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What can the menstrual cycle tell us about health?

Many functional medicine health experts refer to the menstrual cycle as “the fifth vital sign” because its such an important piece of information for women to understand about their own body. Learning about ovulation (or not), cycle length and how that relates to symptoms and hormonal health can impact other areas such as her fertility, thyroid function, mood, immune system and even weight gain or loss. There are a number of tests and apps that can help women track their cycle and determine their patterns from month to month.

First, start with just tracking the first day of the period on a calendar or period tracker type app. Over the course of months, women can start to predict when their next cycle will start so they are prepared. It also tends to clue her in to her fertile days when ovulation is suspected. However, to know this for sure, ovulation predictor kits are the best bet.

An ovulation predictor kit (or OPK) can be purchased at most pharmacies. It’s a simple test where a woman will urinate on the test strip every morning until she sees a positive result. This means she is likely going to ovulate (release an egg) in the next 12-48 hours and is considered fertile! If she is trying to become pregnant, now is a good time to try! The OPK is helpful as not all women ovulate on day 14 of their cycle as commonly taught in school and in magazines. Women can definitely ovulate before or after day 14!

To get even more data, consider hormone testing like with the DUTCH test. This is also a urine test however it is done in the 2nd half of the cycle in what is known as the luteal phase. A woman who has a typical 28-ish day cycle should collect about 5-7 days after ovulation or around days 19-21. DUTCH stands for Dried Urine Test for Comprehensive Hormones because of all the hormones that are reported! By collecting in the luteal phase, the test evaluates for 2 progesterone metabolites, all 3 forms of estrogen, estrogen detoxification, the androgens DHEA-S, testosterone and their metabolites plus melatonin and several cortisol markers. This information gives practitioners a very in-depth look into a woman’s ability to make hormones and understand why she is having symptoms. The various pathways seen on the test help answer questions about acne, fertility, pms, PCOS, insomnia, energy, cancer risk, depression, anxiety, sex drive, weight gain, peri-menopause, menopause and more.

Lastly, the menstrual cycle can be tricky and may not always be regular with regular symptoms. Additional hormone testing known as the Cycle Mapping by DUTCH is a month-long evaluation where a woman collects a urine sample almost every morning of her cycle. This information is then graphed out to better understand the rise and fall of both estrogen and progesterone on the day-to-day. Practitioners are able to use this data to determine more specifically what’s going on and how to better address her as an individual.

Written by Dr. Carrie Jones