Part one was learning to chart my fertility, which I started experimenting with back in May. Some amazing new apps have made the process that much easier, though there are still some lifestyle annoyances (more on those below). The second part was about getting in tune with my flow; exercising and eating according to my moon time to promote healthy balanced hormones.
Regulating my hormones has been a long, arduous process, many years in the making. There was, of course, all the diet work around my thyroid that had some good results. But you could say that the turning point was when I decided to go off the pill a little over two years ago. I did so at the behest of my endocrinologist, and it was far from an enthusiastic, joyful decision.
Through my research for the book though, I’ve had to come to terms with a lot of my own ignorance around hormonal birth control. And now that I understand the con list a lot more clearly, I couldn’t be happier about my decision, even if it’s forced me down the thorny path of finding a new method of contraception.
Because of my Hashimotos, I’ve spent a lot of my wellness mental energy worrying about endocrine disruptors in food, personal care products, and plastics. And yet, until two years ago, I willfully consumed the world’s biggest endocrine disruptor everyday without giving it much thought. I’m very grateful to have had a practitioner who made me question that decision, since for over a decade, no doctor even raised the possibility of going off the pill.
There are certainly many arguments (including feminist ones) for why hormonal birth control is a good thing. The book Sweetening the Pill had some interesting responses to them, including a fun fact I will never forget: these synthetic hormones were invented in Nazi Germany!!
For real, Bayer Schering Corp (now Bayer) experimented with synthetic estrogen on Jewish prisoners in the hopes of sterilizing them. Unfortunately, they found that women did not become permanently infertile. But the side effect of stopping menstruation became an important stepping-stone to developing the pill.
It’s amazing to me that thanks to the politics of shame, Miele no longer makes gas ovens. But Bayer has gone on to make billions off of this medical technology. I should call up my Jewish relatives who still boycott Volkswagen.
Anyway, I’ll spare you some of the other horrors from the no pill argument. Pick up Holly Grigg-Spall’s book if you’re interested in reading more. And listen to my interview with Alisa Vitti for another interesting fun fact on why the pill messes with your pheromones and could prevent you from finding the right romantic match.
Overall, my biggest problem with the pill is that it’s overly and often negligently prescribed. It’s your personal choice whether you seek it out as birth control. But 58 percent of the women are prescribed the medication for other reasons–to put a Bandaid on hormonal problems, usually at the exact age (adolescence) when those issues should be addressed to avoid fertility and endocrine disorders later in life.
But onto some of the alternate solutions I explored this month…
Continue reading for the pros and cons of charting, some rules of thumb for honoring your hormones with what you eat, and some closing words on the most controversial conundrum of all: contraception.
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
p.s. Yes, my moon sisterhood month did come poetically full circle, as Saturday’s full moon brought my period with it. The above/below picture can be interpreted as either a) contemplating the moon’s effect on my cycle and the tide, or b) wondering how sharks feel about menstrual blood.
When I first learned about the fertility awareness method, my initial reaction was that the morning temperature taking was going to be a bigger pill than the pill.
Somehow despite having shouldered the responsibility of taking medication at the same time every day for over a decade, I didn’t have as much faith in myself to consistently do the same thing with a thermometer reading.
It took me a little while to get used to the practice, but not as long as I had originally thought. Now that I’ve been charting for a little over 3 months (4 cycles down, many more to go), it’s become almost second nature.
There were a few logistical issues in the beginning that caused me to miss some days. The biggest one was living on the other side of the city from Charlie. This meant I had to plan ahead and remember to bring my thermometer with me. I tried using his once and got a weird reading. And since it’s really the patterns you’re looking for, and not necessarily the temperature itself, I think it’s more important to consistently use the same device than to have one that’s perfectly calibrated. So since we weren’t always the best at planning our sleepovers in advance, charting was much less feasible while we were living apart.
That will probably be a moot point for most of you. In general, charting as a primary form of contraception appeals most to couples in a monogamous, committed relationship. And by and large, most people who get to that point have also made the decision to cohabitate.
But the blanket logistical issue that all charters can relate to is travel.
During the first two months, remembering to pack my thermometer for trips out of town was almost as difficult as remembering to put my toothbrush in the toiletry case (somehow, always forget). Now it’s more on par with deodorant—about a 75 percent fulfillment rate.
Even when I remember though, the problem is keeping the habit alive when I’m bouncing from hotel to hotel, waking up at weird hours, potentially in different time zones, and using a foreign nightstand. In general, it’s hard to stick to many of your routines while traveling. And charting was no different when I was on the road.
While I think it’s important to maintain as much consistency as possible in the beginning, to solidify the habit, now that I have a sound sense of my cycle, I feel less guilty when I miss temperature checks while I’m bleeding or after I’ve confirmed ovulation. I don’t recommend slacking off during these periods, since you can still monitor hormone shifts and other health information through your waking temperature. But if you do miss days, at least it’s not during your fertile window.
On a day to day basis, I don’t mind the ritual—in fact, I now keep my thyroid medication next to my bed and take it as soon as I’m done with my temperature, which has kept me on task with both mandatory morning practices. What I still can’t stand though is the beeping.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a thermometer that isn’t obnoxiously loud. And those sounds are ten times more irritating when you’ve just woken up. I try to leave my earplugs in until after I’ve finished. But I’m counting down the days until Kindara launches Wink, their new wireless, soundless device that links to their app.
Now, on to some of the good stuff…
I can’t say enough about how empowering it is to know exactly where I stand with my cycle. Not just on any given day, but on a whole. Having had so many hormone issues over the years—even before being diagnosed with Hashimotos—I had a lot of not-so-irrational fears about the state of my fertility. A miserably short cycle (2 weeks) is why my doctor put me on the pill in the first place. And the dread of returning to double the periods of my peers is what kept me on it for so long.
Once I finally went off though, and stuck it out long enough for my hormones to stabilize, my cycle soon returned to a more manageable range.
One of the many women’s health myths that the pill reinforced for me was the idea that everyone should have the same 28-day cycle, and anything otherwise is abnormal. Learning more about charting made me realize how much I’d been oversimplifying the female body because of the concepts created by the pill.
As it turns out, the idea of a 28-day cycle was an intentional marketing tool; pharmaceutical companies decided that having one week at the end, where the woman’s body would experience a fake period, made the pill seem more natural. In reality though, women’s cycles range anywhere from 21 to 35 days, with a period of bleeding that’s not necessarily perfectly proportional to your other three phases. Thanks to charting, I now know that my cycle ranges from 25 to 28 days, and that’s perfectly normal for me.
When you chart, it’s clear on the page where your problem areas are—especially if you’re not ovulating. It was a huge relief to see my temperature spike, which confirms that ovulation has occurred every month. And it’s pretty amazing to have the number plummet again the day before I get my period. There are no more joyous white pant surprises. Instead, I get a very clear red flag that my period is nigh, and I better head to CVS, prep the hot water bottle, and apologize to Charlie for being a total bitch.
One of the things I got so used to with the pill was the power to plan ahead. With all the new technology though, it’s just as easy to do so by tracking the natural rhythm of your body on an app.
More importantly though, knowing where I stand with my moon sisterhood as the month progresses means I can honor those energies appropriately with other aspects of my lifestyle.
I really liked the idea of supporting my hormones through diet when I read about it in Alisa Vitti’s book WomanCode last summer. But the chart of ingredients for each of the four phases of my cycle was pretty overwhelming. I kept it handy on my phone for reference as I threw together meals from the fridge, which kind of made me feel like a daily contestant on Chopped. Mostly though I just used it as a general guide.
When I interviewed Alisa earlier this month, she reassured me that I didn’t have to be so literal; any of the foods on the list are great to eat throughout your whole cycle. If you can work in some of the specific ingredients that support the current phase, even better. This was right in line with my philosophy to eat a lot of good with a little bad—and to focus on the things you’re adding rather than what’s being taken away.
The general rule of thumb, she said, was to add as many nutrients as possible during the second half of your cycle (post-ovulation through menstruation). This is when energy is low and your body needs the added power from your food.
I found it easiest to think of the phases of my cycle as mirroring the seasons: the first half is best suited to spring/summer fare—lighter dishes like fresh raw veggies, salads, poultry and eggs—and the second half requires slightly heartier foods, like root vegetables, red meat, and kale. During this low energy, wintery phase, it also helps to cook your food. This makes your meals easier to digest, without your body having to expend extra energy breaking everything down. I’ve been embracing this in the last week, as the summer nights start to get a little cooler, and my yearly salad quota is nearly exhausted.
The exercise piece was much more straightforward, and in some ways still reflects my season analogy. The first half of your cycle is when you have the energy to take on intense training, and the second is when you turn inward and choose more gentle movements like walking and pilates. I’m generally a lot more active in summertime, whereas in winter I’m more likely to do some stretching or yoga at home as an excuse to stay inside.
Since the weather has been beautiful this past week, I’ve been doing a lot of easy biking. But before I left the city, I also tried out a more intense, very moon sister friendly class at S Factor, a boutique pole-dancing studio in New York.
“Fluid Feminine Movement” was basically hyper-sexualized pilates. Cat-cow involved a lot more hair tosses and hip rolls. At one point I was told to pretend like my body was a bowl of cookie dough and my spine was the spoon—which felt even sillier in practice, since I was the only student in the room.
Before we started, the teacher said to me: “we usually do 5 minutes of free dancing on the pole at the end of class, but today we can make that optional.” Awkward.
Post-pole dancing soreness aside, I’m not sure I feel much different after honoring my hormones for a month. But I’m definitely glad I took the time to wise up about what works best for my body. It’s an especially empowering protocol if your hormones are off. I know how frustrating some of those symptoms can be. And regardless of what’s causing them—Hashimotos, PCOS, or any other official endocrine disorder—I hope my success story can be some inspiration for you to put in the work and push through it. Because if I can manage to have a relatively normal cycle, without the help of a pill, it’s definitely possible for you to as well.
Let’s chat for a second about not getting pregnant.
Birth control is such a juggernaut, and I totally respect those of you who have made the conscious choice to keep taking the pill for pregnancy-prevention. It’s a much more valid reason than to treat hormone-related symptoms like bad skin, cramps, irregular cycles and such. Unfortunately, people who use hormonal birth control for its intended purpose are in the minority!
Like a lot of the women interviewed for this article (a must read), I use a mix of charting, condoms, and coitus interuptus, otherwise known as withdrawal or pulling out. The nice thing is that two out of three of these methods are free, accessible and don’t require Obamacare. And as much as the third sucks for everyone involved, it’s not the end of the world to use condoms a few times a month during your most fertile days. Plus, there are now companies that are making more sustainable, responsible options that better support women’s health and pleasure. Check out L condoms and sign up for a free sample!
All of these issues are incredibly personal, and I would love to hear about how some of you have tackled the birth control question yourselves. The most important thing I want to get across is that there are other options out there besides the pill. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks. But the more we talk about them, the easier it will be for every woman to find a solution that best fits her lifestyle.
Now it’s your turn…go!
The Wellness Project is a year-long blog series (and upcoming memoir) about how to find the balance between health and hedonism. To find out more about the inspiration behind the project and to get the monthly theme schedule, click here. To read up on past experiments and get more tips from the trenches, click here.