Having a cycle tracking app on your home screen is common. Millions of people worldwide have downloaded apps like Clue, Natural Cycles, and Flo to help them stay in step with their menstrual cycles. Folks use these services as a birth control method, as way to track their periods, as a family planning tool, and to simply understand their bodies in a more complex way. But now, that private information may be weaponized in states where abortion is or will soon be banned. So if you're wondering how to track your period without an app, know that your inclination is valid.
While it's worth noting that some of these period tracking apps have already taken steps to privatize your data, it's totally understandable if you're ready to take your everyday, reproductive health information offline. Below, we asked medical professionals for their best strategies for keeping tabs on where you are in your menstrual cycle—and how to use that information to empower you in your health decisions.
Understanding the basics of the menstrual cycle
Before we get into strategies for tracking your menstrual cycle, it's important to know the basics on how said cycle actually works. Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the menstrual cycle is the hormonal process a menstruating person's body undergoes each month to get ready for a pregnancy.
"The menstrual cycle is divided into four phases, starting with menstruation and ending with the luteal phase," says Erin Flynn, DNP, FNP, a nurse practitioner working with reproductive delivery services company Favor. Let's review them:
- Menstrual phase: "The menstrual phase, or menstruation, of the menstrual cycle is when you get your period," says Flynn. Once your body's progesterone levels drop, it triggers the shedding of the uterine lining. "This phase lasts for the duration of your period," Flynn adds. The first day of your period is also considered to be day one of your menstrual cycle.
- Follicular phase: This phase lasts from the moment your period ends to when you start ovulating, or on day six through 14 of an average menstrual cycle. During this time, your body ramps up its production of estrogen to thicken the lining of your uterus in order to house a fertilized egg. Another hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), helps mature an egg in your ovaries.
- Ovulation: Once your estrogen levels get high enough, your brain releases a hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH), which triggers ovulation, aka a mature egg being released from the ovaries with the possibility of being fertilized. "Anywhere from day 11 to day 16 [of a menstrual cycle], people can get pregnant," says Emily Godfrey, MD, MPH, an associate professor of Family Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Washington.
- Luteal phase: The luteal phase occurs if a released egg doesn't get fertilized, and eventually results in all of your hormones plummeting. This triggers PMS symptoms you may recognize like fatigue, mood swings, sore breasts... you know the deal. The low hormone levels force your uterus to shed its lining, resulting in your period, which starts the cycle all over again.
The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days, but cycles that last anywhere between 21 to 35 days are technically considered "normal." This range of normalcy is important for a couple reasons. First, having a regular cycle is a good indication of overall health, and second, having a predictable cycle gives you the best chance at accurately determining when you're ovulating. In other words, having a consistent cycle helps you accurately predict the window of each month when you're likely to get pregnant—and make decisions about sex from there (like abstaining or using back-up protection like condoms during your fertile window if you don't want to be pregnant).
However, not everyone has a typical period, and that's where period tracking can get dicey. "If people aren't utilizing anything to prevent pregnancy and don't have a normal menstrual cycle, it's going to be very hard to predict your time of ovulation," says Dr. Godfrey. (And in turn, make it hard to know when you're going to be fertile.) For example, folks with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) may have more than 35 days between their periods (meaning, they only have about nine periods per year), making it difficult to know exactly when their fertile windows are in a given month.
How effective is period tracking?
Proponents of period tracking like it because it's very low cost, doesn't require a prescription, and is a hormone-free method of contraception. Many people also find keeping tabs on their cycle empowering in that they know what's going on with their cycles (and hormones) each month.
Period tracking can also inform you when your period typically is, which can help you detect a potential pregnancy early and ensure you get the care (prenatal or abortion) you want and need as soon as possible. That's critical in states that have banned abortion after a specific time window like six weeks, for example, since pregnancies are calculated from the first day of your last period. (So someone with a 28-day cycle who has a positive pregnancy test on the first day of their missed period would already be considered four weeks pregnant.)
However, period tracking is not fool-proof if you're using it to prevent pregnancy. The method is vulnerable to human error (like miscalculating your fertile window) and typically requires daily tracking and recording of various metrics, depending on which method you use. Per Planned Parenthood, fertility awareness methods like cycle tracking are 76-88 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, on par with the pull-out method. (If you don't have a regular period, cycle tracking is likely even less effective.) By comparison, condoms are 85 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, the Pill is 91 percent effective, and the IUD is 99 percent effective. So if you're a person with an irregular cycle (more than 35 days between periods) or who would struggle to keep track of daily metrics, period tracking is likely not the best birth control method for you.
How to track your period without an app
Now that you've refreshed your memory on the menstrual cycle, we're ready to discuss options. Below, you'll find three of the best no-tech, period-tracking strategies out there. Just remember: If you don't feel safe talking to a physician in your current zip code (totally understandable), online services such as Favor and Planned Parenthood chatting tool can help you get the answers you need.
1. The Calendar Method
The calendar method is a simple, easy way to keep an eye on your menstrual cycle—but it does require some work at the beginning. According to Planned Parenthood, you'll need to keep track of the length of your menstrual cycle (noting the start date of your periods and the number of days between them) for at least six months before you start using this method as birth control.
Next, you'll need to do a little bit of math to figure out your fertile window, aka the days you could ovulate and get pregnant. "[S]ubtract 18 days from the length of your shortest cycle to figure out the first day you're most likely to be fertile, and subtract 11 days from the length of your longest cycle to figure out the last day you’re most likely to be fertile. For example, if your period lasts 27 days, you are most likely fertile from day 9 to 16," explains Flynn. (Head to Planned Parenthood's website for step-by-step instructions, including a diagram you can draw out on paper to make your tracking a bit easier.)
2. Use a basal body temperature (BBT) chart
Your basal body temperature indicates the temp of your body when it's fully at rest, and according to Dr. Godfrey, it's a solid family planning option. Your chances of getting pregnant are the highest in the few days before your body's temperature rises. And thus, you can plan sex carefully around those days depending on your personal reproductive goals.
That said, BBT can be a bit of a pain because you must take your temperature first thing when you wake up. (That means before you go the bathroom, check your phone, or turn the coffee pot on.) This habit can be hard to create in the beginning, so you may have to work on it (and use backup contraception, if you're trying to prevent pregnancy) before it becomes 100 percent reliable. You have to track your temperature consistently for at least three months before you start using it as contraception.
You can download and print a free BBT chart here.
Dr. Godfrey likes to recommend CycleBeads, a visual family planning tool that emulates a rosary. Starting at day one of your cycle, you'll simply slide the beads clockwise as the month progresses. It relies on the "Standard Days" method, which is a simplified version of the Calendar Method, and was developed by researchers at Georgetown University.
Each bead is color-coded, and tells you something about your cycle on that particular day. "They literally indicate the first day of bleeding with a red marker on the cycle bead, and then there are 12 white beads that indicate you're not supposed to have intercourse if you are using that method to prevent pregnancy," says Dr. Godfrey. There are also blue beads, which represent days where you're highly unlikely to get pregnant.
These beads have been clinically tested, and are more than 95 percent effective when used correctly and 88 percent effective with typical use. However, it may be a good idea to use them in tandem with other birth control methods until you've made bead-tracking a habit, or know for sure that your cycle is regular. It's also typically not recommended for people with cycles shorter than 26 days or longer than 32 days.
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