normal not-quite-so-health-obsessed person, this might feel like a lot of work to learn basic info like when you're ovulating and when you're period is going to arrive. And I will admit that I haven't learned anything completely life-changing from tracking my cycle in this way. What I have gained, however, is a massive sense of empowerment when it comes to my hormone health. I know what's happening when and how my lifestyle influences symptoms. I feel like I really know my body, and that's motivation enough for me. Let the nerdiness continue!