By Emma Holmes
This summer, I went off birth control and had unprotected sex … on purpose. The immediate reactions to my over-sharing were, in no particular order, “What?!” “We cannot have a baby in this house,” and, my favorite, “Don’t you write for the sex education section?”
While I’m not great at taking my own advice, I am neither stupid nor knowingly reckless. Instead, I began an experiment with a new (and old) form of fertility awareness: basal temperature tracking. Last Spring, while I sat in a hormone-jumbled slump, folded over a hot pad and popping Midol, it occurred to me that maybe it was time for a birth control reality check.
Like many people, I’ve been on hormonal birth control since before my senior year of high school. I’ve tried both oral birth control pills and Skyla, a hormonal intrauterine device (IUD). Since graduating high school and moving westward, I’ve experienced side effects including depression and weight gain. While I was unsure whether hormones were necessarily to blame, I wanted to gauge their relative impact, and understand what my uninhibited cycle looked like.
When I visited home this past Labor Day and bunked in my sister’s room, she watched me wake up and stick a thermometer in my mouth. “Are you sick?” she asked. Unsure how to explain fertility to a 12-year-old, I laughed nervously and said I wasn’t sick, just tracking when I would get my period. That, she understood.
The big-kid breakdown is essentially this: the average pre-menopausal menstrual cycle can be monitored by tracking minor fluctuations in your basal temperature. Your basal temperature is your waking temp, measured to the hundredth degree. Around the time of ovulation, it spikes between 0.5 and 1.6 degrees (Womenshealth.gov). You’re only impregnable for several days during ovulation, and thus tracking your cycle allows you to know when to use extra precautions against baby-making. If pregnancy isn’t a risk in your love life, fertility awareness can still help you brace for your period or explain some confusing sex dreams.
There are countless resources to help you begin basal temperature tracking. Personally, I subscribe to the app Natural Cycles, which reminds me to take my temperature each morning and calculates sperm life span for me, so there’s less math involved. The Reproductive section of the Apple Health app also has a section for basal temperature tracking, which is a free, convenient alternative to a notebook and pen.
Before you buy a basal thermometer and jump on board, be warned that there are several more factors to consider. While I choose to use the app for my primary birth control, it does not protect against STIs and takes several months to achieve full accuracy if you’re recently off hormonal birth control.
I found that the app has also helped me increase mindfulness and understanding of my body. Starting my day with a literal check-in grounds me, and offers a sense of productivity and awareness. If you’re hoping to learn more about your body, basal temperature tracking can be a useful addition to your morning routine.