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March 1, 2021

Debunking Menstrual Cycle Myths pt.1

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.

MYTH: Your only option for regulating your menstrual cycle, reducing unpleasant symptoms, and avoiding pregnancy is hormonal/pharmaceutical birth control.

TRUTH: There is another way. If there was a tried and true, scientifically proven method of natural birth control that allowed you to not only get to know when you’re most fertile to prevent pregnancy, but get to know your own body on a deeper level, wouldn’t you want to know about it?

The Fertility Awareness Method is an effective, viable form of natural birth control, and more women need to know about it. Hormonal birth control has potentially damaging short and long-term side effects. This article is not to shame or convince anyone out of using hormonal birth control. I celebrate the widespread accessibility of birth control to those whom it helps, and the positive effects on women’s empowerment it has had. For example, when the birth control pill became widely accessible to women in the 1960s, huge leaps in women’s economic and educational empowerment were made (Birth Control Throughout History, Pandia Health).

However, it is vital for women to understand they have other options and the choice to reclaim more agency and a deeper comprehension of their own bodies’ wisdom and rhythms.

Growing up living inside a female body comes with a lot of medical confusion, pathology, and what I have found to be very unnecessary stress. From the age of 12 when I got my first period, I absolutely dreaded my “time of the month”. It was an inconvenience and a burden. It felt embarrassing, gross, and often extremely painful. As well as irregular, which made it feel more inconvenient. Are we really meant to feel burdened, embarrassed and inconvenienced by these bodies we live in? I don’t buy that.

I went on to try a few different forms of hormonal birth control in my college years and early twenties; two versions of the pill, and the Nexplanon arm implant. After 9 months on the latter, I decided to stop using birth control altogether because of the horrible side effects I experienced (nearly constant spotting/bleeding, extremely painful cramps, anemia).

No one had told me about the possible side effects or any long-term health and fertility studies of the implant, since apparently there weren’t any and the doctor who administered it didn’t seem to know much about it. I also felt a strong tug in my intuition to get in touch with my cycle and allow my body to get back to equilibrium by less invasive means.

So I started tracking my cycle using an app. From there, I began using a diva cup instead of tampons, and developing a whole new relationship with my body and blood. I read some incredibly enlightening books, took a few courses on menstrual and womb health, and experienced deep healing in my womb as well as a restoration of pleasure and joy within the way I view my cycle. Yes, I said it. I truly LOVE my menstrual cycle now. I work with my body rather than against it, and it affects every area of my life. I believe this is possible for all womxn.

Have you ever heard about the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM)? If not, you are definitely not alone, and you’ll learn a bit about it in this article. If yes, it’s come to my awareness that you are in the minority. This effective and safe method of birth control through tracking the female hormonal cycle is a viable alternative to hormonal birth control, and can help you access more agency in your health and deeper self-connection.

It allows you to learn your body’s unique signals and changes, knowing when you’re most fertile to either conceive or avoid pregnancy. Along with that obvious benefit, using FAM practices, you may just find yourself dealing with less anxiety and stress around your cycle. You’ll learn how to get more of a handle on some of those unpleasant symptoms you’ve just been putting up with and accepting as normal because you’ll begin to know your body better.

So, here we go! Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) is a completely natural, scientifically and biologically based, well-evidenced form of birth control. It’s most effective when using a combination of tracking your cycle with a calendar, measuring and writing down your basal body temperature every morning, and checking for changes in your cervical fluid each day. It allows you to begin recognizing and really FEELING the ebb and flow of your hormonal cycle, track when you are most fertile (ovulation), and avoid sex or use more protection during that time if you are sexually active.

“When fertility awareness is used to prevent pregnancy, fewer than 1–5 women out of 100 will become pregnant during the first year of perfect use. Perfect use means using the method correctly and consistently throughout the menstrual cycle” (Taking Charge of Your Fertility, Toni Weschler).

So just like remembering to take the pill every day at the same time, it’s a matter of discipline and consistency that quickly becomes routine.

If you are currently on some form of hormonal birth control, implementing even one or two of the FAM practices could be an amazing way to complement your birth control. As we know, there is no form of birth control that is 100% effective;

“about half of all American women who experience unplanned pregnancies are, in fact, using contraception at the time they conceive” (Taking Charge of Your Fertility, pg. 16).

So using FAMs along with is can not only increase the effectiveness, but also will help you start to learn the different shifts that occur during each of the four phases in the menstrual cycle (follicular, ovulation, luteal, menstruation- more on this in my next article!).

The hormonal cycle is a barometer for our overall health. Learning the signs of balance and imbalance throughout your flow can help you have a more complete understanding of what creates your own unique nature and what helps you live in greater harmony with your body, mind and energy.

The Fertility Awareness Method is Not to be confused with the “obsolete Rhythm Method, which falsely assumes that individual women have cycle lengths that, if not precisely 28 days, are reliably consistent over time. In reality, cycles vary among women and often within each woman herself. Keep in mind, though, that normal cycle lengths are generally 21-35 days” (Taking Charge of Your Fertility,).

Another menstrual myth is that ovulation always occurs on day 14 of a 28 day cycle; this is a dangerous misunderstanding and has led to many unplanned pregnancies. Ovulation can occur anywhere from between days 12-21.

Dang, I can’t even tell you how many pregnancy scares I could have avoided if I had known that bit of wisdom a few years ago! Not to mention saved a bit of money from the amount of times I ran to the pharmacy, or the doctor, dealing with horrible side effects of various types of birth control to “fix” what most likely may have been just normal signs of the cyclical changes in fertility that occur in my female body….

“women are rarely taught how to distinguish between normal signs of healthy cervical fluid produced every cycle and the signs of a vaginal infection” (Taking Charge of Your Fertility).

From what I remember, the most we learned about our reproductive system in school is in Health class or Sex Ed, which consists of very awkward tutorials like how to put a condom on a banana, and how to avoid getting pregnant by abstaining from sex. If you have sex, you’ll get pregnant. That’s what we’re told. Never mind that there’s only about 3-5 days during the entire menstrual cycle where pregnancy is even likely to occur (yes, it’s possible to get pregnant outside of the ovulation window but very unlikely. Exercising caution and using protection if you’re sexually active is obviously important if you’re not trying to get pregnant).

Most women know about tracking their cycle with a calendar, but few that I’ve met or worked with as clients know about FAMs or their effectiveness. Why is it that this accurate and effective natural method of birth control is not more widely known?

This is a problem. It’s very important to be aware that hormonal birth control is not the only way, though most MDs will suggest that birth control is the best option when it comes to preventing pregnancy despite the myriad short and long-term side effects. At the time of its writing in 2015, Toni Weschler states in Taking Charge of Your Fertility that

“doctors are still seldom taught a comprehensive version of this scientific method in medical school. It’s amazing to think that women who practice the Fertility Awareness Method are often more knowledgeable about their own fertility that gynecologists who are trained to be experts in female physiology!” pg.5.

Another piece to consider is that up until the 1990s, women’s bodies were not used in medical studies (from Womben Wellness Webinar on Womb Sciences). This means that most clinical trials on the effects of medicines on the body were based on male biology & physiology. A dangerous result of this is that women are 7x more likely to be misdiagnosed than men.

“For several reasons, female subjects have historically been excluded from toxicology or biomedical research, says Tamarra James-Todd, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. While progress has been made since 1993, when the National Institutes of Health mandated that women and minorities be included in any government-funded health research, there’s still a long way to go” (The medical research gender gap: how excluding women from clinical trials is hurting our health; Amy Westervelt).

When observing the wide-spread use of birth control, and the lack of long-term studies on the effects of all the different forms of hormonal birth control on mental, emotional health and physiological health, fertility and reproductive health, I feel it’s not too far off to say that hormonal birth control is the largest and longest medical experiment ever carried out on women.

When the birth control pill was introduced into mass society in the 1960s, there was no possibility of long-term clinical trials having been carried out. In a study carried out on women who had been on the birth control pill over a long period of time, it was found that their uterus’s were 47% smaller than average, healthy size (Webinar on Womb Sciences, Womben Wellness).

I have personally heard accounts from many friends about theirs or others’ medical injury from the IUD. This isn’t to frighten you away from these methods, or shame you if you use them-but to bring light to the reality that even though they are generally effective methods and claimed to be mostly safe, there IS a natural method of birth control that is nearly as effective WITHOUT the risks and wide variety of side effects.

“These include increased risk of blood clots, strokes, breast cancer, irregular spotting, severe pelvic inflammatory disease or uterine perforation, heavy, crampy periods, urinary tract infections, cervical inflammation, and allergic reactions to spermicides and latex, to name a few. And for what? To protect themselves from a man, who produces millions of sperm per hour!” Toni Weschler, MPH, Taking Charge of Your Fertility.

I’m mainly addressing the side effects and long-term health concerns of hormonal birth control. There are non-hormonal forms of birth control. Introducing a hormone or combination of hormones into your body can, over time, throw off and/or repress its own natural rise and fall of sex hormones throughout your cycle (estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone). The delicate and complex dance of hormones during the female menstrual cycle relies on many different factors for its success, including nutrient intake, stress levels, and hormone levels in the blood.

Along with preventing pregnancy, the Fertility Awareness Method can be a tool of deeper self-awareness and self-care, feeling more embodied within your internal and physical being, and activate more of a sense of agency and literacy about your health and wellbeing. The menstrual cycle is the ebb and flow of creative energy; if not going toward creating a baby, what else could we direct that into?

*If you have recently or are considering going off birth control, please consult with your health provider, and do your own further research first. It can be most helpful and effective to have someone who is able to support and guide you while navigating this way of connecting with and managing your menstrual cycle*

Sources:

Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler MPH

Womben Wellness, webinar on 10/17/2020

Birth Control Throughout History, article by Pandia Health

The medical research gender gap: how excluding women from clinical trials is hurting our health; article by Amy Westervelt in the Guardian

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