For many women, the menstrual cycle is perceived as just a bleed that happens every month or so and is a sign that you are not pregnant. Many of us will spend the first ten to twenty years of our menstruating years actively trying to avoid falling pregnant until the time comes when conceiving a child becomes a priority. This time not only involves an emotional shift from avoiding pregnancy to pursuing it but a deeper understanding of the reproductive happenings in the body. To better improve chances of falling pregnant, it is a good idea to first understand what is happening throughout the menstrual cycle from start to finish.
Day One: This is the first day of your menstrual bleed, not including spotting but rather the first actual bleed day. The lining of your uterus has begun to shed and will start rebuilding around 2 days into your bleed. Period bleeds can last anywhere from 2-6 days and should be mostly bright red in colour, with little clotting and mild or no pain. Estrogen and Progesterone hormones are both low at the beginning of your cycle which triggers the production of Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FHS) and Luteinising Hormone (LH).
Pre-Ovulation: From the start of your menstrual bleed up until you ovulate is ideally around 12-16 days, depending on the length of your cycle. This is a time when your uterine lining is starting to thicken, making an ideal environment for pregnancy. Some of the follicles in your ovaries begin to mature due to the increase in FSH. One of these follicles will become dominant, which will be released during ovulation. This follicle secretes Estrogen which triggers the production of fertile cervical mucous.
Ovulation: This is the one day only, main event of the menstrual cycle and ideally occurs between days 12-16 depending on the length of your menstrual cycle. The production of FSH stops and LH surges which triggers the mature follicle (egg) to burst out of the ovary. and travel down the fallopian tube to await the arrival of sperm. This is technically the only day of your menstrual cycle you can conceive.
Post-Ovulation: The site in the ovary where the follicle erupted from turns into a small gland-like structure called the corpus luteum which starts producing Progesterone. This is the stage in the menstrual cycle where implantation occurs after a sperm and egg merge in the fallopian tube and travel down into the uterus. The increase in Progesterone further thickens the lining of the uterus to improve chances of implantation.
Pre-Menstrual: In the event that implantation does not occur, these 2-5 days prepare and lead up to the next menstrual bleed. The corpus luteum stops producing Progesterone which triggers the break-down of the uterine lining. If the egg implants into the wall of the uterus, a pregnancy has been achieved and the menstrual cycle will be skipped.
There is a lot that occurs throughout the menstrual cycle and with only one day of potential conception (because you only ovulate on one day), it can be hard for some women to tell when their optimal fertile window is. Luckily the body gives us a number of subtle clues that can help us identify when this period is.
Temperature: This is a fairly reliable way of understanding the phases of your body and identifying ovulation when done right. Using a thermometer at the same time every morning before rising or moving around too much in bed and recording your basal body temperature for a minimum of 60 days will start to give you a clue into your shift from follicular to luteal phase.
Just as you begin your menstrual bleed your temperature will drop slightly and remain lower until ovulation occurs where it will rise slightly. In pregnancy, the temperature will remain in the higher range, otherwise it will drop again at the start of the next menstrual bleed.
Follicular phase temperatures usually range from 36.10 - 36.40
Luteal phase temperatures usually range from 36.40 - 37.00
Using this method can be a natural contraception alternative when done consistently, however, it is not recommended if you have highly irregular cycles or have only been temperature tracking for a short time.
Fertile Mucous: Used in combination with temperature tracking, observing your cervical mucous can help to identify your fertile window leading up to ovulation. Technically women can only conceive on one day out of their menstrual cycle (ovulation), however, sperm can survive inside the woman’s body for up to five days meaning unprotected sex on the days leading up to ovulation can still lead to pregnancy.
The biggest clue that you may be in your fertile window leading up to ovulation is a change to your fertile mucous produced by an increase in Estrogen. After you have your bleed days, you may experience a dry day or two before you start producing mucous. Your most fertile mucous will look like raw egg whites and should be wet and stretchy if you were to rub it between your fingers. Some days you may feel a slippery feeling when you wipe after urinating and some days you will actually see the mucous on your underwear.
Fertile mucous can also be white and lotion-like or sticky which is still a healthy sign but this may not be your optimal fertile time for conception. Healthy cervical mucous does not have a bad smell and should not be bloody, green, yellow or lumpy - these may indicate an infection or a change in your vaginal environment.
Cervix Position: The cervix sits above the vagina and is the gateway to the uterus. During your menstrual cycle your cervix will change according to which stage you are in. During fertile days your cervix will be softer, more open and higher up to allow sperm easy passage up into the uterus and fallopian tubes. During your non-fertile days your cervix will be harder, more closed off and sit lower down.
If you feel comfortable, you can explore your own body with a clean finger to get familiar with these changes. Your vaginal walls are spongy but your cervix has a smoother texture. It will feel softer during your fertile days, like touching your lips, and on non-fertile days it will feel more firm like the tip of your nose. Some days you may not be able to reach your cervix because it has risen higher, this is a sign that you are in your fertile window. Again, this is best used in combination with temperature and mucous tracking rather than solely as a form of contraception when trying to avoid pregnancy.
Using a menstrual cycle tracking app can be a great way to store all of this information together. There are many great apps available, however, most of them use a computer generated algorithm to determine when you ovulate and what your fertile window is off an "average menstrual cycle" of 28 days. Many women do not have a perfect 28 day cycle and those who do, do not necessarily ovulate on day 14 as the apps would have you believe. So please take their predictions with a grain of salt and instead use the clues your body is giving you to know for sure. No computer can tell you what your body can!
Apps that I like:
- Read Your Body
- Temp Drop (when used in conjunction with their wearable thermometer)