Natural fertility is a growing concern – although rates of infertility fell in the last few years from 8.5% of couples in the U.S. to 6%, there are still staggering numbers of people who are struggling to get pregnant and especially to have natural fertility. Many couples are experiencing “sub-fertility” which means that they can technically become pregnant, but are having a hard time doing so. Also many women experience irregular cycles, skipped ovulation and general hormone wackiness that makes planning for fertility more of a challenge. I genuinely feel that part of the issue with fertility is that women have come to see the rhythms of their bodies as inconvenient, painful, embarrassing or a nuisance. There is a huge disconnect between the powerful things that happen in our bodies and our perception of and regard for them.
In light of all of the emotional, lifestyle and financial burden of infertility there is a movement towards improving fertility naturally, which sounds great, but this whole issue can seem daunting and overly complicated. Don’t worry – we’re going to make it as easy as possible. There will be many posts on the subject, but we’re going to start with the basics. The first step is to actually begin to understand what is happening in your body during the different phases of your menstrual cycle and why those things are so important. In this post we’ll talk about the whole reason for your cycle, more the spirit behind the thing. In subsequent posts we’ll talk about the hormone changes in more detail, fertility tracking and general steps towards boosting your fertility naturally.
Step One to Natural Fertility: Honoring Your Menstrual Cycle
Anyone who has ever known a woman can tell you that a woman’s cycle is a powerful driving force in their lives. This is a huge part of what makes the experience of being a woman entirely different from the experience of being a man. We have a rhythm and that rhythm dictates when we are the most sexual, the most vulnerable and for some women the most emotionally labile. To begin with, let’s take a look at a picture of all the things that are happening in your cycle. Remember “day 1” is counted from the first day you bleed each month:
Natural fertility and your monthly cycle – Look how much your body does every month!
First off – I just want to stop for a moment and appreciate just how much is happening here. Your body is doing all of this without any particular input from you – it is following it’s own rhythm. To me, that seems like an awesome kind of miracle and a tremendously beautiful part of being human. Strong natural fertility is in our blood, or psyche and our DNA. Your body does this – on it’s own – with no conscious direction. That is completely mind blowing. To me, this is a natural cycle that must be honored in our daily lives. Your natural fertility and the tides of your body can be made into an almost spiritual awareness of the way life itself moves within you.
Understanding the Phases of Your Menstrual Cycle
Natural Fertility Week 1: Eliminating the not-needed and selecting the best hopes for the future. (Follicular phase)
This first week of your cycle is the section that most women stay connected to, simply because it’s the most obvious. This is the week you bleed, the week you shed the uterine lining that you built up last month because there was no fertilized egg to nourish with those tissues. In this season, the spring of your four-phase cycle, you are doing two things. One is the literal spring cleaning that you might think of – the sloughing off of the cushy landing spot that your body made for last month’s egg. Clearly the egg didn’t need it so you are free to release that tissue so that you can start the process over again and build a fresh place for the next egg to land. Simultaneously you are selecting the healthiest follicle from those which are starting to mature this month – you’re selecting your best egg, so to speak. This is a literal process of letting go of what is no longer needed and selecting the best starting place for your path forward – this is the death and rebirth phase of your rhythm. Emotionally too this is a wonderful time for self-reflection. Using the week of your menses to actually look at your last month, to see what has been serving you in your life and what might be eliminated. Typically this is a more inward time for women with less desire to be out in the world and more time for quiet and inner peace.
Natural Fertility Week 2: The ripening (Follicular phase)
This week of the cycle is the one I hear most women report as their most peaceful, when energy is building and it is easiest to turn out towards the world – culminating with our social peak at ovulation. Your body is ripening the chosen follicle to become a healthy viable egg. You can see on the menstrual graph that all of our hormones take a sharp rise right before ovulation, when you are at your peak of fertility as well as your peak sexuality. This is the ripening phase of your cycle when your body is literally preparing to bear fruit – this is your summer. Your physical, sexual and creative energies are all increasing and most women are more likely to focus more on their outward appearance during this time because our hormone drives are pushing us to be more desirable to a mate.
Right around Day 14 of your cycle (which often corresponds with the full moon – we’ll get to that in another post) your body’s energy builds, your hormones peak, your sexual drive reaches it’s highest point – according to market research this is the time when women are most likely to dress provocatively, to be more socially active and to buy sexy lingerie. The end result is that your body releases a fertile egg, and gives you the drives to do something about it. Some women feel the ovulatory release with a sharp pinching or stabbing pain on the ovary that is releasing an egg (called middleschmertz – great word!!), some women have a dull ache over that ovary and some women don’t feel ovulation at all.
Week 3: Letting Down (Luteal Phase)
During this week the frantic energy that happens around ovulation begins to dissipate, and the ruptured follicle where your egg was released turns into the corpus luteum, which secretes progesterone. If fertilization occurs, then in this week the fertile egg journeys through the fallopian tube to implant in the uterus around day 21. In this week the uterine lining fully matures so that it is at it’s peak for implantation. This is the fall of the cycle, the journey to find a place to settle down. This is a more calm time in your cycle and many women feel a continuing stability from week 2 (with that brief, frantic ovulation instability in the middle).
Natural fertility implantation diagram. Week 3 of the cycle. Thanks to wikimedia commons for the great pictures!
Natural Fertility Week 4: A Look at What Needs to be Let Go (Luteal Phase and Possibly PMS)
This final phase of your cycle is when your body either transitions into viable pregnancy, or switches gears accepting that a pregnancy hasn’t happened and so prepares to shed the uterine lining for another cycle. The Uterine lining is now fully mature, and if implantation doesn’t occur then we see an over-ripening in preparation for break down. Clearly the winter of your own personal cycle, this is when a lot of women begin to look back at what might not have worked this past month or dealing with any sadness, losses and irritations. It is the time when emotions can run closest to the surface and the premenstrual hormone shifts only amplify what is already there. Just like actual winter, this is a great time to notice the issues that are coming to the surface – contemplate and reexamine in preparation for the next cycle (or the next spring fresh start).
This is perhaps a little bit different way of looking at your menstrual cycle, which we often dismiss as annoying or irritating or inconvenient. If you are working to normalize your hormone balance or to boost your fertility naturally then it’s time to start maintaining a daily awareness of the vast changes that are going on in your body every day and the staggering number of things your body is doing to help you prepare for the possibility of a baby. By bringing some awareness to this process every day you are making a conscious shift towards valuing this part of you as a woman, to actually honoring your menstrual cycle for the miracle of natural fertility that it is. Today, say thanks for your natural fertility. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman of reproductive years, if you’ve already had your babies, or even if you’re a man and this is the first thought you’ve given to a women’s menstrual cycle – you are still connected intimately to this cycle that occurs in the human world. Today is the day to give it some thought, to pay a little bit of attention to a truly awe-inspiring human phenomenon.