This week, July 23-27th, we celebrate Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week. As a new face to the Guiding Star Project blogging team, I thought it would be fitting to share how my passion for the work of GSP originated with my own journey to health through learning about my body by studying NFP and Fertility Awareness Methods.
In 2012, I was working my first job as a registered nurse at a major medical center and pursuing a serious relationship with my boyfriend. As we saw our relationship headed towards marriage, I decided it would be fitting for me to begin learning more about my fertility. Throughout high school and college, I had struggled with intermittent pelvic pains and irregular and long menstrual cycles, for which I saw multiple doctors and even obtained an ultrasound and CT scan. Doctors were never able to get to the bottom of what was causing my pain, and their only solution was artificial contraceptives to “regulate my cycle.”
As I began to seek out information about NFP, I was steered in the direction of the Sympto-Thermal method. I ordered an online textbook and began to chart my cycles independently. Each morning, I was checking my basal body temperature and studying other signs of my fertile periods. However, as I recorded my temperature each day, I couldn’t use the charts and materials I was given without altering them, because my body temperatures were so low each morning that they didn’t fall within the “normal range” on the charts. I didn’t think much of it at first and continued the daily routine of monitoring for signs of ovulation and infertile periods. As I continued with the Sympto-Thermal method, it became difficult to get accurate daily temperature readings due to my changing work shifts as an RN. For me, each week I woke up at a different time, depending upon whether I was working day, evening or night shifts and it was impossible to accurately check my temperature at the same time each day.
Fast forward about six months later, my boyfriend and I were now officially engaged to be married and we both knew we wanted to get a handle on learning NFP as our wedding day approached. I decided to switch to the Creighton Method (a different NFP method) and NaPro Technology. This method doesn’t require daily temperature monitoring, but rather focuses solely on the fluids your cervix naturally produces at different times of your cycle. My fiance’ and I attended classes with an instructor together and learned the basics of this new method. At this point in our relationship, we were separated by more than 1,000 miles, but he made a conscious effort to learn about this facet of our future marriage, and when he left to head home he always took our NFP chart with him. At the end of each day, I would text him what to record for that day’s observations. It was a team effort and neither one of us felt the burden of it independently.
As I continued to work with the NaPro system, I began to realize something just wasn’t “right.” The days between ovulation and the next menstrual cycle are collectively called the luteal phase. An average luteal phase is approximately 14 days in length. Mine, however, was consistently only 7-9 days in length. I sought out more information about this and learned that this phase in your cycle is especially critical for conception because it is during this period of time that a newly conceived embryo travels from the fallopian tube to the uterus to implant and grow, and if there is not enough time and the menstrual flow begins, a shortened luteal phase can result in miscarriages.
An especially helpful feature of the Creighton/NaPro model of NFP is that it features training for physicians and medical professionals to allow them to learn how to intervene and treat reproductive diseases or irregularities while cooperating with a woman’s natural cycle. As I learned that my body was at risk for potentially miscarrying any future children, I sought out a physician trained in NaPro technology. I brought my NFP charts to her office, as well as my Sympto-Thermal charts from a few months prior. She studied them carefully, asked questions, and sought to understand what was happening in my body. The major hormone responsible for a healthy luteal phase is progesterone. She did a blood draw on a specific day post-ovulation and discovered that my body was in fact low in progesterone during my luteal phase. I was able to treat this with targeted, natural progesterone replacement post-ovulation. My new physician also alerted me to the fact that my low basal body temperatures that I had discovered using Sympto-Thermal method could be a sign of low thyroid function, or hypothyroidism. Previous physicians had checked my thyroid levels and always told me that they were within normal range. My new doctor however, explained to me that the “normal range” for thyroid hormones was established using a majority of elderly women and that I, as a young woman of childbearing age, wouldn’t necessarily fit perfectly within that “normal.”
After that appointment, I had identified two conditions that both cause either infertility or miscarriages. This was done through observing the signs of my body and testing and treating the signs and symptoms accordingly. If I had taken the advice of the mainstream medical community years prior and began taking hormonal contraceptives, I almost surely would have missed out on all of this information. Without having treated my hypothyroidism and low progesterone, we may have suffered the heartache of infertility or miscarrying our unborn children when we decided to start a family. Instead, we were able to treat these two conditions before our wedding day, and have now safely conceived and carried three children. My progesterone levels have been monitored and supported throughout pregnancy to ensure our children have the greatest chance at life. Additionally, in contrast to hormonal contraceptives, I’ve never felt that family planning was my load to bear, as my fiance’, and now husband, has always played a pivotal role in this part of our marriage.
As a woman, I’m so thankful that I learned about Fertility Awareness when I did. I’m thankful that I was able to take control of my health and find physicians who were knowledgeable about ways to cooperate with my natural fertility and cycles instead of working against them. I’m thankful that through Fertility Awareness and NFP, I am respecting my body, building an even stronger relationship with my husband, and protecting my children even before they are in my arms. This is why the Guiding Star Project is an invaluable resource for women. Through education, advocacy and collaboration with the medical community, GSP’s goal is for all women to be be empowered to reach this same level of health and wholeness.
October in the Midwest brings cooler weather, football, and some of the most beautiful drives through fire-tinged foliage I’ve ever seen. It also brings the National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. I am one of a very small minority of women in my group of friends who has not