Fertility Awareness Method: Your Natural Alternative to Synthetic Contraception
The Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) is a natural and hormone-free approach to birth control that involves observing and interpreting changes in your menstrual cycle to know what days you’re fertile and not.
Understanding your menstrual cycle is more than just knowing when your fertile window occurs in order to avoid pregnancy. It also allows you to plan your lifestyle and intimate relationships to optimise your chances of getting pregnant if you’re trying to conceive.
Your menstrual cycle also serves as an internal health guide that shows you when things aren’t right or when you need to give your body a little more attention. It’s our fifth vital sign and something we should be mindful of just as we’re conscious of our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature!
Our menstrual cycle is our fifth vital sign. In addition to monitoring blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate, we should always be alert of any changes in our monthly cycle.
4 Things You Need to Know About Your Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle occurs in three phases: follicular, ovulatory, and luteal. The follicular phase (pre-ovulatory) begins on the first day of menstruation and lasts for about 7 to 21 days. It is followed by the ovulatory phase which only lasts for 1 to 2 days. You then move into the luteal phase (post-ovulatory) which lasts for about 10 to 16 days.
- A healthy menstrual cycle should occur monthly and is typically between 21 and 35 days long. If your cycle is shorter or longer than this, it can be an indication that something is out of balance and action needs to be taken.
- It takes 100 days for your follicles to mature. If your follicles were unhealthy for any part of their maturation process, this can show up in your period months later. This simply means that how you’re phasing in your current menstrual cycle can be a reflection of your health months back.
- If your menstrual cycle is irregular it’s a sign that something is out of balance. As a result, it may be more difficult to track your cycle. The more info you take note of, the easier it will be for you to understand your cycle. Eventually, it will also be easier to support your body and improve your health.
Before you can use FAM you need to understand YOUR menstrual cycle. We often hear that the menstrual cycle is 28 days long and that ovulation occurs on day 14. But this may not be the case for you and a lot of other women. Your cycle might be 25, 29 or even 35 days and that’s totally fine.
When you start tracking your menstrual cycle, you’ll need a calendar where you chart which day of your cycle you’re on, any symptoms you’re experiencing, and how you’re feeling physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically. The more things you note down, the easier it will be for you to track and understand your cycle.
The Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) will help you to understand the purpose of your cycle – that ovulation is the main event in your cycle and not your menstruation.
3 Essential Factors of FAM
When you’re charting your cycle days each month, there are three main factors to pay attention to for FAM to be effective. These factors will help you to understand when you’re fertile and not – also, they help indicate which phase of your menstrual cycle you’re currently in.
- Cervical fluid – how it changes in consistency throughout the month
- Basal body temperature (BBT) – your temperature upon awakening
- Cervical position – how your cervix shifts during the different phases of your cycle
1. CERVICAL FLUID
What is cervical fluid?
Cervical fluid, also known as cervical mucus, is produced by the cervix a few days before ovulation. It is essential for fertility and helps sperm to travel through the cervix and reproductive system to meet and fertilize the egg. It also acts as a filter, making sure that no unhealthy sperm reaches the egg.
Cervical fluid has the ability to keep sperm alive for up to five days. Without cervical fluid, sperm can’t survive in the vagina and will die within an hour or two. This is why we’re technically only fertile for five to seven days each month!
What changes should you look for in your cervical mucus?
The days after menstruation will have you generally feeling quite dry and you’ll not see any discharge from your yoni. Yoni is a Sanskrit word that has been interpreted to literally mean the womb or the female reproductive organs. At this time, your cervix is blocked by a thick plug of mucus which prevents sperm from entering the uterus.
During the follicular phase and as oestrogen levels begin to increase, the cervix will start to produce mucus. At first, mucus will be a bit thick, opaque, pasty, and claggy in its consistency. Keep in mind that this can be the start of your potential fertile days. If you’re trying to prevent pregnancy then it’s advisable to protect yourself with barrier methods. Otherwise, this is the time when you’ll want to have more sex if you’re trying to conceive!
The fertile phase begins on average about six days before ovulation. As you move closer to ovulation, cervical mucus becomes more slippery, clear, and stretchy – almost like egg white – and you can actually experience feeling quite wet. When you get these signs, you know that this is your peak fertile period. This also means that the cervix is open for sperm to enter.
In the days following ovulation, you enter the luteal phase of your cycle. Progesterone begins to rise, causing mucus to thicken and form a plug which closes the cervix. You’ll again begin to have less discharge and your vagina becomes drier as you approach menstruation.
NOTE: Some women do notice one or two days of wetness just before menstruation; however, this is often just an indication that your cycle is nearing its end. Of course, by this time you know that your peak fertile days have passed.
2. BODY BASAL TEMPERATURE
Body basal temperature (BBT) is a measure of your resting body temperature or resting metabolic rate, which is impacted by the hormonal changes that occur during your menstrual cycle.
Measure your BBT accurately by taking your temperature first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. During the follicular phase or the first half of your cycle, your temperature stays within a certain ‘low’ range. After ovulation, however, you’ll notice an increase in your temperature upon waking due to a rise in progesterone levels.
With an adequate corpus luteum function to produce enough progesterone, the temperature will remain high until just before your next period. If the egg isn’t fertilised your temperature will drop again.
What’s important to understand is that with BBT, you’ll be able to see that you’ve ovulated and when ovulation occurred. So tracking your BBT won’t tell you precisely when you are fertile, nor will it tell you when you’re ovulating. BBT is purely a way for you to confirm ovulation and measure the duration of your luteal or post-ovulatory phase.
How to use BBT
- Take your temp first thing in the morning before getting up and doing anything. Keep your thermometer by your bedside, just next to your phone or calendar.
- Note down your temperature or add it to your calendar and then start your day.
- Be aware of factors that can affect your BBT such as late nights, poor sleep, alcohol consumption, or snoozing. You’ll need a minimum of five hours of sleep to fully be able to use the BBT method.
- Allow yourself three months to fully understand your personal temperature pattern.
- Always measure your temperature the same way and with the same thermometer (make sure it has at least two decimals). A standard thermometer will do but there are specialised BBT thermometers that you can get in the market.
3. CERVICAL POSITION
A less commonly used method to track your cycle is cervical position. It's a great compliment to the BBT and cervical mucus methods and gives you added confidence knowing where you’re at in your cycle. Also, if for any reason your cervical mucus is abnormal, the cervical position method will greatly help.
Similar to our cervical fluid, the cervix also responds to hormonal variations during the menstrual cycle and changes its position, firmness and openness. Just as oestrogen causes cervical mucus to become wet, slippery, and fertile, it also causes the cervix to feel more open, soft and deep right before ovulation.
Changes in the cervix that you’re able to feel include:
Throughout your cycle, you can feel into your yoni and notice how your cervical position is changing between low, medium and deep in relation to when you’re fertile.
- LOW - your least fertile phase and often around menstruation
- MEDIUM - building up to ovulation and also post-ovulation
- DEEP - you’re approaching ovulation and at your most fertile phase
You can also feel changes in the firmness of your cervix at different phases of your cycle which can tell when you’re most likely fertile or not.
- FIRM - often in combination with a low cervix at your least fertile phase before and during menstruation (feels like the tip of your nose)
- MEDIUM - fertility begins to rise during the follicular and beginning of the luteal phase
- SOFT - deep, soft and most probably wet as you approach your peak fertile days around ovulation (feels like your lips)
Nature is simply amazing! Because our reproductive system is basically designed for procreation, the cervix opens up just before ovulation to allow sperm to enter. This is something that we can pick up on if we really befriend our yoni and cervix. The main differences you’ll be able to feel are your cervix being:
- CLOSED - at your least fertile period before and during menstruation
- SLIGHTLY OPEN - moving towards ovulation in the follicular phase and also post-ovulation
- OPEN - during ovulation and your peak fertile phase
A few things to keep in mind when checking your cervical changes:
- Always use clean hands.
- Use your index and middle finger to feel into your yoni and cervix.
- Be gentle!
- Check around the same time every day.
- Use the same position – one leg up on the toilet seat/tub or in a squatting position.
- Empty your bladder before checking.
- Relax and be curious. This is an area of our body that we often haven’t explored enough, so give yourself some time to really get to know your cervix!
The Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) allows women to be in control of their own body and identify exactly when in their menstrual cycle that they’re fertile and not. It can help women trying to conceive to time their ovulation for optimal chances of fertilisation. In the same way, those trying to avoid pregnancy will know when a barrier method is necessary.
Charting and understanding the menstrual cycle is understanding our own health. By identifying changes and abnormalities in our cycle, we can work on the root cause of menstrual and hormonal imbalances and irregularities. Remember, your menstrual cycle is your fifth vital sign and gives you a monthly report card of your health!
I suggest as a starting point taking our women's health assessment. The comprehensive assessment will give you a better understanding how many of your symptoms link to hormonal issues and how to take proactive steps to regain control of your hormones.