The menstrual cycle is a big part of any woman’s life and tracking it can have numerous benefits.
While many of us track our periods to know when we’re going to get them, not everyone tracks their entire cycle. I started tracking my entire cycle a few years ago, and it has improved both my mental and physical health.
I Started Tracking My Period in Middle School
When I was in fifth grade, all of the girls were separated from the boys for a puberty lecture. They gave us a goodie bag filled with a mini stick of deodorant, a pad, a tampon, and a little booklet on periods. I knew about periods before the lecture (thanks to the American Girl book, The Care and Keeping of You), but my mom made sure to let me know the signs that my first period was about to come and to tell her when it came.
I got my first period in seventh grade, and my mom was quick to teach me how to track my period. She told me this would help me determine when my next period would come so I could prepare for my cycle. I kept track of my period and symptoms in my school planner and switched to a period tracking app later in high school.
My Experience with Hormonal Birth Control
Though I’ve always had a healthy cycle, there have been periods (pun intended) of time where I struggled with intense PMS symptoms like cramps, headaches, and mood swings. When I was 21, I decided to go on hormonal birth control to help control my PMS symptoms and was on the pill for a year and a half.
I still remember my first few weeks on the pill because I was so nauseous and moody that I considered switching brands, but I felt better after the first month. My PMS symptoms improved, but not by much. After a year and a half on the pill, I decided to stop taking it because I wasn’t sexually active and I didn’t notice enough of a difference in my cycle to make it worth it.
I didn’t notice enough of a difference in my PMS symptoms to make it worth it.
I hadn’t noticed how much the pill was affecting me until I stopped taking it. I had attributed most of my heightened anxiety and depression (I’ve struggled with both since I was a kid) to the intense stress of my last year of college and losing two of my grandparents within a year of each other, but my intense crying spells and panic attacks didn’t stop when these stressors went away. They did, however, disappear when I stopped taking birth control.
If I’d known the risky mental health side effects of birth control before I got on it, I probably never would have started. As someone who has struggled with both anxiety and depression for most of my life, it only made sense that taking hormonal birth control heightened my symptoms. This is why I think it’s important to educate women on the risks of hormonal birth control and other methods of birth control before they start taking it so they can decide what’s best for them. Hormonal birth control wasn’t for me, but I found that monitoring my cycle improved my PMS symptoms and mental health more than the pill ever did.
Tracking My Entire Cycle Changed the Game
After I got off birth control, I thought I’d track my cycle more diligently and see if it would help me understand my PMS symptoms. I started logging my moods and other PMS-like symptoms daily in my period tracker app, and it didn’t take long for me to start noticing a pattern in everything from my mood to my sleep and cervical mucus.
I noticed a difference in both my mood and energy levels during ovulation, which can be explained by hormonal changes. Dr. Juan Alvarez, an Ob/Gyn and board-certified reproductive endocrinologist with Fertility Centers of Illinois, says, “During ovulation, estrogen drops a little and progesterone levels start to sharply go up while the body releases an egg. These hormonal shifts can also influence serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood (as well as sleep cycles and appetite).”
I keep track of when in my cycle I’m more likely to feel anxious, so I can prepare in advance.
Another thing I noticed was my energy levels were low right before and during my period. This is also a result of hormone changes, as Dr. Ashfaq Khan, consultant Ob/Gyn, says, "It is thought that PMS could be triggered by a drop in oestrogen and serotonin, resulting in a double whammy for mood swings and energy levels."
Tracking my symptoms helped me learn the root cause of them (much of it hormonal) and how to address them through eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep, and other forms of self-care. I’ve also learned to keep track of the times in my cycle where I’m more likely to feel anxious, so I can prepare in advance to take a little extra care of myself on those days so I don’t feel overwhelmed. To say that tracking my cycle improved my mental and overall health would be an understatement, and you can do it too.
How To Track Your Cycle
Even if you’ve been tracking your period since middle school, the thought of tracking your entire cycle can be intimidating, but it’s not much different from tracking your period. Instead of logging your symptoms and moods during your period, you do it every day. I suggest continuing to use your current tracking method (I use an app called Clue) and make sure to pay close attention to your cervical mucus (vaginal discharge) because it will show you when you're ovulating.
You can also monitor your basal body temperature, which fluctuates during your cycle, indicating which hormone (estrogen or progesterone) is dominant. The temperature changes can also show when you’ve ovulated and when your period is approaching.
Whether you’re sexually active or not, tracking your entire cycle has numerous benefits, including learning patterns related to your period, mood, and libido. If you make a habit out of tracking your entire cycle, you not only get to know your body but can learn how to manage uncomfortable symptoms and find ways to fix them. Whether you have horrible cramps or period-related anxiety, getting to know your cycle can help you address these issues and improve your overall health.
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