I love teaching women about the Fertility Awareness Method, and the most common reaction that I get from the women I work with, and the women who discover my podcast is “why didn’t we learn all of this in junior high school?” quickly followed by “every woman needs to know this stuff!”
I’m sure you can relate to my experience as a teenager getting it drilled into my head that you can get pregnant at any time in your cycle; there are no “safe days”. The pill was hailed as the savoir and presented as the only reliable option to prevent pregnancy. Every day I feel so fortunate that I learned how my menstrual cycle works, and it’s soooo very different to what I was taught as a teenager.
Now I’m sharing this amazing and life changing information with you. So here goes! The 4 things you never knew about your menstrual cycle:
1. You can only get pregnant on 5-6 days of your cycle
You’re not fertile all the time! You can’t get pregnant on every single day of your cycle. Yes it’s actually true, and it’s backed up by scientific research.
Learning this small piece of information profoundly changed how I looked at my menstrual cycle. During those few days in your cycle when you can actually get pregnant, otherwise known as your fertile window, your cervix gets softer, opens slightly, and starts making cervical mucus. Cervical mucus can be white and sticky like creamy hand lotion, clear and stretchy like raw egg whites, or wet and slippery (you’d notice this after you go to the bathroom when you wipe yourself). In the simplest terms, when you see mucus you’re fertile.
Cervical mucus is amazing and it does a whole lot of cool stuff:
- Cervical mucus creates the perfect environment for sperm. It’s the right pH, it nourishes them, and gives them energy
- Sperm can live in cervical mucus for up to 5 days
- Cervical mucus filters out bad sperm and prevents them from getting close to the egg
- Cervical mucus has channels that guide sperm on their journey to the fallopian tubes
All this is to say that without mucus you can’t get pregnant. Sperm need mucus to survive. You can only get pregnant on the days you have mucus, and in a healthy cycle those are the 5-6 days before you ovulate.
2. When you don’t have mucus your vagina and cervix work together to kill sperm for fun
Your vagina is a terrible place for sperm to live most of the time. On the days of your cycle when you have no mucus your vagina is acidic and sperm just can’t handle it. Sperm are pretty fragile and can only survive in an alkaline environment. When you don’t have any cervical mucus, sperm die within a few minutes. On your “dry days,” or days without mucus, your body actively kills sperm and prevents pregnancy in a number of ways:
- Your cervix closes up shop and this prevents sperm from swimming though your cervix and into your uterus (you can actually feel the difference!)
- Your cervix forms a thick mucus plug that blocks the entrance to your uterus. This prevents sperm (or anything else) from getting anywhere near your uterus, or your fallopian tubes. The poor sperm don’t even get the chance to fertilize anything!
- Your mucus plug creates a physical barrier that sperm can’t swim through. Picture what it would be like to walk through a volleyball net. Yeah, not gonna happen!
- Your vagina is naturally acidic so sperm can’t survive for more than a few minutes
- When you don’t have mucus you’re not in your fertile window, and that means your hormone levels are too low to trigger ovulation. You can’t get pregnant if there is no egg to fertilize….
3. You only ovulate on one day in your cycle
Yes I didn’t misspeak. You only ovulate on one day of your menstrual cycle. You can release more than one egg on that day, but after you ovulate your ovary starts pumping out progesterone and that shuts down ovulation for the rest of your cycle.
Here’s how it works:
- At the beginning of your cycle, shortly after your period, your pituitary gland releases FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and that tells your ovaries to start preparing your eggs for ovulation
- As your follicles (eggs) mature in your ovaries, they start pumping out estrogen
- Eventually your estrogen levels get pretty high and this causes your cervix to soften, open and start making cervical mucus
- Once your estrogen reaches a certain point your pituitary releases LH (luteinizing hormone) and this is what triggers ovulation
- Your LH surge causes your dominant follicle to rupture and release an egg (or two). Yay for ovulation!
- After you ovulate, your ruptured follicle turns into the corpus luteum and it starts pumping out progesterone
- As your progesterone levels shoot up, progesterone dries up your cervical mucus, prevents further ovulation, and causes your Basal Body Temperature to rise
- For the rest of your cycle you won’t ovulate again because progesterone prevents that from happening
- In about 12-14 days you’ll get your period if you’re not pregnant!
Ovulation isn’t some random event that can happen on any day of your cycle. You, my friend, are not a rabbit, so you don’t ovulate when you’re turned on. Ovulation happens as a result of a complicated series of hormonal events. You can’t ovulate on Monday and then again on Friday. After you ovulate the show’s over. The band packs up and doesn’t come back again until your next cycle.
4. When your cycle is shorter or longer it is means you either ovulated earlier or later in your cycle
If you’ve ever wondered why your periods is “late” and you are 100% certain that you’re not pregnant, it’s because of variations in the first half of your cycle.
There are so many factors that can affect your cycle, but the most common effect you’ll typically see is delayed ovulation. This is one of the reasons fertility awareness is so awesome because it can help you understand what’s going on. It can also help you predict when you’re period will come.
Below are a few reasons why your cycle could vary in length from 26 days one cycle to 33 days the next (for example):
- lack of sleep or change in sleep patterns
- exercise (changes in exercise or excessive exercise)
- alcohol consumption
- eating disorders (i.e. anorexia/bulimia)
- Exposure to too much light at night
- if you’re breastfeeding
There are also a host of medical reasons why your cycle might vary in length including:
- Thyroid disorders
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Hypothalamic Amenorrhea
- Estrogen dominance
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
Once you ovulate your period typically comes within about 12-14 days on average when you’re not pregnant, and this means that when your cycles are “irregular” it is because of changes that happen in your cycle before you ovulate.
With that being said, don’t worry if your cycles aren’t always 28 days. That is one of the biggest myths about what a “normal” cycle is supposed to look like. A normal cycle ranges between 24 and 35 days in length with an average of about 28 days, so if your cycles are usually about 32 days long that might just be what’s normal for you. It’s also normal for your cycles to range in length by a few days from month to month.
If one month your cycle is 27 days and the next month it’s 30 days, you don’t have irregular cycles! You’re not a machine, so you can’t expect your body to operate like one.
Now I want to hear from you! Did anything in this list surprise you? Why do you think we weren’t taught these things in junior high school sex ed class? Join the conversation in the comments below!