I love that cycle charting and the so called “Femme” tech is so main stream now. I love that I talk about periods and people are aware of their periods, have an idea when they are bleeding and cervical fluid patterns.
What Is Cycle Charting?
Cycle charting is any method of charting your cycle. It can range from making a note in your calendar when you are bleeding, to taking your temperature, observing your cervical fluid and cervix position to detailed journalling on how you feel each day of your cycle.
There are a number of methods of doing this and some are also used for contraception, but what I really love is the insight in to our health, wellbeing and period problems that it gives us. Once you understand how to interpret your own chart, you are given the key to a reference manual for your own body.
No more, “what on earth is going on?” But, “ok, I have a new symptom, and this happens when this hormone is doing that so maybe I need to look into that”.
It is fascinating what your period can tell you and I have even had some clients catch issues early which opens up the options both in terms of “natural” methods and medical interventions and you have more choice and time to make that choice.
Different Types Of Cycle Charting
There are some of the cycle charting that are more spiritual and psychosocial in nature such as taking into account how you are feeling every day, although it is important to note that this is also tied in with your hormones too.
There are rhythm method cycle charting methods such as the rhythm method and calendar days method which all make assumptions on your period or luteal phase length and therefore are limited unless you have a 28 day cycle or a same length luteal phase every month. They are more prescriptive than observing as you are trying to fit your cycle into a pre-prescribed cycle and this can mean assuming you are fertile when you aren’t or not fertile when you are.
Then we move on to the observation methods using one index, either temperature or cervical fluid and using those and applying rules to understand when you are fertile or not. Cervical fluid is great for giving us clues as to various inflammatory issues, hormonal issues and is a great indicator that you have entered into your fertile phase, due to it’s oestrogen nature and that your body is trying to ovulate. It can take some time to decode, but it is very useful.
Basal body temperature, also known as BBT, is a great confirmation of ovulation actually happening as it relies on progesterone
Then there are the sympto-thermal methods. I learnt the Sympto-Thermal Method of Natural Family Planning, also called NFP (not a Christian organisation in the UK). The Sympto-Thermal Method of Fertility Awareness is similar but has less rules is known as FAM. There is also Symptopro and a few others out there.
These combine both cervical fluid and BBT to provide a lower risk method that can give us so much information about our cycle, both in terms of fertility but also hormonal health, inflammation, and even indicate certain things such as cysts and cervical dysplasia for some people, way earlier than other symptoms start showing.
I also love that once you start paying attention to these signs, you become aware of your body and build a positive relationship with your body.
How To Use Cycle Charting To Help With Your Period Problems
I integrate teaching cycle charting with the other modalities I use with my clients to help them to ascertain what is working for them and make more informed choices about their health.
This can be “dripping” in more and more layers each session or my online charting course. I can also teach people how to interpret their charts, but the charts are so rich in information, it feels such a waste to ignore it.
How Effective Is It As A Contraception Method?
The symptom-thermal method, if taught by a qualified teacher and executed perfectly has a success rate on the pearl index of 0-2% depending on your source. This means that out of 100 couples practicing this method alone, eg not using condoms, withdrawal, hormonal or other birth control, who were taught by a teacher and practiced the method perfectly, there were between 0 and 2 pregnancies in a year.
I usually see a more precise figure of 0.2% perfect use efficacy quoted, but I would rather give the range as different studies have slightly different parameters.
According to the Family Planning Association Condoms have an effectiveness of 98% when used perfectly, and hormonal birth control (again used perfectly) is 98%. (So this would be a 2% on the pearl index rating). However, condoms have an actual efficacy of up to 91%. And chemical contraceptives, eg hormonal birth control 91%.
I see symptom-thermal methods quoted anywhere from 97-76% actual use rate.
What Causes Such as Difference Between A Perfect Use & Actual Use Rate?
A Crash Course in Fertility & The Menstrual Cycle
Humans are not perfect. Let’s take a look at how the menstrual cycle works in brief. Symptom-thermal method starts the beginning of the cycle with the period. This is the drop of hormones from the previous cycle releasing the endometrium and womb lining.
This will bet between 3-7 days in a “healthy range” menstrual cycle, and then there will be a few days of “dryness”. After the dry spell, you will start to observe cervical fluid, which gradually gets more liquid leading up to ovulation.
This cervical fluid can keep sperm alive for around 5-6 days and store it ready for ovulation (aren’t our bodies so clever?)
Important note, sometimes your fertile window starts before you have observable cervical fluid so please do not use this post as an instructional article for Sympto-Thermal charting.
We then ovulate at the peak of this crescendo of cervical fluid and the fluid will suddenly drop off. The egg will be viable for fertilisation for 24-48 hours. Very rarely, two eggs will be released in one cycle and it will be in this small window resulting in non identical twins). So combining the two we have up to 6 days of cervical fluid keeping sperm viable and 48 hours or 2 days of egg viability so an 8 day window of fertility.
Once the egg has burst from the ovum, the left over follicle sac turns into a corpus luteum which secretes progesterone, a hormone necessary for keeping a fertilised egg alive. Progesterone matures the endometrium and up regulates the thyroid and therefore our body temperature rises.
If we watch for the temperature rise, we know progesterone is established and therefore the end of our fertility is observed, although we wait to the end of the day of the rise so we can have a buffer to allow for misinterpretation.
Unfortunately, in the lead up to ovulation, oestrogen and testosterone are driving us to procreate and take more risks both sexually and not, so there may be a temptation, especially if your body clock is screaming “let’s make babies” at you to take risks.
How The Different Menstrual Cycle Phases Are Affected By Contraception
However, the sympto-thermal method as it identifies your fertile window means that not following the rules and taking a risk during your fertile time is the same as not using any contraception at this point. If you want this method to work, not only do you need to learn and understand the rules, but stick to them if you want to avoid pregnancy.
An interesting fertility fact to know about cervical fluid, is that if there is a steady amount of it from the cervix to the external genitalia, it can suck up an propel sperm, so in very rare circumstances, you can get pregnant from sperm getting into contact with your genital area, even without penetration.
Now let’s think about condoms. Most people use condoms throughout the month and if you have understood the menstrual cycle section above, you will know that they are only protecting against fertility on the fertile days. The rest of the time, they are purely offering STI protection.
So failure is only an issue on 8 days of the cycle which. Add on to that, that failure can be caused by not using the condom at the right time during intercourse, so if there is genital contact during the fertile phase before the condom is used, the condom is expired, or has been in a walled (and degraded over time due to body head and friction), it doesn’t make a difference to contraception during the non fertile time, but there is a risk of pregnancy during the fertile phase.
Now let’s look at oral contraceptive pills. There are many different pills, but best practice is to take them at the same time every day (not all pills state this but for a good number of them it is the best practice). But digestive issues such as low stomach acid, any issues with food digestion and being sick can mean that the full dose is not broken down or absorbed.
There are also medications and other substances that can affect the absorption in to the body and the efficacy. Also, the pill is designed with an average body weight and body fat range in mind. If you are over that average, then the dose might be slightly too low for you to be fully effective.
And your bleeds are not periods, they are just withdrawal bleeds to give you the illusion of a period so you still feel like you are menstruating (and it was expected to hide the fact you were on the pill when it first came out).
This means that if you are still fertile, you really have no clue where in your cycle you are and when your fertile phase is. Luckily, the risk is still low but it is harder to guess.
Obviously, if you forget to take the pill, don’t take it for a week because life got busy, and then take all of the late pills in one go, this gets more confusing.
Looking back at the symptom thermal method, you are either fertile or not fertile and deliberately breaking the rules or by not understanding them, can mean that you just go straight to the effect of unprotected intercourse.
Condoms, hormonal birth control and other methods have other fail safes involved, but also some of these other methods have side effects.
A note on fertility apps; some are great and I use them with my own knowledge when they are questionable. I love that thermometers are synced so I don’t have to look for a temperature when barely awake. However, some apps have been shown not to be as effective as initially advertised, so please do your research first.
I would like to re-emphasize if you have read this far, that my love of cycle charting methods is because it tells so much about the body and periods and it can be used in conjunction with condoms if used as a contraceptive.
How Hard Is It To Learn Sympto-Thermal Method Charting?
Honestly, this depends from person to person. Some people learn observation rules in a couple of hours and then when we have a few cycle charts, I can show them the rules to interpret them and even give tidbits in between.
For some people, it is not intuitive and straight forwards and they may have several false starts trying to learn the method and even giving up a few times before committing to it.
You don’t have to be great at maths or science, you can learn to chart without a science degree, but some people will find it easier than others.
However, I teach in layers, first of all the overall menstrual cycle and hormones involved. Then one sign at a time. It is achievable for most people.
There is also getting into the habit of looking for, observing and charting the signs every day. This can be challenging for people who find it difficult to get into routines and habits, so if that is you, you may want to hold off using it as your main contraceptive method until you have both the charting and the rules down to a pat.
Wait, If Sympto-Thermal Charting can Help Prevent Pregnancy, Can It Help Me To Achieve Pregnancy Too?
This is a great question and yes, it does. As you are able to identify the start of your fertile period, using either using one of a number of calculations that you learn or the appearance of cervical fluid whichever arrives first and knowing when your fertile window ends. For most people in a “regular” cycle this is going to be around 8 days that you know you are fertile and have a chance of conceiving.
I cannot begin to count how many people think you are fertile between ovulation and your period, which, once you have established that a thermal shift has occurred is actually a completely infertile phase and you have no chance of getting pregnant (in fact it is so rare for this to happen that every paper written on this phenomenon has yet to prove any case but it is thought to be one pregnancy worldwide per year).
Additionally, I have had a number of people come to me upset that they aren’t conceiving, when they aren’t even trying to conceive in the fertile period, which can be heartbreaking at best, and lead to a number of unnecessary and sometimes invasive tests, exams and treatments, for no reason.
I Heard That I Have To Be Religious To Use Cycle Charting…
Whilst the original doctors who did the research and came up with the Sympto-Thermal Method of Natural Family Planning (NFP) did so to find a method of contraception that aligned with their religious beliefs, you do not have to be a Christian or any other religion in order to learn this method. Whilst the association I learnt with, the NFPTA is secular, (although some members are of different religions), there was no religious aspect to my learning, other than knowing that some religions find NFP acceptable as a method of contraception.
I understand that when NFP was shared across the pond, a new organisation was set up in the US they became a religious organisation, but my friends who have trained through them say that they do not teach anything religious, nor are they obliged to.
If you learn cycle charting with me, it will not contain any religious information, purely just charting your cycle.
How Can I Get Started With Charting My Cycle?
I have an introductory course that you can take here that goes through the menstrual cycle, the signs and indexes and how to start recording them and how to start using these to interpret what is going on with your health.
If you are a client for other reasons, I work this into my sessions with you anyway, or you can work with me via Zoom.