The “Quantified Self” movement has people wearing devices, like Fitbit and Active Link, and using computer and smartphone-based apps to measure everything from how many steps are walked in a day to how much sleep we get at night, what foods we eat and when, and more. Women have an additional set of data they can track to add to their overall picture of self-understanding and health. With the interest in gathering all this data about ourselves now, it’s a great time to raise awareness about how women can benefit from tracking this information, especially because some of the things those devices are tracking are tied to these hormonal changes for women. It will give a fuller picture.
The data are the changes that happen over the course of a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. The hormonal fluctuations cause small changes in body temperature and certain physical signs. Women can measure these changes by taking their temperature first thing in the morning and by checking the physical signs. It takes less than two minutes a day and there are lots of apps now for tracking, or you can just track on a paper chart.
The usefulness of this information goes beyond fertility. It is often associated with fertility in people’s minds because many women learn about it relating to pregnancy or birth control, but it is part of my “Have It All!” programs geared towards young women because the information we learn about our bodies from tracking these changes can be useful from adolescence all the way through menopause.
The hormonal changes that happen over a woman’s cycle affect:
- energy levels
- diet and food cravings
- headaches, abdominal pain, and other physical changes
By tracking we can plan for the changes. For instance, it might be better to schedule a job interview or big event during the phase of your cycle when you feel more positive and outgoing and your sleep and diet are better, instead of during the phase when you feel more sensitive, sleep more lightly, and have headaches and cravings.
Tracking also helps us connect with our bodies, giving us an appreciation of the way our bodies work and lightening the emphasis on how our bodies look. This can be an important reality check, especially as women transition through various life phases and experiences, like pregnancy and aging.
When we are aware of our natural rhythms and the subtle changes that occur over the course of our cycles, we notice when the pattern changes. By tracking we can look back over months, or even years of documented data, which is more reliable than just using our memories. Then, we can show the data to our doctors which can give them concrete information to help us get better care. Women have noticed health problems like cervical, uterine, or ovarian cancer in the earlier stages, polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, and early menopause because they were tracking.
To start tracking you will need:
“How To” Info: A great book to get started is Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Tony Weschler. It explains everything about how our cycles work, the signs we should be looking for, and how to track and chart. There are other websites like Beautifulcervix.com that can get you started, but they are not as comprehensive.
A basal body temperature thermometer. This type of thermometer is different than a regular thermometer because it is precise to the tenth of a degree. You can get them at a drugstore starting around $10. You don’t need a fancy one, although they make some with lots of bells and whistles that remember previous readings. A regular digital thermometer is fine as long as it reads in tenths of degrees and not two-tenths increments.
A tracking app or a paper chart. If you google “how do I chart my fertility” you will get pages of websites that offer online trackers, and there are lots of them for smartphones too. The book offers samples of paper charts which you can create in a spreadsheet program like Excel, or you can find paper templates on the web too.
You can start tracking at any point in your cycle. Expect that it will take a month or two to start being able to make sense of the chart. That’s another reason why it’s helpful to get comfortable with tracking before you try to get pregnant. Also, since half of all pregnancies are unplanned, tracking can be a helpful tool for a number of reasons even if you are not focused on your fertility.
It’s also important to know that if you are using chemical forms of birth control, tracking won’t work the same because the chemicals alter the hormonal processes.
You can use this data on its own, or you can overlay it with the data from your health tracking device or other tracking programs you use and get a deeper understanding of your Quantified Self.
Which is your favorite health tracking device that you are using? What’s the most useful personal health data you track? Leave a comment below!
Michal Klau-Stevens is The Birth Lady. She is the creator of the 11 Steps to Planning Ahead to “Have It All” Audio Class, an on-demand, downloadable program that helps 20-somethings design a life they love that includes career, family, learning, and self-fulfillment. She is a maternity consultant, pregnancy coach, consumer expert on maternity care issues, Past President of BirthNetwork National, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and mother. Her website is TheBirthLady.INFO. Find her on Facebook at The Birth Lady page!
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