All young adult women should be well-versed in their reproductive systems, but we’re often discouraged – by doctors, Big Pharma, and even our own misgivings – from being as educated on it as we could be. But nobody can solve these issues for us. The responsibility is on us to interpret the signs our bodies give us and plan accordingly. Learning to read these signs, or what’s known as body literacy, is a journey that lasts our entire lives, and it all begins with getting to know our fertility or even introducing ourselves if that’s what’s called for. The best way to start that journey is to explore the 11 things every woman should know about her fertility.
1. The Four Phases of Your Cycle
Your menstrual phase starts with day 1 of your period, and lasts for as long as you continue to shed your uterine lining. The second stage, the follicular phase, is preparing your body for ovulation. Your estrogen surges during this time, as does your follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and the follicular stage actually starts during the tail-end of your period and concludes with ovulation, the third phase. During your ovulatory phase, your most fertile stage, an egg is released. The lining of your endometrium thickens, and your body produces a thin, slippery cervical mucus which helps guide sperm to a mature egg. The fourth and final stage, the luteal phase, is when your body prepares for a potential pregnancy. If the egg is not fertilized, the luteal phase will shift into the menstrual phase, and everything begins again!
2. What Your Cycle Looks Like
All of us were told in middle school health class that our cycle lasts for 28 days, but many of us grew up to learn that we deviated in many ways from that standard. It’s not at all uncommon to have longer or shorter cycles than that, and also not uncommon for the length to vary from cycle to cycle, according to your hormones. It’s also not uncommon to have four-day to week-long periods, periods that start heavy and transition to lighter flow, and vice versa. Our cycle, though used synonymously with menstruation, is not just about our period. Knowing the ins and outs and variations in our cycle is knowing how our body is directly communicating with us for our own benefit.
Knowing the ins and outs and variations in our cycle is knowing how our body is directly communicating with us.
3. Using Your Cervical Mucus to Your Advantage
Your cervical mucus might seem annoying (who likes having to change their underwear in the middle of a workday?), but in actuality, it’s a confirmation that your reproductive system is functioning well. It’s also a telltale indicator of where exactly you are in your cycle – white, creamy textures follow the dry spell after your period and precede ovulation, and a thin, stretchy, clear texture tells you that it’s time for ovulation. Tracking cervical mucus in a diary or on a calendar is a simple and effective way to immediately confirm where you are in your cycle, and when to have unprotected sex to conceive a baby or avoid unprotected sex to avoid pregnancy.
4. What Causes PMS
Cramps, headaches, mood swings, and bloating are seen as part and parcel of the stage before our periods, known as premenstrual syndrome. Like almost anything else period-related, PMS is seen as just a given experience of every woman’s period. But it’s actually indicative of something larger and potentially more problematic, like a hormonal imbalance. Stress, hormonal imbalances, a poor diet devoid of nutrients, and other lifestyle factors can all contribute to what we know as PMS. Investigating your diet, exercising in accordance with your cycle rather than against it, and looking into your hormones to see what you’re getting too much or too little of can all effectively mitigate these symptoms.
5. The Importance of Vitamins and Nutrients
As the saying goes, you are what you eat. If your diet is chock-full of fast food, processed foods, and sugar, and lacks balance, you’ll probably feel pretty terrible, and what’s more, your cycles will suffer for it. It’s of paramount importance to incorporate nutrients and vitamins in our diet that support our cycle rather than work against it. These include protein-rich foods, limited carbs, healthy fats, limited alcohol and sodium, and nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, iron, and calcium. Having the added boost of a good diet can help balance out your cycle and limit premenstrual and period symptoms.
6. What a Normal Period Looks Like
Your doctor, mom, best friend, or sister might have told you that periods are supposed to be painful and uncomfortable, but this shouldn’t be considered “normal.” A normal period shouldn’t put you on bedrest for a few days, and if that’s the case, there’s probably more at work here. Painful cramps and heavy clotting could be indications of a nutrient deficiency – many women have found that magnesium, chamomile, evening primrose, and many other natural supplements have helped quell their period pains. Additionally, looking into hormonal disorders like polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, and fibroids could be the key to making your periods more manageable.
Painful cramps and heavy clotting could be indications of a nutrient deficiency or hormone imbalance.
7. Your Birth Control’s Side Effects
Your doctor might sell hormonal birth control as the answer to all your problems – lighter periods, no cramps, acne fighting, contraception, to name a few – but they do a poor job of also mentioning the side effects and risks associated with it, whether you’re prescribed the pill, the patch, the implant, or an IUD. Side effects include (but aren’t limited to) increased risk of stroke, migraines, weight gain or weight fluctuation, acne, mood swings, insomnia, and risk of developing depression. You might think your birth control is helping you more than it’s hurting you, but it likely might be more trouble than it’s worth. Instead of resorting to birth control, try to locate the source of your issues, be it hormonal imbalance, endometriosis, or something else, and research a hormone-free option, such as the fertility awareness method.
8. The Connection Between Age and Fertility
Women are born with all of the eggs we’ll ever have, which totals about 1 million. As we age, the number of viable eggs we have – healthy eggs which are capable of being fertilized by sperm and turned into embryos – declines year after year. It’s estimated that by age 37, the average number of eggs has decreased to about 25,000. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have a healthy pregnancy into our late thirties, but statistically, the best chances of healthy conception is when our pool of eggs is at its biggest – in our twenties.
9. Supporting Egg Health
Egg health is about so much more than getting pregnant, but we might not even stop to think about our egg quality until it’s time to start a family. Getting a jumpstart on boosting your egg health benefits your reproductive system even before you start thinking about conception. We can use fertility anti-aging supplements like vitamins C and E and quercetin, and limit our stress. We can eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and restrict other potentially detrimental lifestyle factors, all of which benefit egg health.
Heavy drinking after the ovulatory stage significantly reduces your chances of conceiving.
10. How Alcohol Negatively Affects Your Fertility
Many of us love indulging in a glass of wine here and there, but drinking even in moderation can disrupt the delicate system which needs to function in order to get pregnant. Drinking while pregnant is a well-known no-no, but drinking while trying to conceive can be just as detrimental to a potential pregnancy. A study from the University of Louisville confirmed the connection between moderate to heavy drinking and issues with ovulation in women trying to conceive. The study found that heavy drinking after the ovulatory stage significantly reduced chances of conceiving, which is thought to be due to higher levels of estrogen in the body. Disruptions in ovulation and hormonal surges can make it difficult to conceive or know if you’re pregnant, which is why alcohol should be limited (one drink per day is suggested, if at all) while trying to get pregnant.
11. How Oral Health Is Connected To Fertility
You should be practicing good oral hygiene even if you’re not trying to get pregnant, but a good dental routine can be imperative to good fertility. Plaque buildup and other consequences of bad bacteria in the mouth can lead to gingivitis, gum disease, and periodontitis, all of which cause inflammation elsewhere in the body. Inflammation, though a biological response to the presence of bacteria, can damage our reproductive systems as well as other delicate functions in our body. Brushing your teeth can boost your fertility! Who knew?
If you feel discouraged by this list, don’t be disheartened just yet. Literally every influence out there is telling us that we don’t need to know our fertility as intimately as possible, when we can relegate contraception to birth control use or conception to other, more invasive means. It often feels like it’s not in our best interests to have this information about ourselves, but it’s time to change that narrative. Our fertility, both present and future, is at its greatest advantage when we know it intimately, and it’s time we introduce ourselves.
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