Having a cycle tracker app on your home screen is common. Millions of people around the world have downloaded apps like Clue, Natural Cycles, and Flo to help them stay in tune with their menstrual cycles. People use these services as a method of birth control, as a way to track their periods, as a tool for family planning, and simply to understand their bodies in a more complex way. But now that private information can be weaponized in states where abortion is or soon will be banned. So if you’re wondering how to follow your period without an application, 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 completely understandable that you’re willing to take your daily reproductive health information offline. Below, we’ve asked healthcare professionals what their best strategies are for knowing where you are in your menstrual cycle and how to use this information to help you make health decisions.
Understand the basics of the menstrual cycle
Before we get into strategies for tracking your menstrual cycle, it’s important to know the basics of how this cycle actually works. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the menstrual cycle is the hormonal process that a menstruating person’s body goes through each month to prepare for pregnancy.
“The menstrual cycle is divided into four phases, beginning with menstruation and ending with the luteal phase,” says Erin Flynn, DNP, FNP, a nurse practitioner working with reproductive services company Favor. Let’s review them:
- Menstrual phase: “The menstrual, or menstruation, phase of the menstrual cycle is when you get your period,” Flynn explains. 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 the first day of your menstrual cycle.
- Follicular phase: This phase lasts from the time your period ends until the time you start ovulating, or day six through day fourteen of an average menstrual cycle. During this time, your body ramps up its production of estrogen to thicken the lining of your uterus to house a fertilized egg. Another hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), helps mature an egg in your ovaries.
- Ovulation: Once your estrogen levels are high enough, your brain releases a hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH), which triggers ovulation, which is when a mature egg is released from the ovaries with the chance to be fertilized. . “Anywhere from day 11 to day 16 [of a menstrual cycle]people can get pregnant,” says Emily Godfrey, MD, MPH, associate professor of family medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington.
- Luteal phase: The luteal phase occurs if an egg released doesn’t get fertilized, and eventually cause all your hormones to drop. This triggers symptoms of PMS that you may recognize as fatigue, mood swings, sore breasts…you know the problem. 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 is 28 days long, but cycles that last between 21 and 35 days are technically considered “normal.” This range of normality is important for several reasons. First, having a regular cycle is a good indication of overall health, and second, having a predictable cycle gives you the best chance of accurately determining when you’re ovulating. In other words, having a consistent cycle helps you accurately predict which window each month you are in. 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 get pregnant).
However, not everyone has typical rules, and this is where following the rules can get risky. “If people don’t use anything to prevent pregnancy and don’t have a normal menstrual cycle, it’s going to be very difficult to predict your ovulation time,” says Dr. Godfrey. (And in turn, make it hard to know when you’re going to be fertile.) For example, people with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can have more than 35 days between their periods (meaning they don’t have only about nine periods per year), making it difficult to know exactly when their fertile windows are in any given month.
How effective is period tracking?
Proponents of period tracking love it because it’s very inexpensive, doesn’t require a prescription, and is a hormone-free method of birth control. Many people also find that keeping an eye on their cycle lets them know what’s going on with their cycles (and their hormones) each month.
Period tracker can also let you know when your period is usually due, which can help you spot a potential pregnancy early and ensure you get the care (prenatal or abortion) you want and need as soon as possible. as possible. This is essential in states that have banned abortion after a specific window of time 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 her missed period would already be considered four weeks pregnant.)
However, rule tracking is not foolproof if you use it to to prevent pregnancy. The method is vulnerable to human error (such as miscalculating your fertile window) and typically requires daily tracking and recording of various metrics, depending on the method you use. According to Planned Parenthood, fertility awareness methods such as cycle tracking are 76-88% effective in preventing pregnancy, on par with the withdrawal method. (If you don’t have regular periods, cycle tracking is probably even less effective.) In comparison, condoms are 85% effective in preventing pregnancy, the pill 91%, and the IUD 99%. So if you’re someone with an irregular cycle (more than 35 days between periods) or who would have trouble keeping up with daily measurements, period tracking probably isn’t the best method of birth control for you.
How to track your period without an app
Now that you’ve refreshed your memory of the menstrual cycle, we’re ready to discuss the options. Below, you’ll find three of the best non-tech period tracking strategies. Remember: if you don’t feel safe talking to a doctor in your current zip code (completely understandable), online services like the Favor chat tool and Planned Parenthood can help you get the answers you need.
1. The calendar method
The calendar method is a simple and easy way to keep tabs on your menstrual cycle, but it does take a little work at first. According to Planned Parenthood, you’ll need to track the length of your menstrual cycle (noting when your period starts and the number of days between them) to at least six months before starting to use this method of contraception.
Next, you’ll need to do a bit of math to figure out your fertile window, which is the days when you could ovulate and get pregnant. “[S]subtract 18 days from the length of your shortest cycle to determine the first day you are most likely to be fertile, and subtract 11 days from the length of your longest cycle to determine the last day you are the more likely to be fertile. For example, if your period lasts 27 days, you’re probably fertile on days 9 through 16,” Flynn says. (Check the Planned Parenthood website for step-by-step instructions, including a chart you can draw on paper. to make your tracking a little easier.)
2. Use a basal body temperature (BBT) chart
Your basal body temperature indicates your body temperature when it’s completely at rest, and according to Dr. Godfrey, it’s a solid family planning option. Your chances of getting pregnant are highest in the few days before your body temperature rises. And so, you can carefully plan sex around these days based on your personal reproductive goals.
That said, the BBT can be a bit of a pain because you to have to take your temperature as soon as you wake up. (That means before you go to the bathroom, check your phone, or turn on the coffee maker.) This habit can be hard to form at first, so you may need to work on it (and use backup contraception, if you are trying to prevent pregnancy) before it becomes 100% reliable. You should track your temperature regularly for at least three months before you start using it as contraception.
You can download and print a free BBT chart here.
3. Cycle Beads
Dr. Godfrey likes to recommend CycleBeads, a visual family planning tool that emulates a rosary. Starting on day one of your cycle, you’ll simply slide the beads clockwise through the month. It is based 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 that 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 sex if you’re using this method to prevent pregnancy,” explains Dr. Godfrey. . There are also blue beads, which represent the days when you are very unlikely get pregnant.
These beads have been clinically tested and are over 95% effective when used correctly and 88% effective with typical use. However, it may be a good idea to use them in tandem with other birth control methods until you’ve gotten into the habit of tracking the beads or know for sure that your cycle is regular. It is also generally not recommended for people with cycles shorter than 26 days or longer than 32 days.