What Tracking Your Cycle Can Tell You About Your Health
What Tracking Your Cycle Can Tell You About Your Health

What Tracking Your Cycle Can Tell You About Your Health

Your period may be the main event in your menstrual cycle, but it’s actually just one of four phases that can provide unique insights into your health. Here, five experts share their advice for tracking your cycle, the symptoms to look for and how to get things back on track.
By Tor West
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Image: SEVENTYFOUR/ISTOCK

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Your Cycle Is A Good Indication Of Your Health

“Think of your menstrual cycle as a vital sign. When something is off, it’s a message from your body, and we need to stop ignoring these messages or treating them like they’re not supposed to be there. Pain is a good example. Many of us have learnt that pain is part of having a period and we should accept it. But we wouldn’t just accept pain with any other condition, like a toothache or backache. This is why treating our periods, ovulation and menstrual cycle like a vital sign empowers us to seek help and support. We know what’s normal, what isn’t, and we can act accordingly. Interestingly, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends the inclusion of the menstrual cycle as one of our vital signs, on a par with heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure. Unfortunately, the NHS doesn’t yet have a similar view of the menstrual cycle’s importance.” – Le’Nise Brothers, registered nutritionist & author of You Can Have A Better Period

There’s More To It Than Fertility

“As women, our hormones work on an approximately 28-day cycle. Men, on the other hand, work to a 24-hour daily rhythm. Our complex physiology changes drastically throughout the month, and our hormones dictate our energy levels, mood, athletic performance, concentration and sleep quality. By becoming more aware of where we are in our cycle, we can use our strengths at different stages and most effectively optimise our energy, performance and wellbeing. The most common reason women start to get in tune with their cycle is for fertility, but all women should be connecting with their cycle. The benefits of working with your cycle extend far beyond fertility and conception.” – Sara Rooney, medical herbalist

There Are Four Stages To Your Cycle

“After your bleed, progesterone and oestrogen are rising, which can make you feel energised and upbeat. This leads to ovulation, a short and intense stage when you’re most fertile. If your hormones are balanced, you will experience a heightened libido at this point. It’s also during ovulation that cognitive abilities peak, we feel most sociable and most attractive to the opposite sex. Take note of increased cervical mucus and an increased desire for sex – this is normal. After ovulation, you may start to feel less energised and withdrawn, may need more sleep and crave carbs. If hormones are imbalanced, you may experience anxiety and low mood. When your period is nearing, it’s normal to feel reflective and a need to do the bare minimum. Severe pain and discomfort with bleeding could be a sign of a hormone imbalance.” – Sara

We’re All Different

“The average cycle lasts between 21-35 days, with a bleed that lasts between two and seven days. It’s normal to experience pain in the days leading up to the first few days of your bleed, however, this pain should be manageable and shouldn’t stop you from performing everyday activities. The volume of your bleed may change month by month, but if you are replacing your pad, tampon or cup every hour, you should contact your GP. At the same time, a cycle longer than 35 days or shorter than 21 days is a sign something isn’t right, while spotting during your cycle (i.e. any bleeding that occurs outside of your days menstruating) always warrants a chat with a health professional. We all experience our period differently, so it’s vital to know your patterns.” – Jodie Relf, PCOS dietician & spokesperson for MyOva

We’ll All Experience Irregular Periods At Some Stage

“Our bodies are clever. The odd irregularity in your cycle can be normal, especially if you’re going through a stressful life event like moving house or changing job. Changes to your diet, a drastic change in weight or a shift in your sleep patterns can also trigger a change. If you’re not eating enough and are in a calorie deficit, the body will start to downregulate systems that aren’t essential for survival, such as reproduction, to conserve energy. Similarly, if you’re doing a lot of exercise but aren’t eating enough calories to fuel the exercise you may see changes to your cycle. If your cycle hasn’t gone back to your normal after three months, this should be flagged with your GP.” – Jodie 

Perimenopause Will Affect Your Cycle

“During perimenopause, levels of oestrogen rise and fall unevenly, and as such, may lengthen or shorten your cycle. Cycle tracking is arguably even more important during perimenopause – it can help indicate where you are in your transition and can help practitioners provide the necessary hormone support. Often, the luteal phase becomes longer and more intense, so it’s important to track this. In my experience, perimenopause highlights imbalances in lifestyle and nutrition, so tracking your symptoms can provide a smoother experience and enable you to address any health issues.” – Sara 

Hormone Imbalances Can Happen At Other Times, Too

“Most of the time, an irregular period is caused by an imbalance of hormones, particularly oestrogen and progesterone. For example, changing birth control pills can throw your hormone levels off balance and affect your cycle, especially if you’re switching to a pill with different levels of oestrogen and/or progesterone. Both an under and overactive thyroid can also cause irregular periods, while PCOS causes the ovaries to produce high amounts of male hormones, affecting the regularity of ovulation. However, if you miss three or more periods a year, if your period has always been regular and suddenly becomes irregular, or if your periods last longer than seven days, it’s worth getting checked out. But be patient with your hormones, they are sensitive and can change frequently.” – Dr Claudia Pastides, director of medical accuracy at Flo Health

An App Can Help

“Cycle tracking can be as simple or complex as you want, and the most effective way to track will depend on your goals. If you’re tracking to better understand your cycle and what your ‘normal’ is, using a calendar to mark when your cycle starts and ends will suffice. Apps like Clue and Flo can also help, and enable you to track more detailed information, such as how heavy your bleeds are and the various symptoms you experience. This level of detail can be helpful if you suspect you have PCOS or endometriosis. If you’re tracking to identify when/if ovulation occurs, be mindful of what an app says, as it’s a prediction, not an exact science. Using basal body temperature measurements as well as ovulation sticks can provide more accuracy. Often, it can be more helpful to use a combination of methods such as tracking the start and end of your bleed using an app or your calendar along with noting the changes you experience in cervical mucus.”  – Jodie 

Be Patient

“When tracking your cycle, know it will take at least three months to notice any patterns or irregularities. If you notice issues, take this as a sign to dig a little deeper. Are you more stressed than you realise? Are you getting enough good quality sleep? Are you eating enough at each meal? Are you giving yourself the opportunity to rest? Are you balancing the amount of cardiovascular exercise you’re doing with resistance training?” – Le’Nise

Here, the experts share their advice for a healthier cycle…

Minimise Stress

“Implementing strong self-care practices to nourish your nervous system can make a huge difference to your cycle. Minimise screens and social media before bed, practise restorative yoga, take proper breaks from work and practice gratitude.” – Sara 

Move More, But Not Too Much

“A sedentary lifestyle takes its toll on hormones – our bodies were made for daily activity. Plus, the pelvis needs blood circulation and movement to stay healthy. Cycle to work, walk more, do a 15-minute HIIT workout, stretch in the evening and go for long walks at the weekend. Keep things in balance – extreme exercise can negatively affect hormone balance.” – Sara

Eat Well

“Good nutrition is fuel and medicine for our hormones. We need plenty of good fats to build hormones, and less refined sugar, as well as protein with each meal. Also include plenty of hormone superfoods – flaxseeds, brassica vegetables like broccoli and kale, fermented foods like sauerkraut and live yoghurt, and raw cacao.” – Sara 

Take Vitamin D 

“It’s believed vitamin D supports ovarian function, which is essential to a healthy cycle.” – Dr Jana Pittman, Modibodi ambassador

Get An Early Night

“Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Sleep is essential for healthy hormone production, which is vital for ovulation.” – Jana 

Work With Your Cycle

“Understand you may experience fatigue and hunger at different points in your cycle and trust your body to tell you what it needs, so you can optimise how you function. When you know you’re going to be feeling tired, choose a gentler workout and prioritise sleep. When you’re hungrier, bulk meals with wholegrain carbs and more veg. We often try to push through the fatigue or ignore hunger, which can leave you feeling even more drained and even affect subsequent cycles.” – Jodie

DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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