The Importance of Fertility Awareness for Single Women
It amazes me when I think back to how little I understood about my body, my fertility, and my hormones only a few years ago. Since puberty, when I learned about “becoming a woman” and such, I assumed that all I needed to know was what my mom and my biology book taught me: once a month, a woman ovulates, and if she doesn’t get pregnant, her uterine lining sheds causing the dreaded period. The only hormones I knew existed were estrogen and testosterone. I thought my incredibly intense PMS symptoms (extreme mood swings, depression, overwhelming fatigue, etc) were normal, because my mom also suffered from them.
When I asked my first OB/GYN about those symptoms as an early 20-something, all she told me is that “we don’t really know what causes PMS” and that the easiest thing to do is to take the Pill. More on that in a minute.
My point is that I think most of us--whether you’re in high school or in your 60s-- have grown up with some version of what I described above. The notable exceptions would be women who grew up with moms who use a Natural Family Planning method or teach NFP; but even then, you may not have done much thinking about your cycle until you had an issue or got engaged and pregnancy was a real possibility. (Side note: this is why I’m planning on teaching any daughters I have about their fertility, starting when they’re pre-teens.)
I’d like to encourage those of you reading who have not thought much about your fertility--even if you’re in high school, college, or marriage is just a distant dream--to consider learning one of the Natural Family Planning fertility awareness methods now (instead of waiting for engagement) so that you can 1) understand and appreciate your fertility and how your body works in a new way, and 2) identify the root causes of any fertility-related problems so that they don’t negatively affect your health or ability to get/stay pregnant in the future.
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In 2009, because I was desperate and knew it wasn’t sinful to take the Pill for non-contraceptive reasons, I decided to try Yaz when my OB/GYN at the time suggested it. My symptoms did lessen, but it was during the brief time that I was on Yaz (which was cleverly marketed to women who have extreme PMS symptoms), I started to learn more about the negative side effects of birth control--including that many women have difficulty conceiving after they get off the Pill because of how messed up their hormones are. I stopped taking Yaz after six months--even though I wasn’t dating at the time and had zero prospects for a future husband--and started the frustrating process of trying to figure out how I could manage my PMS naturally. NB: Because I'm Catholic and embrace the goodness of mine and my husband's fertility, I would never consider using any form of birth control as a married woman.
I tried diet and exercise--including going Paleo for several years (I still eat a modified Paleo diet today). I tried supplements. And while those things helped, and made me generally more healthy, I still felt like I was going through Hell for eight days every month.
In 2014, I was fed up. At that point, no Gynecologist or Endocrinologist had done any kind of rigorous testing of my hormones during my luteal phase. The attitude seemed to be that the only “solution” to bad PMS was hormonal birth control, which pumps your body full of hormones that you don't need and suppresses fertility, which is not a disease but a natural and healthy part of being a woman. I needed to find a doctor who specialized in finding the root causes of fertility-related problems.
I knew Phoenix had a NaProTechnology clinic, but I also knew (from talking to other friends who had similar issues) that I would need to learn to chart my fertility using a Natural Family Planning method in order to be effectively treated by a NaPro doctor. This is when I first learned that NFP methods could be used for something other than achieving or avoiding pregnancy during a woman’s fertile time; they’re also incredibly effective methods for identifying female health problems.
I was referred to a friend of a friend who taught me the sympto-thermal method, and I began to chart. It took awhile for me to get the hang of certain aspects of the STM, but once I did, it became second nature to wake up and take my temperature. I downloaded the Kindara app (there are other apps out there that are compatible with NFP methods, but this is my favorite) to help me keep track of everything because I hated the paper charts. And two months later, digital chart in hand, I went to Morningstar OB/GYN clinic in Gilbert, AZ.
As soon as I shared my symptoms with the PA, she nodded and said that I probably had a progesterone deficiency. Progesterone is the hormone that, among other things, is responsible for preparing your body for conception and, if you conceive, preventing miscarriage. Lots of women have difficulty conceiving for years and/or multiple miscarriages before they find out that they need progesterone supplements.
I waited until my next luteal phase and went to the blood lab every two days for almost two weeks. It was a pain in the butt, but I’m so glad I did it because sure enough, the lab results showed that I had a marked drop in progesterone at the end of my luteal phase.
The PA at Morningstar prescribed some progesterone supplements for me to take each month, just during my luteal phase (which I could pinpoint exactly thanks to charting), and I saw immediate improvement in my symptoms during my next cycle. Having my hormones in balance made “that time of the month” ten million times easier (for me and the people who had to be around me), and it was comforting to know that if I ever did get married, I would be much more likely to conceive and maintain a pregnancy than if I weren’t taking progesterone.
Fast forward two years: I met Kristian, we got engaged, and decided that we both needed to brush up on our NFP knowledge, in case we had difficulty conceiving (avoiding pregnancy wasn’t a concern for us, since I'm 33 and Kristian and I have no legitimate reason for postponing children). We decided to take the online Sympto-thermal classes hosted by the Couple to Couple League, because they were relatively inexpensive and you could watch the videos and take the quizzes at your own pace.
Thanks be to God, it only took two cycles for me to conceive, so I never had to "use" NFP, technically speaking. Even so, I appreciate being able to know more precisely when I conceived and that if Kristian and I ever need to postpone pregnancy in the future, we have the tools to do so naturally and without placing any barriers between us and our God-given fertility.
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I called my doctor at the Vitae Clinic (a NaPro/NFP-only OB practice) here in Austin and she confirmed that I should continue to take progesterone, possibly throughout my entire pregnancy depending on how my levels fluctuate from trimester to trimester. I’m still taking it every night, and my levels have been steady. I’m so, so thankful for progesterone supplements, without which Baby J may not exist, or may have already died in utero.
Why am I sharing such personal information with the world? Because I think it’s a crying shame that in 2017, women still know so little about their bodies and how they work. It’s ridiculous that in our medically advanced culture, some women live for years with undiagnosed PCOS and endometriosis, conditions that not only affect their monthly cycle, but can also cause infertility if they go untreated.
According to female hormone specialists like Alissa Vitti, because of our lack of good fertility education, many of us think of things like extremely painful PMS cramps, breasts so sensitive you can’t touch them without wincing, mood swings that make you feel insane, heavy periods, irregular cycles and the like as “normal” because we know other women who have the same problems, and our doctors simply tell us to take the Pill if we bring it up at our annual check-up.
Ladies, those symptoms are not “normal,” even if they affect all of the women in your family, and there’s a good chance you can find relief, if you’re willing to take charge of your fertility. The good news is, it's not that difficult to find the information you need to do so, thanks to the wonders of the internet.
Step 1: Educate yourself.
Read books on fertility. Peruse articles on websites like Natural Womanhood, The Guiding Star Project, and listen to podcasts on the subject. I guarantee you'll learn more about your body on these websites than you ever learned in sex ed or biology class.
Note: Not all of the stuff you find in these resources will be applicable to you (or in accordance with Church teaching), so you have to exercise some discernment.
Step 2: Find a method that works for you.
Once you've learned a bit more about your fertility and how it works, you'll want to start tracking it so that you can understand how your hormones affect you at different times of the month. Fortunately, there are several highly effective, scientifically proven methods of tracking your fertility that you can start using right away.
The Sympto-thermal Method (what I use)
I like the STM because it involves monitoring multiple symptoms of fertility (temperature, cervical mucus, and--optionally--the feel of the cervix) and is low-cost. I know other women who swear by Creighton or Billings. Regardless, a little bit of education in these methods can set you up for a lifetime of better female health and self-understanding.
While I have personally benefited from prescription hormone supplements, I'm fascinated by Alisa Vitti, a hormone specialist who struggled with PCOS and didn't have a period for TEN YEARS, until she started tracking her fertility and balancing her hormones naturally. So, if you're wary of taking hormone supplements of any kind, consider checking out her website, Flo Living. Again, I don't agree with everything she says or believes, but she has some great content that is worth perusing.
Step 4: Give thanks to God for the gift of being a woman.
I believe that if single women understood their fertility, they would embrace everything about themselves more fully. But it's difficult to appreciate and love being a woman if you feel absolutely miserable for a third or a half of every month. Whether you're in high school, college, single and in your 20s, discerning a celibate vocation, or not sure if you'll ever get married, it can't hurt to learn more about your God-given womanhood; it really is a beautiful gift.
*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nutritionist, or hormone specialist. I'm just a woman who got tired of hearing that I *had* to take the Pill if I didn't want to suffer from severe PMS. In this post, I simply wanted to share my experience in case it's helpful to anyone else. I didn't touch on the Church's teaching on birth control or NFP within marriage because my audience is single women of all ages; if you want to read a great post on that topic, go here.