Three reasons why learning about your own reproductive cycle is easier and more empowering than you think

PCOS, natural family planning, napro, NFP

Though many women in society depend on hormonal birth control for preventing pregnancy, many are also finding that the side effects can be unpleasant and even harmful. But hormonal birth control is not their only option. Women as well as girls in their teens can be empowered to take a more natural route if they are educated about their own ovulatory and menstrual cycles.

Shirelle Edghill, director of Infinity Fertility Care and a Certified FertilityCare Practitioner, recently made a Facebook Live video summarizing the top three reasons that teaching girls and young women to chart their menstrual cycles can save them “years of frustration down the road.” Edghill says she “teach[es] women and couples how to chart their cycles for diagnosis and treatment of reproductive health problems and for family planning.”

What does “charting your cycle” mean?

“Charting is the daily practice of writing down your signs of your fertility cycle – this includes your period days, any other days of any kind of bleeding, spotting, brown or red mucus, cervical mucus discharges, and estimated ovulation,” said Edghill, as well as “understanding what you should see and what you shouldn’t be seeing [on your chart] as far as what’s healthy and what might not be.”

Teens and young women can learn how to chart over video chat or at an in-person class, typically in several sessions over the course of a few months after the initial instruction. Teens and young women learn exactly what observations to perform, such as taking their temperature or checking for their cervical mucus. They write these observations on their chart using standardized abbreviations taught by a certified instructor in any of a variety of modern, evidence-based fertility awareness methods.

Edghill is trained in the Creighton model of fertility awareness, which utilizes different colored stickers and abbreviations.

Depending on the method, charting may involve actual writing on a paper chart or entering data in an app. A trained practitioner periodically checks in with the teen or young woman for a chart review to offer guidance about any concerning patterns on the chart, and to recommend seeing a doctor for further workup if necessary. Doctors trained in restorative reproductive medicine can “translate” those charts to guide testing and use of other diagnostic tools when appropriate.

“Charting” itself takes roughly a minute every night once a girl is familiar with the method.

Three Reasons to Chart Your Cycle

Reason #1: “You know early on in your reproductive life if you might have fertility issues.”

Edghill pointed out, “This is a real gift, knowing early on if you might have issues with your fertility. I get the privilege of teaching quite a few women who are fairly young, in their teens or early twenties, and without fail, they love learning to chart.”

While some women may be initially hesitant or skeptical, Edghill commented, “I have yet to meet a woman who learned how to understand and chart her cycle who was like ‘gosh, I wish I never had to learn that.'”

As an example, Edghill said that a 25-year-old woman may realize through charting that she is having long cycles, meaning that her cycle is longer than 37 days from one period to the next. Or she might not be having cervical mucus or any signs of ovulation. All of these charting patterns could impact a woman’s ability to bear children in the future, and require further exploration. Edghill noted that for a 25-year-old, “It may alter her family planning timeline if she knows that starting a family may not happen easily.” A 35-year-old woman who has just learned to chart but wants to get pregnant right away and notices the same concerning chart patterns is at a disadvantage in comparison because “the younger woman has the advantage of time.”

Reason #2: Charting provides a reality check on the “general unease” many women feel about their fertility.

Edghill shared that women may have all sorts of fertility concerns or even feel “something’s not quite right but they just can’t put their finger on it.” She says, “Charting at its core is data, data about you and your health. Just as you have other data points about your health that you collect and track and pay attention to over time, you can collect your cycle data and track it over time… If there is a problem, it will make itself known on the chart, usually within a few cycles.”

One of Edghill’s clients, a woman in her 20s, initially believed she had long cycles, but after she learned to chart, she learned that she had no real signs of ovulation at all. With the help of a NaPro doctor, she was able to get help and become pregnant. Charting, can help girls and young women know if there are actual problems to address, or whether their fears are “unfounded” and their body is in fact functioning healthily.

READ: New Georgetown elective will educate future doctors on fertility awareness

Reason #3: Charting encourages addressing root causes of reproductive issues now rather than masking symptoms with birth control for years.

Edghill says she regularly sees a “common cycle of women who are on every different type of birth control for decades. They have their first fertility problem when they’re 15, they get put on birth control. They stay on birth control. They switch birth control. They try an IUD, they try the patch, they try Implanon… Of course, we know that contraceptives come with a lot of side effects.”

She added that unfortunately, “Women really feel like that they have to do these painful, uncomfortable things to their bodies and put up with all of these side effects, because they don’t know that there is a better way. Charting is the gateway to the better way. In my opinion, it’s a bad strategy to constantly treat reproductive problems with birth control, because I think there are better ways, but also because what actually happens as a result of this strategy is ignorance. When a woman is on birth control, she’s not cycling regularly… [hormonal birth control] stop[s] you from having knowledge of your body’s actual patterns… You really lose the opportunity to actually understand and learn about your fertility.”

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