I obsessively tracked my periods for a year to see if I could improve my life

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My year of obsessive period trackingGetty Images

The bleeding takes me by surprise, as it regularly does. Having moments ago concluded that I have little to offer, my existence is hollow, and I am simply. Not. Good. At. Anything. I feel an almost instantaneous relief. The cramps are right on time. I press two painkillers through their foil casing and flick the taps on the bath: a ritual baptism of sorts.

I know I’m not the only one who can feel at the mercy of their hormones. Memes about being an emotional wreck, then realising your period is due, flit in and out of my DMs like moths in a wardrobe, shared by girlfriends equally as fed up with their monthly ticket to Carrie’s prom as I am.

So, I decide to do something about it. Which is why I find myself sitting on the floor one Sunday afternoon, surrounded by eight other women, scrutinising various types of cervical mucus. I’m not kidding. I’ve spent £35 on a three-hour workshop called ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ – ‘an event to empower you with education about your menstrual cycle’. The women around me range from their late twenties to those entering perimenopause. Me? I’m 34. What teacher Laura J Wilkes tells us is basic biology. And yet most of it comes as brand- new information to us all. Wilkes’ theory is that, while men and women have a 24-hour body clock, women’s additional 28(ish)- day cycle means that expecting the same of ourselves every day makes little sense.

Wilkes is just one of a whole host of period coaches (menstrual gurus of sorts) teaching women how to optimise their lives around the ebb and flow of their sex hormones. Many teach that following the rhythm of our cycles can help us live a more balanced, productive life, and recommend syncing everything from our diaries to our diets and our exercise with our monthly changes. Others simply advise learning your own cycle to tune in to your body and respond accordingly. On TikTok, the hashtags #cycletracking and #cyclesyncing have attracted 87m and 483m views respectively. Meanwhile, global Google searches for the term have more than doubled in the past year.

Big Tech has taken note. Periods are lucrative (52% of the population, who knew!) and a whole industry has sprung up around menstruation in the past few years, developing past the classic cycle tracking apps (now used by over 100 million women across the world) and offering in-depth analysis of temperature fluctuations, mood changes and heart rate. Fitness brands such as Fitbit, Whoop and Nike have introduced period tracking functions, and exercise plans have sprung up to help women work out during different times of the month.

But is menstrual tracking just another fad promising to fix our lives that instead leaves us more anxious – and out of pocket – than before? And does it contribute to the misogynistic trope that women are at the mercy of their hormones? Or, is it a liberating rejection of hustle culture and an empowering route to better body literacy? I’m determined to find out...

Seasonal living

Menstrual cycle coach Claire Baker has been sharing the peaks and troughs of her cycle with her 27k Instagram followers for eight years. She began tracking in her mid-twenties to help handle her polycystic ovary syndrome. Now, Baker says, she knows when she needs more sleep, the days she’s likely to be wildly productive and the ones when she’s more prone to procrastinating.

Armed with this information, she plans her life around her cycle – booking in social activities during ‘spring’ and ‘summer’, keeping the diary a little clearer during ‘autumn’ and getting more rest in ‘winter’.

The ‘inner seasons’ Baker is referring to were devised by psychotherapist Alexandra Pope (who co-runs the menstrual cycle community Red School) and assign a meteorological season to each stage of a typical cycle, the idea being that they all come with their own distinct emotions and symptoms. Winter (menstruation: when the bleed occurs); spring (follicular: when oestrogen rises and the egg follicle develops); summer (ovulation: the release of the egg and when oestrogen peaks) and autumn (the luteal phase: when progesterone rises after ovulation, then decreases if fertilisation hasn’t occurred).

Baker introduced these learnings into her sessions as a health and life coach and now offers 1:1 training and online courses (from £150) tailored around menstruation. ‘It’s never been diagnostic, it’s much more about helping people understand how their unique cycle experience shapes their life,’ she tells me. Some of what Baker says (such as following the moon along with your cycle) is a bit too woo-woo for me, but her philosophy largely focuses on living in congruence with your own rhythm – something I can totally get on board with.

Ahead of my first session with Baker, I fill out a questionnaire addressing everything from my mental health to my diet, work, relationships and the key details of a typical cycle. Her sessions are almost like therapy. Baker is warm and non-judgmental and sends me off to complete a food diary and note down how I feel at the end of each day.

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Cycle syncers recommend high-intensity workouts during the first half of your cycle, whereas low-impact activities are considered optimal during the luteal phaseGetty Images

Menstruation coaches recommend tracking over a minimum of three months, as our hormones will vary month to month and many women will not have a regular cycle, or may be impacted by reproductive conditions. Over the course of a year, we speak intermittently, exchanging the odd voice note. I realise that since quitting the pill seven years ago, I’ve paid little attention to how long my cycle is or how I feel during each phase.

I try out a combination of tracking methods. A smart ring that syncs with my period app (and which, disclaimer, I am gifted), a paper calendar and my iPhone notes (praying these never get hacked). Clear patterns soon emerge – weeks when I feel low, weeks when I feel more creative, weeks when I’m laser-focused and my to-do list ticks itself off. Obviously, there are numerous psychological and physiological factors that impact mood and energy beyond our cycles, but I enjoy seeing the rhythmic variations of my temperature and heart rate across the month as I colour code my calendar.

Become your own expert

I’m not quite organised enough to adapt my entire diet or exercise regimen to align with my cycle (fine, I don’t really have one) – and Baker is keen to stress this is not something she personally teaches.

Cycle syncers recommend high-intensity workouts such as HIIT or weight training during the follicular phase when we may have more energy and recover more quickly, whereas low-impact activities such as yoga or walking are considered optimal during the luteal phase. It’s not complete hokey; studies have found that strength training during the follicular stage of your cycle can increase muscle strength by more than in the luteal phase, and the French Institute of Sport has even created bespoke training plans for athletes as part of prep for the 2024 Olympics. Even the USA football team credits adapting its training to their cycles with their 2019 World Cup victory. Though, other studies suggest results are too variable, meaning influence cannot be concretely confirmed.

Dr Richard Burden, co-lead of the female athlete health and performance programme at the UK Sports Institute, has been putting these theories to the test. He works with Paralympic and Olympic athletes and has been investigating the influence that the menstrual cycle might have on training – but he’s hesitant to endorse such approaches. ‘We are a long way from being able to say whether or not you can do a particular type of training or eat a particular type of food in a particular phase of your menstrual cycle, and it’s going to have a significant impact,’ he says. The flaw in such methods, he highlights, is that menstrual cycles are individual – both in the timing of hormonal changes and the body’s emotional and physiological response to them. ‘If you aren’t measuring ovulation or hormone levels, you don’t actually know what’s going on – counting days is not enough. It’s guessing,’ he says.

As someone whose lockdown Peloton purchase now largely functions as a clothes horse, I’m relieved that I don’t need to immediately adapt my sporadic exercise sessions to my mercurial hormones. The idea of changing my behaviour on a weekly basis is enough to make me stress spiral, which ironically will likely send my hormones haywire. It’s clear that a lot of the advice being doled out on social media is coming from people who are not medically trained and, while well-intentioned, unlikely to have any significant impact on our overall health.

And yet, to dismiss period tracking as a baseless trend would be to do women a disservice. Research from late 2023 shows a woman’s brain changes across her cycle in response to different hormones, impacting emotions, memory and behaviour. ‘We are taught to ignore our cycles and to “be like the boys”,’ Pope of Red School tells me, ‘but we don’t deny the circadian rhythm, so why would we ignore the menstrual cycle?’ While I’m not suggesting we all fall into the misogynistic trap of believing we are total slaves to the whims of our cycles, it’s also clear that ignoring them isn’t the answer. Ignorance is a result of both patriarchal shame and a woeful lack of research - and it has led to women shoulder the consequences.

It’s hard to see a downside to developing this sort of body literacy. In fact, some doctors argue that the menstrual cycle should be considered the fifth vital sign, as key changes (such as amenorrhoea, when periods stop) can indicate that something is seriously wrong. Tracking enables you to take your own personal data to the GP if something goes awry. NHS GP and co-author of The Female Body Bible, Bella Smith, agrees. ‘The more you know yourself, the more you know your normal and the easier it is to know when something is abnormal.’ However, she warns, ‘There’s a thin line between education, understanding, being empowered and being able to anticipate what your hormones are going to do.’

After a year of tracking, I’m now acutely aware of where I am in my cycle and able to roughly anticipate my moods and needs. It’s not clockwork, and though I’ve occasionally fallen foul of the self-fulfilling prophecy Dr Smith warns of, it’s allowed me to approach things more flexibly – varying exercise, embracing productive moments and allowing tricky emotions just before my period to hold less weight.

While we should all take TikTok advice with a pinch of salt and accept that overhauling our lives in response to our hormones just isn’t an option for most of us, it’s clear that familiarising ourselves with our bodies’ processes will never be a bad thing – and might even help us to work with our natural cadences rather than fighting, endlessly, against them.

Follow Harriet Hall on Twitter and Instagram.

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