Do I Need A Period Tracker? (8 Things You Can Learn From Your Fifth Vital Sign)
A friend’s daughter got her period last year at 12 years old. As her first menstrual period—known as menarche—came to an end, she looked up at her mother, rolled her eyes and groaned.
“I cannot believe this happens every year,” she said.
That’s right: Mom said month. She heard year.
Yes, periods can be uncomfortable, annoying, and frustratingly taboo. But more than ever before, women are paying attention to their menstrual cycles. If you’ve picked up a magazine or scrolled through your news feed recently, you’ve probably noticed: period tracking is a thing.
But other than letting you know when to wear black pants instead of white, is tracking your cycle really beneficial?
The short answer? Yes.
In fact, there’s a grassroots movement of researchers and healthcare providers who believe that the female menstrual cycle—long ignored and notoriously under-researched in scientific studies—is the “fifth vital sign” of overall health. (It wasn’t required by law that women be included in clinical studies until 1993.)
Here, we’ll review 8 things you can learn from tracking your fifth vital sign.
1. Learn your unique cycle length and patterns
Do you have a normal cycle? This answer, of course, depends on how you define “normal.” The length of a menstrual cycle is the number of days between the first day of menstrual bleeding of one cycle to the onset of menses of the next cycle. And the median duration of a menstrual cycle is 28 days with most cycle lengths between 25 to 30 days.
First, a quick visual overview of the phases of your cycle.
But what’s “normal” on average for a population of women is pretty irrelevant to what’s normal for you. Do you tend to have a delayed period when you’re extra stressed at work or travel overseas? (Lots of women do.)
If your cycle is irregular, meaning that it occurs more or less frequently than about every 28 or so days, do you have an underlying issue that needs to be addressed?
Keeping track of your cycle can help you determine what’s “normal” for you.
2. Discover physical symptoms that dovetail with your cycle
Are you hungrier during a particular phase of your cycle?
Many women find that they are hungrier during the luteal phase compared to the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, and several studies have supported the hypothesis that women tend to have higher caloric intake during the luteal phase.
Why? Studies (like this one published in the European Journal of Nutrition) suggest that progesterone may stimulate, and estrogen may suppress, appetite during the cycle.
Do you tend to have a pattern of gastrointestinal issues that are tied to your cycle?
Many women do. According to this study, published in BMC Women’s Health, 73% of the women studied experienced one of the primary GI complaints either just before or during their period: abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
3. Detect possible mood changes at different phases of your cycle
It’s long been understood that estrogen is linked to mood, and scientists have been studying the connection between the menstrual cycle and psychological wellbeing for over 50 years. But there is still so much that we don’t know.
Here’s what we do know:
- The amygdala, hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in mood regulation, and have consistently demonstrated sensitivity to fluctuating levels of sex hormones such as estrogen.
Although the exact relationship between mood regulation and fluctuating hormones is not well understood, we do know that there’s a connection somehow.
Tracking your cycle can help you understand patterns and connections that are valuable for you, individually. Do you tend to get anxious several days before your period comes? If so, you can adjust for that, making sure you get extra rest, reduce stress as much as possible, or schedule self-care during that time.
Knowledge is power, and when you know where you are in your menstrual cycle, you can be more aware of physical or emotional patterns. When you understand the why behind your appetite or mood changes, you become empowered, and can be much better equipped to handle the how.
4. Be aware of potential underlying health issues
Do you have heavy bleeding? Missed periods? Abdominal pain or other issues you may need to have checked out? This certainly isn’t the case for everyone, but tracking your cycle can help you determine whether any physical discomfort or pain might be connected to your menstrual cycle.
It can also help you determine whether or not you’re ovulating. Many women assume that if their cycle is around 28-days, they are ovulating. But that isn’t always the case, since it’s possible to have breakthrough bleeding. Dr. Jerilynn Prior, Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the University of British Columbia, points out in her research that ovulation is highly variable for all women.
Dr. Prior authored an extensive study of over 3,100 healthy, regularly menstruating women between the ages of 20 and 49.9, which found that only 63% of these women ovulated during the cycle that was tested, meaning that 37% of them did not ovulate and had what’s known as an “anovulatory” cycle.
5. Collect data that you can provide your doctor
When you’re recording daily data on your cycle and your physical and emotional health—you’ll have a little database of information to pass along to your healthcare provider.
6. Know when you’re in your fertile window
Increasingly, women are turning to period tracking tools to determine their fertile window.
If you do use period tracking for this purpose, make sure you pick one that’s been clinically proven to be effective, as studies, like this one from the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, have shown that some are not. (Check out our full post on ovulation trackers.)
Also, when it comes to getting pregnant, there’s a lot of misinformation out there—learn the fertility facts.
7. Maximize your physical performance
Researchers are beginning to understand how the menstrual cycle might affect physical performance. Studies have shown that there is an increased incidence of female athletic injuries during the luteal phase and the first days of the menstrual period. Another study also found that heavy menstrual bleeding was associated with anemia, iron supplementation and slower performance time in elite athletes.
More research needs to be conducted to understand whether this is meaningful for women who are not elite athletes, but by recording your own data, you can determine whether these factors are relevant to you.
8. Plan your major events for times when you’ll feel your best
Some women who are significantly affected either mentally (anxiety, mood swings, trouble sleeping) or physically (bloating, cramps, heavy bleeding) by their menstrual cycles, like to know precisely when their more challenging menstrual cycle phase is coming so that they can plan ahead.
But how many women are negatively impacted by their cycle to the point where it’s difficult to work or socialize?
More than you may think. Severe pain and heavy bleeding affect about one-third of women. According to this study by the Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which examined 1,547 women:
- 32% had heavy bleeding
And of those women:
- Almost 25% said they refrain from social activities because of bleeding
- Over 90% said they find it to be bothersome
- 16% said they take time off of work because of it
We’re still learning so much the menstrual cycle. When it comes to women’s reproductive health, we are still fighting an uphill battle against long-standing myths and cultural taboos. Here at Ava, it is our mission to empower women with the most up-to-date information about their reproductive health. Join us.
Want to learn more?
- Check out this fascinating piece from New York Magazine, Is Estrogen the Key to Understanding Women’s Mental Health?
- Read this eye-opening report on how Ignorance About Menstruation Puts Women’s Health at Risk