The Fifth Vital Sign

The importance of Period Tracking

It’s no secret that when you go to the doctor, they check your vital signs. This includes your heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.  A vital sign is a clinical measurement than can tell how well a person’s essential body systems are functioning.  An increase in blood pressure is an indication that something is wrong with the cardiovascular system and an increase in temperature may indicate an underlying infection.  However, for female patients, monitoring their menstrual cycle can be as important or even more important than the other four vital signs listed.

The menstrual cycle begins the first day of your period and ends the day before your next one starts.  Most hype around a menstrual cycle is the period, but that is not the most important part.  Ovulation is the main event of a menstrual cycle and only after ovulation can a person have a true menstrual flow.

Ovulation is well known for its important role in reproduction, but as mentioned above, it can and should be used as the fifth vital sign.  Just like heart rate and blood pressure tells us the overall health of the cardiovascular system, ovulation gives us insight into the overall health of the endocrine system and reproductive system.  Underlying health issues in these systems can show up unwanted menstrual side effects including painful or heavy periods, abnormal cervical mucus patterns, irregular periods, mid-cycle spotting, and delayed ovulation which is all tracked by the menstrual cycle.

So, if a menstrual cycle is so important and considered a vital sign, why are primary doctors not asking about it?  Research shows that many healthcare providers don’t believe it is necessary for women to have regular periods.  Some may not even be comfortable reading a menstrual chart (more to come) or knowing how to correct a condition if abnormalities are found.  Therefore, practitioners are recommending menstrual cycle suppression using hormonal contraceptives.

There are many different forms of hormonal contraceptives out there (pills, shots, patches, IUD, etc.), but they all have a common goal – to release artificial hormones into your body causing varying amounts of disorder to the endocrine system.  Hormonal contraceptives were the first drug created to disrupt and change normal, healthy bodily function.  A person wouldn’t take blood pressure medication if their blood pressure was in normal ranges because that would create more chaos in the body, correct?  Then why are people lining up to take hormonal contraceptives?  Many reasons are for the unwanted menstrual side effects that disrupt everyday life.  But remember, these undesirable side effects can indicate an underlying health issue that is being masked when we don’t look deeper into the fifth vital sign.

Not only can healthy ovulatory menstrual cycles reveal underlying health issues, but they also preserve optimal health.

Below are links between ovulatory menstrual cycles and other body systems.

  • Irregular ovulation is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and infertility
  • Regular ovulation is associated with building and maintaining bone health and density in women
  • Women who experience irregular cycles are nearly twice as likely to develop breast cancer and nearly three times more likely to develop endometrial cancer

As you can see, there is more to tracking a menstrual cycle than just fertility information.  You now know that a menstrual cycle contains a wealth of information and an in-site into underlying health concerns.  It might even seem overwhelming to take control back over your menstrual cycle and track the fifth vital sign.

Here are a few ways to help you get started:

  1. Find a healthcare professional who is willing to help: As stated above, many practitioners want to help you by giving a hormonal contraceptive as a “fix” to your concern but are not willing to dive deeper into underlying issues. Finding a healthcare professional that is willing to work with you and your natural cycle is important for optimizing your health.
  2. Learn to track your cycle: Like any new skill, it takes time and practice to gain confidence in tracking.  There are many books and online recourses on how to properly track a menstrual cycle.  There are even classes taught by medical professionals on this subject.  Many reasons people start tracking their cycle is for fertility reasons, but it can also be used as tracking your fifth vital sign.
  3. Focus on nutrition for a healthy cycle: Diet plays an essential role in our overall health, but especially the menstrual cycle. Think unprocessed foods including vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy, nuts, and seeds.  Focusing on the nutritional value of the food you are consuming versus thinking all calories are created equal can also be beneficial.
  4. Make better lifestyle choices: Invest in yourself. Making sure you are getting plenty of rest, exercising daily, and managing stress can all play a role in healthy menstrual cycles.  When you start tracking your cycle you will start to notice when any of these three are not balanced because it will change the natural pattern of your menstrual cycle.
  5. Manage the unwanted PMS symptoms: It is not uncommon to experience PMS symptoms.  Some studies show as many as 90% of women experience PMS symptoms.  Diet and lifestyle factors play a significant role in the severity of symptoms.  Plus, several nutrients have been shown to reduce PMS symptoms including magnesium, vitamin B6, calcium, vitamin D, and vitex.  This is another area to work with a healthcare provider who is willing to dive deeper and help you manage these symptoms.

For more information on this topic, here are a few good resources.

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