Sunday, January 11, 2009

Love Your Cervix, Learn Your Body

Do you know what a cervix looks like? Do you know how it changes during a woman's monthly menstrual cycle? Have you ever seen a cervix in real-life pictures, up close? If you are a woman, have you ever seen your own cervix?

Do you know the subtle fertility signs a woman's body puts out that can help you determine when you are most likely to get pregnant and when you are not? Do you know about the Fertility Awareness Method of birth control? (No, it's not the rhythm method.)

Do you know why the fluids your body gives off "down there" (yes, from your vagina) change from day to day? Why sometimes they are copious and slippery, why sometimes they are tacky and kind of dry, why sometimes they are in-between----and what these changes indicate?

There is a new and very cool website out there that records--in pictures--the changes in one woman's cervix over one menstrual cycle. If you answered "no" to any of the above questions, you should definitely check out this woman's site. Even if you answered yes to all of the above questions, you'd probably find the site fascinating, as it documents everything you've already learned but in more detail than you've probably seen.

The site is called "My Beautiful Cervix" and an explanation about it can be found at actual daily pictures of her cervix can be found at

Be aware that these pictures are very detailed, and that the first pictures start during her menstrual flow, so proceed at your own "squick" factor. But unless you are extremely upset by these sorts of things, I highly recommend this site to you, male or female. It's important to expand our knowledge about the human body, and in this case, it's so helpful in learning about fertility, menstruation, and how best to achieve....or avoid....pregnancy.

Some Basic Information About Fertility

Unfortunately, very few women in our patriarchal society really understand how their body changes over their menstrual cycle, know their own fertility signs, have really seen their own genitals, or know how to control their own fertility without having to rely on artificial drugs, barriers, or chemicals.

If you have never read the book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler, you really should check it out. It is an amazing book, and so educational. It is particularly helpful for women with PCOS and for women whose cycles last longer or shorter than the usual 28-day cycle doctors consider "typical." It's also very helpful if you want to find a less chemical form of birth control, or conversely, if you plan to try and conceive soon.

In Fertility Awareness, you track your body's fertility by keeping track of 2 or 3 primary fertility signs, usually Basal Body Temperature (BBT, a temp taken first thing in the morning on a special thermometer), cervical mucus, and cervical position.

You are not equally fertile on all days of your cycle. Your cervical mucus gets more slippery and copious as you get more fertile, and on your days of highest fertility it has more of an "egg-white" quality, looking like you have egg whites stretched between your fingers when you check it. (The picture above shows one example of fertile mucus.)

Similarly, your cervix will change position too, getting higher or lower, softer or harder, less or more open, depending on where you are in your cycle.

Your BBT will spike once ovulation has taken place, because the body has upped its production of progesterone in order to support a pregnancy if fertilization were to occur. This jump in temperature will stay elevated until just before your period starts; once your menses begins, your temperature will decrease significantly as progesterone production drops off.

However, if you are pregnant, your temperature will remain elevated. This is often the first sign of pregnancy and can tell you that you are pregnant well before any pregnancy test will.

Utility of Fertility Awareness

I can't tell you how useful this information is, in so many ways, even if you don't use it as a form of birth control (or to help you conceive).

So many women see the increased/changing fluids during their cycles and wonder if they have some sort yeast infection. You have to wonder how much unnecessary over-the-counter yeast medicine is being bought each year, simply because women have not been taught about their natural variations in cervical mucus!

Also, if you have unusual-length or highly variable cycles, knowing the signs of fertility and ovulation can help you know when to expect your period. If your cycles vary a lot, this can be a god-send!

The time from ovulation to the start of your period is pretty uniform in most women. It varies from woman to woman, averaging anywhere from 12-16 days or so, but within the same woman, this "luteal phase" length stays pretty consistent. So if you recognize the signs of ovulation, you can predict with pretty good accuracy about when your period will arrive afterwards.

It can also keep you from panicking too much about whether or not you are pregnant! When I was first married, I had many scares wondering whether I could be pregnant because my period simply didn't show up when the doctors said it should. Even once I knew my cycles were longer than "typical," I was never sure when I should start worrying, always wondering if our birth control method had failed somehow. Fertility Awareness would have saved a lot of money on unnecessary pregnancy tests!

Fertility Awareness can also help prevent unwanted pregnancies. Many women have a mistaken idea of when they are fertile and when they are not. I know I had a lot of incorrect ideas about this, and it helped to lead to my first child! It was a welcome surprise, mind, at a time in life when we were ready for it, but not everyone is ready to be so welcoming. Looking back with FA knowledge, I could understand exactly why we goofed, and I was able to prevent any repeat of this surprise until I was ready for more kids.

Once you decide you are ready for children, Fertility Awareness is great at helping you achieve that. Once my first pregnancy was done, a friend of mine taught me about Fertility Awareness. When my husband and I were ready to try for #2, we used Fertility Awareness and were able to achieve pregnancy the first month we tried. Same for my later children, despite being an old geezer by obstetric standards.

Turns out I ovulate much later than most women (thus the longer cycles). Trying to conceive during the usual times recommended would not have worked for us....too far away from my normal ovulation times. Learning my cycles made the process so much easier and less stressful.

It was also fantastic to know really early on from my temperature charts that I was pregnant. Helped remind me to take my prenatals plus extra folic acid religiously, and to be extra careful of my nutrition and exercise.

Despite having PCOS, I was able to get pregnant without any problems. I am fortunate in that my case is fairly mild on the PCOS spectrum. But in many women, PCOS prevents them from ovulating, or they ovulate only irregularly. Fertility Awareness is helpful in establishing whether or not they are really ovulating, and at what point in their cycle this is taking place. If they ovulate irregularly, Fertility Awareness can help them clue in on the signs that ovulation may be about to occur so they can take advantage of it.

Like any birth control method, Fertility Awareness has its pros and cons. It's not for everyone, at least as a birth control method. And using it as a conception aid won't guarantee you'll get pregnant. But even so, it's a great idea to learn about your body and its natural cycles, to learn what your cervix really looks like up close, and to understand exactly how your body works.

I highly recommend visiting the Beautiful Cervix website, and reading up more about Fertility Awareness.

*Image from Wikimedia Commons.


Anonymous said...

I think this book should be presented to every girl as soon as she hits puberty, and every guy as soon as he's ready to enter a sexually intimate relationship. It's fundamental biology that yields crucial information, and so many women have no idea!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendations, and I can second the Wechsler "Taking Charge" book. Despite having PCOS, I was able to conceive both my kids the first months we tried. I also found it fascinating to learn the signals that my body was giving me. It made me realize what cues I had been missing by being on the pill.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link!

I read Taking Charge of Your Fertility a while ago and I found it very empowering to really learn about how my body works and that having cycles that having irregular cycles, etc. does not make me abnormal. It's scary how much our society is frightened of the female reproductive system and work to keep it a mystery to men and women alike. I remember all of the complete misinformation I got from health teachers in middle and high school--from the idea that the only natural birth control method is the "rhythm method" to the blatant lie that you can get pregnant at any time in your cycle because the female orgasm causes ovulation. It's sad that I had to wait until I was twenty to learn how the menstrual cycle really worked.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I have been contemplation on getting pregnant bc I am overweight. I am 25 years old . I have gone to doctors that have told me that in order for me to conceive is to loose weight first. After seeing this I have hope ... I get a menstrual cycle one day once a month. Which confuses me therefor I ended up reasearching you. Tahanks