Menstrual Cycles, Lunar Cycles, and Period Tracking Apps
Author: Sunny Rodgers, ACS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARI SAPERSTEIN
Women’s reproductive cycles, or menstrual cycles, are one part miracle, one part hormonal bingo, and a dash of magic.
There seems to be one common thread through history when it comes to menstruation – pretend it’s not happening. To this day most men are uncomfortable with the topic. How often have we witnessed the obligatory movie scene where a man is awkwardly buying a box of feminine products for their significant other? Just the mere thought of menstruation can strike fear in the hearts of many men.
The menstrual cycle itself refers to the natural changes that happen to a woman’s body as it prepares for pregnancy – almost every month. According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, women will have approximately 450 menstrual cycles in their lifetime.
The hormonal bingo comes into play with the many symptoms that accompany cycles. On the first day of a menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone hormones are low, which triggers a woman’s body to make more to prepare for the possibility of pregnancy. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office on Women’s Health states that over 90% of women exhibit some type of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
A dash of magic harkens to rituals where menstrual blood is considered sacred. Social anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer studied fertility magic in myths and rituals of ancient Greece, believed Spring festivals relied on mixing menstrual blood into fields to increase the fertility of crops. According to Eleusinian folklore, women in ancient Greece would also carry seeds to the fields in cloth soaked in menstrual blood. In the book Women’s Spirituality: Power and Grace, author Mary Faulkner shares that Egyptian pharaohs were believed to become divine by drinking the blood of Isis, while Celtic kings sought immortality by drinking the “red mead” of Mab, the fairy queen, both of which were thought to be menstrual blood. In China menstrual blood was called the Heavenly Gui and was thought to be tied directly to a woman’s internal essence.
Today, the use of menstrual blood is experiencing a resurgence with varied applications from plant fertilizer, to dye, to an age-reversing tonic. Scientists in Japan have even found menstrual blood can be used like stem cells to repair heart tissue.
Menstruation is a monthly shedding of a woman’s uterus lining. Most menstrual periods last an average of 3 to 5 days. The first day of menstruation is the first day of your period and the menstrual cycle is the recurring menstruation process that happens approximately monthly.
Whereas a century ago women got their first period, called menarche, around age 17, while women today are starting their periods earlier in life at around age 13. Scientists believe this is due to changes in nutrition and diets that have created a higher rate of obesity over the past 30 years, as well as a higher exposure rate to chemicals in our everyday lives.
If you aren’t pregnant, most women between menarche to menopause have a monthly cycle. According to Ayurvedic medicine, we have seven layers of tissue - lymph, blood, muscle, fat, bone, nerves, and our reproductive tissues, which are nourished sequentially. This means our reproductive tissues are the last to receive nourishment. So, when a woman receives her period each month this means her reproductive tissues are fundamentally healthy, which should be a reason to celebrate and not something to dread as many of us do.
There are certain types of unique menses such as vicarious menstruation, in which uterine blood is discharged from other areas of the body during menstruation, such as the nostrils, eyes, and ears. Retrograde menstruation occurs when some of the menstrual flow heads back through the fallopian tubes and into the abdomen.
Endometriosis is characterized by an abnormal growth of cells outside of the uterus causing pelvic pain and other symptoms tend to worsen during menstruation. The Endometriosis Foundation of America has more information and resources available.
For transgendered people who may have periods, the Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) organization provides information and support on their site. Cycles + Sex is another great resource for information and recommends gender-affirming period products here.
Global Cultural Beliefs & Myths
Across the world, an estimated 300 million people lack access to sanitary products.
Due to menstrual poverty, women in rural India are reduced to using sawdust, newspaper, dirty rags, sand and dried leaves because they cannot afford sanitary napkins. 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene and 20% of girls drop out of school after reaching puberty because of the lack of available sanitary options. Even in the United States, over 24 million people cannot afford menstrual products.
Many global stigmas and taboos surround menstruation, affecting all aspects of a woman’s life, including her choice of career. In Japan, women are discouraged from becoming sushi chefs due to the widespread cultural belief that menstruation causes an imbalance in women’s taste. In India, female chefs cannot work in kitchens during their periods because it is believed they can pollute the food with their touch. Taiwan’s Gender Equality in Employment Act allows for up to three days of menstrual leave each year.
According to UNICEF, almost half of the girls in Iran consider menstruation to be a disease. In Bolivia, girls believe that disposing of their used sanitary pads with the rest of their trash will lead to cancer. In rural Nepal, girls are kept hidden in dark rooms during their periods in accordance with a chhaupadi tradition that considers menstruation taboo. This, in turn, stunts the girls’ education by not allowing them to attend school during this period of isolation. Hindi women are not allowed to enter temples while menstruating.
Let’s end this section with the popular myth that sharks can detect period blood. Yes, almost all of us have heard that one. But according to Popular Science while sharks can smell blood, they are not attracted to menstrual blood in the water. Menstrual blood also contains uterine lining and cervical mucus, which dilutes the strength of period blood and makes it less detectable to sharks. So while you’re most likely to be safe swimming in the ocean on your period, beware of hikes in Glacier National Park where the Wildlife Biology Program of the University of Montana found that menstrual odor attracts polar bears.
The word menstrual comes from the Greek μήνας and the Latin mensis which means 'month'. The average menstrual cycle length is 29.5 days and the lunar cycle lasts 29.5 days. There are different evolutionary theories speculating why the human menstrual cycle length evolved to be so close to the lunar cycle in length. Stories and beliefs connecting the two are found in various cultures and mythologies.
Scientific research has found that the moon rules the flow of fluids and ocean tides. This seems to include monthly flow as well. According to a study in the medical journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica tracking the menstrual cycles of 826 female volunteers in relation to lunar rhythm; nearly 30% had their period around the full moon. An additional Environmental Health Insights study found that the closer the moon was to the Earth more babies were born. So, there is scientific evidence that the moon amplifies fertility.
Prior to the prevalence of artificial light, some scientists believed women ovulated when the moon was full and started menstruating when the moon was new. The time between the new moon and the full moon is the time when estrogen increases, culminating in ovulation when the moon is at its fullest.
In Native American cultures, women separate themselves from their tribe and retreat to a moon lodge, a place where they can collectively tap into and celebrate their feminine energies and lunar energies.
Lunar Cycles + Your Cycles
Have you considered your menstrual cycle in relation to the moon cycle? Some of us menstruate on the crescent moon, some on the full moon, some on the waning moon, and others on the new moon. To track your menstruation to the moon cycle simply begin to observe how it relates to the moon—do you ovulate on the full moon and menstruate on the new moon? Or something different? Simply observe how you feel during each cycle, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Take a Moon Phase Bath
Enjoying a salt bath during menstruation can help stabilize your body fluids and relieve bloating, as well as calm cramping symptoms.
Create Your Own Bath Salt Sole:
Sole is water that is fully saturated with unrefined natural salt, most often Himalayan Pink Salt. You can read more about the overall benefits of Sole here. However, you don’t need to use a pink salt if it is not readily available to you. We also like Epsom salts, magnesium flakes and in a pinch—a big box of table salt will do.
To make, place one cup of salt in a 1-liter mason jar and fill with ample warm water to fill the jar. Allow to sit for a minimum of three days, occasionally turning the jar to help the salt dissolve. If there is salt left in the bottom of the jar then the water has absorbed to its capacity.
Add the Bath Salt Sole to your bath during the following times and allow yourself to soak for at least 30 minutes to get the maximum benefits.
Full Moon Bath: this is when your body can absorb the most benefits from minerals.
New Moon Bath: this is when your body is naturally ready for detoxification.
Do Women’s Cycles Sync?
The McClintock Effect, a 1971 study by Martha McClintock, showed menstrual synchrony between women. Research by Rebecca Burch and Gordon Gallup of State University of New York at Oswego discovered people are more likely to experience synced menstrual cycles if they’ve been exposed to semen.
National Geographic found that female lions can also sync menstrual cycles.
Menstrual Tracking Apps
Discovered in 1960 in the Congo, the Ishango Bone is a 20,000-year-old mathematical tool. Among its’ supposed uses included keeping track of the menstrual cycle.
Today, our smartphones have made menstrual tracking apps available at our fingertips. Because menstrual bleeding can vary amongst individuals, having a personal period tracker can be extremely helpful.
As the case with all apps, there are a plethora of options available. I’m going to cover the ones that had the highest reviews among people I discussed this essay with.
Clue came out on top time and time again amongst the people I polled. More than a mere smartphone app, Clue is a resource and research partner backed by Oxford, Stanford, and Columbia. Clue’s website is chock full of education and information about cycles, sex, STI’s, safe sex, and more. On Clue’s app, you can log the length of your period, type of flow, favorite products, and PMS symptoms. Clue even allows for cervical fluid tracking to assist with ovulation and fertility. Another reason to love it? It’s free.
Eve gathered high points for their positive attempts to make your period fun. Eve also links with the Glow app which monitors sleep, weight, sex life, and overall gynecological health, making it an ultra-valuable personal resource. Eve’s horoscope-like “Cyclescope” and sex quizzes can be entertaining, but I feel that Eve’s all-encompassing functionality makes it a winner.
Flo was mentioned by several people I spoke with for one reason – it is password protected. Evidently, there are still those of us who are actively hiding their periods. I found Flo to be health-conscious and very helpful with predicting irregular menstrual flows. Considering Flo raised over $5 million to invest in artificial intelligence to help their app analyze and predict flows, they should be considered a growing resource in this femtech market.
There’s one menstrual tracking app I feel considers mention. The FitrWoman app is geared towards female athletes and their special needs. FitrWoman provides daily training and nutrition advice, in addition to tracking menstrual cycles.