This Trick Can Help You Manage Your Worst Period Pains

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For many of us, menstrual cycles only surface as priorities when they produce periods, cramps and pre- or post-menstrual issues. However, the body doesn't simply "die down" between periods; the menstrual cycle continues throughout the month, not just when you're bleeding, and all the phases of your cycle can influence fertility, mood and other factors. It's increasingly evident that tracking these individual cycles and cycle-syncing can help you not just understand your body better, but potentially manage symptoms of PMS, PCOS, & more.

If you need your memory refreshed from eighth grade health class, the menstrual cycle has four phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. The menstrual phase marks day 1, in which the uterus sheds its lining and is generally unhappy. From day 1 to day 13, the follicular phase occurs, in which the body produces hormones that stimulate egg structures to begin to form inside follicles in the ovaries. On day 14, the eggs are released and emerge into the fallopian tubes, otherwise known as ovulation. From that day to the end of the cycle you enter the luteal phase, in which the egg cells, if they remain unfertilized, disintegrate. Cue the beginning of uterine shedding (and PMS), and the whole process beginning again. The benefits of knowing precisely where you are in this cycle, and how it affects you in each stage, are becoming pretty popular, and may be more important than you think.

Menstrual Cycle Tracking Is a Growing Movement

The most obvious candidates for cycle tracking have been, of course, women who are attempting to get pregnant and need to know their ovulation times. The Guardian called the massive rise in such apps "Fitbit for your period." But period tracking apps have also become more popular for other reasons, and they show the wide-ranging possibilities of a more intimate knowledge of your menstrual cycle.

Endometriosis sufferers and those who believe they may be suffering from the illness are also encouraged to track their periods, not only for their own benefit but for research in general. The disorder, which is estimated to affect 10 percent of all girls and women in the U.S., occurs when the endometrium, or the cells that make up the lining of the uterus, is found outside the uterus and sheds on a monthly cycle, causing menstrual and fertility problems, pain, cramps and disorders of other abdominal organs. It's also not very well understood medically. Citizen Endo, an app created by Columbia University scientists, is both a period tracker and a data source: women with endometriosis, or those who are tracking their periods for a potential diagnosis, become part of a vast database that will help further endometriosis research. Another app, Flutter, is designed to help manage endometriosis pain, combining period trackers with pain aids and a support community.

Period tracking can also help diagnose and manage other menstrual issues. Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, can manifest in symptoms like extra-long menstrual periods, which is something that certain fertility and period-tracking apps are designed to notice. The fertility and period app Glow contains an algorithm that detects if its user is showing signs of PCOS in their cycle and will prompt them to see a doctor. And another tracking app, Clue, whose team includes transgender men, includes explicit advice for transitioning transgender people who need to track how their periods are shifting and changing.

The next big thing? Contraception. The algorithm behind the app Natural Cycles, developed by Swedish scientist Elina Berglund, is designed to use period and temperature tracking to help women prevent pregnancy. (This is also known as the Fertility Awareness Method.) A new study of 4000 women has shown that when used "perfectly," using the app has a 99 percent success rate at preventing pregnancy. It's now been certified in the EU and UK as a form of birth control, and will shortly be heading to the U.S. to attempt to get FDA approval.

The New Trend: Cycle Syncing

Beyond using apps for medical diagnosis and fertility, though, there's another aspect of period tracking that may prove to be fruitful. Some women are syncing up their lifestyles to their menstrual cycle by adjusting their diet and activity levels in accordance with the cycle they're in. It's an idea known as "cycle syncing" — no, not the old idea that your periods will sync up with the women you live with (which has since been debunked), but the belief that as the female body goes through the phases of the menstrual cycle, nutrition, and activity require adjustment in order to compensate for the hormonal changes created by the menstrual cycle.

It's been taken up with enthusiasm by some health bloggers. Autumn Meyer, who runs the Paleo fitness blog A Whole Story, investigated cycle syncing for herself, and reported that adjusting her fitness regime to fit each stage of her cycle had worked well for her: low impact yoga when on her period, new adventurous activities during the follicular phase, and strenuous cardio during ovulation. However, the science behind the interactions between exercise and the menstrual cycle is lacking; the connection may well exist, but we don't know why. Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2016, a collection of scientists noted "the significant gap in understanding how the menstrual cycle impacts exercise performance." They said:

"There is a clear need to gain a better understanding of female physiology and to define the effects of the cyclical variations in hormones, both positive and negative, upon athletic performance. A greater understanding of the menstrual cycle is needed to address the reported negative impacts on exercise training in order to encourage participation and avoid further disparity in gender representation."

Making shifts in diet according to different parts of the menstrual cycle is also gaining popularity. Some diets are specifically marketed to help with menstrual issues throughout women's cycles. It is known that particular diets may help the symptoms of PCOS and endometriosis, but they're considered to be constant and shouldn't necessarily be altered according to cycle stage.

There needs to be a lot more research before proper menstrual cycle diets can be recommended more widely, and individual cycle needs also need to be addressed; as period apps will tell you, women's cycles are individual, and techniques for managing them don't conform to a one-size-fits-all approach. And for women like me, who are on contraception that causes serious period irregularities (10-day periods once every three months, nice), the issue of tracking and identifying health issues is a more complex one that apps have yet to really encompass. But all things considered, it doesn't seem to hurt to get your period track on.