What is fertility awareness, anyway?

To answer this question, I need to back up and make a crucial point that, even in 2021, many people still do not know or understand.

Women cannot get pregnant every single day. Pregnancy is only possible approximately 6 days out of each cycle. In contrast, men are fertile every day beginning in puberty and throughout most of the rest of their lives.

With that point in mind, fertility awareness is a means of using real time observable signs the female body gives each cycle (biomarkers) to assess hormonal activity and determine whether pregnancy is possible on any given day.

Yes, it is absolutely possible to identify the fertile and infertile days of the menstrual cycle, and it only takes a few minutes each day.

In order to identify the times of possible fertility in the cycle, we need to understand the physiology of the reproductive system.

Reproductive processes are directed by hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers that travel through our bloodstream to send instructions to the cells in our bodies. Each cycle, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) is released from the brain. FSH signals the ovaries to start developing an egg. As that egg matures inside a small sac (called a follicle) on the ovary, the follicle produces estrogen

Estrogen causes changes to occur in the cervix and uterus. The lining in the uterus thickens in preparation for a fertilized egg. The cervix is full of crypts that produce different types of mucus depending on the level and type of hormonal stimulation. As estrogen levels rise, that mucus becomes progressively more thin and fluid, and can be felt at the vaginal opening and also observed on toilet paper. Estrogenic cervical mucus keeps sperm cells alive in the cervical crypts for up to 5 days, waiting for ovulation to occur.

When estrogen reaches peak levels, this signals to the brain to release luteinizing hormone (LH), which ruptures the follicle in ovulation. Ovulation is the release of the mature egg into the fallopian tube. After ovulation, LH transforms the follicle into a new structure called the corpus luteum, which is a temporary endocrine gland that secretes the hormone progesterone. Progesterone causes cervical mucus to abruptly dry up, and acts on the uterine lining to further develop it in preparation for possible pregnancy. If fertilization of the egg occurs, and implantation is successful, the corpus luteum will continue producing progesterone for 10-12 weeks until the baby’s placenta takes over. If fertilization does not occur, hormone levels fall, the corpus luteum disintegrates, the uterine lining sheds in menstruation and a new cycle begins roughly two weeks after ovulation.

The key to fertility awareness is learning how to recognize the beginning and end of the ovulatory phase. This is the only time in the cycle where pregnancy is possible. Then, a couple can make informed decisions regarding their sexual behaviors, depending on their family planning goals at that time. If a couple is avoiding pregnancy, during the fertile time of the cycle the best practice is to abstain from all genital contact. Some couples will choose to use an alternative method such as a condom during this time, but it’s important to note that effectiveness may be lowered. The only time a barrier method can fail is during the fertile window. If trying to conceive, the couple can identify the few fertile days of the woman’s  cycle and time intercourse for those days to have the best chances of conception.

Fertility Awareness also has benefits outside of natural birth control or pregnancy achievement. Tracking observable biomarkers such as bleeding, cervical mucus, LH testing, and basal body temperature (BBT) gives useful information about the state of a woman’s reproductive hormones. Charting this data allows her to notice if her cycle is following typical patterns for her stage of reproductive life or if she should to seek medical attention to correct potential health problems. Fertility awareness allows those who chart their cycles to be informed participants in their own healthcare. This aspect in particular is something I love to talk about, so in the future you’re going to see quite a few posts on how to improve your health and well-being, using the cycle chart as a guide.

Many people decide to self-teach fertility awareness, but it’s important to note that the effectiveness studies that have been done were all studying couples who received training from an instructor. So, if you want to ensure you’re making the most of your cycle charting experience and are successful in your family planning intentions, choose a FABM that resonates with you and your lifestyle (more about this in a later post) and hire someone to teach you! I have learned several different FABMs from instructors, and I have gained so much through these interactions. Your instructor can answer questions quickly for you that might take you hours of research to figure out, and they are trained to deal with special situations that may arise during your charting.

If you’re ready to jump into charting, please take a look at my current course offerings available here. I’m trained to teach FEMM and in a few months, I’ll be taking on practicum clients for my Billings teacher training.

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See you next time!

~Brittany

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