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You’ve finally figured out fertile mucus.
You finally feel like you can identify your fertile window.
You finally have the timing right.
But you’re still not getting pregnant.
Last week, I was working with a client who was having this exact experience and there was ONE thing at the top of my mind the whole time that I wanted to share with you.
Once you’ve figured out the basics of charting and understanding your cycle, the next step is to look back at your completed chart and figure out if your cycle was actually fertile.
And without a fertile cycle, well, it’s going to be tricky getting pregnant.
There are THREE key reasons why your cycle may not be fertile. But there are also three EASY ways to fix this too.
In this podcast episode, I’m sharing three reasons why your cycle isn’t fertile (and what actually makes a cycle “fertile”) so that you won’t fall into these traps too and know exactly what to look out for if you’re thinking this could be your problem.
The luteal phase begins after ovulation until the first day of your next period. It usually lasts between 10-17 days and its duration does not vary much between cycles. Once you have charted your cycle for a couple of months, you will be able to determine the length of your luteal phase. This means you can confirm ovulation, then work out the day that your next period is due to arrive. Which means no more taking a pregnancy test too early and reduces unnecessary stress and tears!
Say for example I knew that my luteal phase was around 12-13 days every cycle. My follicular phase before ovulation might be all over the place and it might be a different length every cycle because of any number of reasons. But the luteal phase is usually pretty consistent. Which means it doesn’t matter if I confirm ovulation on day 12 or on day 17, I know that I can count ahead 12-13 days and know when my next period is due. So if I’m trying to conceive, I know whether my period is actually late and when I can take a pregnancy test for the most accurate results, or I know that it’s not actually late but that I actually ovulated later in this cycle, meaning it will be a longer cycle and my period will arrive later.
Let’s talk about why the length of your luteal phase matters, and I actually did a podcast episode on this – Episode 41: Why the Length of Your Luteal Phase Matters and we also did a deep dive into this phase of the cycle in my Menstrual Cycle Masterclass Series, Episode 15.
Once the egg has been released from the follicle at ovulation, the follicle that remains in the ovary becomes the corpus luteum. This has its own blood supply and is responsible for releasing progesterone, which is why progesterone surges after ovulation. Progesterone also releases heat, which is why we get that upward surge of BBT after ovulation, and why your BBT drops again when your next period is due, as progesterone levels drop suddenly when the body realises it’s not pregnant. This is because progesterone is essential for maintaining pregnancy. It will continue to produce progesterone during the first three months of pregnancy, until the placenta takes over. If the egg is not fertilised, the corpus luteum will break down during the luteal phase as menstruation approaches. This causes progesterone levels to drop. So we see that in our BBT and this is also the stage where many women experience traditional PMS symptoms.
Not only does progesterone cause that upward shift in basal body temperature after ovulation, it also stimulates glands in the cervix to produce a thick, sticky mucus that forms a new mucus plug to block sperm entry. Whereas it’s surging oestrogen levels before ovulation that promote production of wet, slippery fertile quality mucus.
We want the length of your luteal phase to be anywhere between 10-17 days. If it’s 18 days or over, then you are most likely pregnant, so once you hit 18 days past ovulation, it’s time to take a pregnancy test. But of course it is possible for your luteal phase to be less than 10-11 days too, and this is where potential issues with conception can occur. Think about the processes that happen during the luteal phase. We need our luteal phase to be long enough to give time for the endometrium to prepare for implantation, and for the fertilised egg to travel down the fallopian tube and implant in the endometrium. If the luteal phase is too short, you might have heard this called a luteal phase defect, then the endometrium is already closing up shop thinking no egg has been fertilised and so starts to prepare for menstruation, while the fertilised egg is still making its way to it. A short luteal phase increased your chances that implantation may not occur, and it may also increase your chance of miscarriage or what’s known as a chemical pregnancy. This is a very early miscarriage within the first 5 weeks, where the egg has been fertilised and an embryo forms and it may even embed in the endometrium, but then stops developing. This can often happen before a woman even knows she is pregnant, and might only be detected if she is routinely taking pregnancy tests. So that’s why we ideally want a luteal phase no shorter than 10-11 days, that’s when we can consider it a fertile cycle.
A shorter luteal phase might indicate low progesterone levels, which is incredibly common after stopping hormonal birth control. Ultimately a short luteal phase means the endometrium just doesn’t have the time it needs to thicken and develop to support an embryo and implantation, so you struggle to get pregnant.
So – if that’s the case, are longer cycles more fertile? Not necessarily, which brings us to Reason 2.
Ovulation is necessary for pregnancy. It occurs around halfway through your menstrual cycle, but we know it does not always occur on day 14 and it doesn’t occur on the same day of our cycle. This is why the length of your cycle varies among women and also from month to month.
The follicular phase is the window of time before ovulation actually occurs, and it starts immediately from the end of your period until we can confirm ovulation. We’re not fertile during the follicular phase because we have minimal cervical mucus, and our cervix is blocked off to sperm with a thick, sticky mucus plug. Towards the end of the follicular phase in a typical, healthy, fertile cycle, mucus will change from minimal or dry and sticky and you’ll start to see a fertile quality mucus that is wet, slippery and indicates the beginning of your fertile window. Oestrogen levels peak around ovulation, which is what causes glands in the cervix to produce mucus and ideally you will see this until ovulation occurs, then the following day your mucus pattern will change again and you’ll be back to seeing minimal mucus, or a transition to more sticky and dry mucus.
However, for any number of reasons the body might need to attempt ovulation more than once for it to be successful. And you’ll pick this up by noticing everything I just described, but then that fertile quality mucus will come back. And then it will dry up again. And this can happen any number of times until ovulation is successful, or the body gives up for this cycle, and you might experience an anovulatory cycle with bleeding caused by excessive build up of the endometrium which can no longer sustain itself.
This shift from wet to dry and back to wet again is called a Stress-Pattern cycle. We see it when a woman is experiencing physical or psychological stress, so legitimate stress, excessive exercise and elite athletes, illness, and this is also typical of a cycle of a woman with PCOS or polycystic ovaries. So you’re getting all the hallmarks of ovulation, but it might not be happening.
This is why I don’t like ovulation testing for irregular cycles. Because you might see the surge in hormones and think ovulation has happened, and then completely miss the successful ovulation attempt that might have happened one week later. Because you’ll get the surge of hormones with every attempt. This is why women with PCOS or polycystic ovaries may struggle to conceive, but pregnancy is not impossible, but it’s harder to get the timing right, along with other factors that also come with having these conditions. This is also really common as your fertility returns after having a baby. It’s perfectly normal, but as I am currently learning, it can make tracking and understanding your cycle much more difficult.
When we have a longer cycle and our bodies attempt ovulation multiple times, the egg that is released isn’t lesser quality or old, because it’s still matured and been released at the right time for its development. So if you do conceive on attempt number 2, you’re not conceiving with a poorer quality egg. This is why multiple eggs start to develop and mature with every menstrual cycle. We have a built in back up just in case.
The problem with longer cycles is that they make identifying the fertile window more difficult. The other problem is that the longer we spend in the follicular phase, the more our oestrogen levels build up (because oestrogen levels gradually rise and then peak as ovulation approaches), and progesterone levels stay really low because this hormone doesn’t peak until after ovulation has happened. So we are spending most of our cycle in this imbalance between oestrogen and progesterone. We are in an oestrogen dominant state and our endometrium is building up and thickening to prepare for ovulation that is taking far longer than expected. This leads to spotting and breakthrough bleeding. What’s more, this state of oestrogen dominance isn’t healthy for our hormone balance and we see this in symptoms like bloating, sore breasts, mood changes, low libido, heavy periods, headaches and migraines, fibroids and of course, irregular cycles. Excess oestrogen and low progesterone go hand in hand with more time spent in the follicular phase. We know low progesterone leads to a shorter luteal phase, so our cycle becomes very unbalanced with a really long follicular phase and super short luteal phase. And round and round the cycle goes…
More often than not, we don’t even start to think about our fertility or as ourselves as “fertile” until we start thinking about having a baby. But your fertility is so much more than that! I’ve really started to focus on this idea a lot more lately because it’s so important to think of your fertility as a state of health. It’s your potential to conceive if and when the timing is right for you. A fertile body is the highest state of health, a body in optimal condition, and your hormones are the very first point of disruption when the body is under some form of stress. So even if you’re not trying to conceive and you’re seeing these types of concerns, you still want your cycle to be fertile. Because it’s all about the long-game and a fertile cycle means you have good general health and ultimately reduces your risk of chronic disease long after you have gotten pregnant and you’re done having babies.
Both a short luteal phase and a long follicular phase are the result of hormone disruption. Usually this is excessive oestrogen and low progesterone and we need these hormones to be in balance for a healthy cycle and optimal ovulation, because hormone disruption will impact ovulation and your menstrual cycle. And if you don’t understand ovulation and your menstrual cycle then you’d never know it was impacted – especially if the long follicular phase and short luteal phase cancel each other out so your cycle is still considered to be a normal length. It’s more noticeable if your cycles start to exceed 40, 50, 60 days; but this isn’t always the case. So when you think about fertility as a state of health, and an indicator of your current health status, then it’s easier to think about how this can be improved with the right support, tools and guidance.
If you’re looking back on your charts and you’re noticing a luteal phase that’s shorter than 10-17 days or a longer than expected follicular phase with multiple attempts at ovulation, it’s time to do something about your hormone balance. This is where we want to start. Oestrogen dominance is not necessarily caused by our bodies producing too much oestrogen, but because of other external factors that influence oestrogen levels. Excess oestrogen, and as a result, low progesterone, is usually caused by 3 key factors – environmental pollutants and hormone disruptors, stress and diet. What we need to do to manage this is reduce oestrogen levels, and then progesterone will follow along with it to restore balance between these two key hormones.
And this is what you want to focus on when reducing oestrogen – simple lifestyle changes, gentle detoxification to eliminate these potential triggers that you put on, in or around your body, like alcohols, phytoestrogens from foods like soy, xenoestrogens in the chemicals in your skincare, makeup and cleaning products. I talked about hormone disruptors and xenoestrogens in Episode 24: Household Items That May Be Affecting Your Fertility. Basically, the chemical structure of these “artificial” oestrogens in skincare, makeup and cleaning products, are very similar to the hormone oestrogen. This means that these artificial oestrogens bind to the same chemical receptors in our body that oestrogen binds too. If all of our oestrogen receptors are blocked up with artificial forms of oestrogen or chemicals with a very similar structure, then there is excess oestrogen floating around with no receptors to bind to. If oestrogen can’t bind to its receptors, then it can’t do its job, so the body thinks there isn’t enough oestrogen and so produces more. And this is the beginning of a vicious cycle.
Stress as always plays its part here too. Stress leads to increased cortisol levels, which in turn leads to lower progesterone levels, because the same pre-cursor to cortisol is used for progesterone production. So managing your stress means more progesterone can be produced because less is being diverted for cortisol production.
When it comes to diet, consuming fibre can help to flush excess oestrogen from the body. Excess hormones that aren’t being used and are just floating around the body can bind to fibre, meaning they are flushed out of the body instead of being redistributed. An easy way to boost your fibre is to add 1 tablespoon of psyllium husk to smoothies or muesli every morning. Almost all health conditions related to hormone imbalance can be helped by adding some extra fibre in the diet to help the liver, the detoxification organ, to do its job effectively.
Another simple way to help with hormone balance and something I recommend all the time is seed cycling. Seeds help to support menstrual cycle health by supporting the production, binding abilities and metabolism of hormones. Basically, the different nuts, seeds and grains used have different types and amounts of lignans and essential fatty acids. Lignans help our body to bind up excess hormones. Essential fatty acids can’t be produced by the body so are needed in our diet to produce hormones.
In the first half of the menstrual cycle and the follicular phase, consume about 1 tablespoon each of flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds, again in smoothies, muesli, salads, anything you eat regularly. Flaxseeds contain lignans which bind to excess oestrogen and ensure that levels don’t get too high as they rise to prepare for ovulation. Pumpkin seeds are high in zinc and support the release of progesterone. In the second half of your cycle, switch to sesame seeds and sunflower seeds. Sesame seeds, like flaxseeds, bind to excess oestrogen and sunflower seeds are high in selenium, a nutrient essential for hormone health and your fertility.
Of course, it goes without saying that managing your hormone balance is a very individualised process and I highly recommend working with a healthcare professional if your hormone imbalance is at a point where your cycle is being affected. We want this to be under control before trying to conceive or getting pregnant and remember that your fertility is a state of health, so a wonky cycle is still a problem even if you’re not trying to get pregnant right now.
So let’s recap now the 3 key reasons why your cycle may not be fertile, as well as 3 easy ways to fix this too:
What to do if your cycle isn’t fertile
Have you seen any of these issues in your cycle? Or have you already made some changes to fix these problems and already seeing some results in your cycle? I’d love to know! As always you’re welcome to email or DM me and let’s chat!
3 simple steps to find out exactly when you're ovulating (without tracking apps)
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