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By Hannah Ransom

Fertility awareness. The name itself conjures up all sorts of strange connotations. Many people hear fertility and immediately jump to people trying to get pregnant and assisted reproductive technologies. Others equate fertility awareness with the rhythm method or other outdated forms of natural birth control. In reality, fertility awareness is now the common name specifically for the sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness, which can be quite a mouthful. This method combines at least two biologic markers in women (namely, temperature and cervical fluid) in order to determine her current state of fertility. It is based on scientific facts, described below, and you do not need a regular cycle to practice it. All you need is a natural curiosity about your body and a bit of desire to avoid or achieve pregnancy (though there are those that practice it solely for more knowledge about their hormones).

So what’s the real deal with the sympto-thermal method? Many times people use the terms “natural family planning” or “fertility awareness method” to denote ANY method that encompasses periodic abstinence or use of an alternate birth control method. I have even heard of people using the term fertility awareness as synonymous with withdrawal. This leads to most people believing that the method is ineffective, too hard to learn, difficult to practice, or only acceptable if no other method will work for you. These assumptions can be true for many of the methods that encompass periodic abstinence. None are true in regards to the sympto-thermal method.

In reality, the method is effective (99.6%, according to one of the latest studies), offers a birth control method that has no side effects or health ramifications, it connects you to your sexuality and to your partner in new ways, it helps you be more aware of your health as well as responsible for it, it is morally acceptable to many who disagree with conventional birth control methods, it can empower women in their reproductive health and decision making, as well as give them more understanding of and respect for their feminine nature, it is environmentally friendly without dumping hormones into waters or using disposable products, and it is extremely inexpensive. Another great benefit is that it can apply to a woman throughout her entire reproductive years, as she can use it to understand her hormones, avoid pregnancy, or consciously choose to conceive.

With all of these amazing extras why would anyone choose to not use this method? It requires time to learn (about 3 hours plus time for gaining experience that is best used practicing another form of birth control), it requires discipline to chart regularly, it requires consistent and correct use in order to be used effectively, it requires motivation and responsibility, and it doesn’t protect against STIs.

In my experience, most people shy away from the method because the amount of power and responsibility that they are given does not seem appropriate to them on a subconscious level. They are accustomed to doctors knowing best and do not think that their body contains the information they need to avoid or achieve pregnancy, nor that they could be capable of understanding such signals.

So, what’s the science behind the method? Why should you trust it? Here are some facts about fertility. Keep in mind the signals that we are checking are basal body temperature and cervical fluid.

  • Sperm need cervical fluid to survive, swim, and be effectively ?washed? and capable of fertilizing an egg. It can live in fertile cervical fluid for up to?5 days, but dies quickly in the natural acidic vaginal environment.

  • Cervical fluid builds up in response to estrogen, which is released by the developing sacs that hold the egg. This is happening in the days leading up to ovulation.

  • The egg can only live for 12-24 hours, and ovulation can only happen once in a cycle. If two eggs are released, the second comes within 24 hours of the first, after which ovulation is inhibited by high levels of progesterone.

  • Progesterone is released from the corpus luteum, which is what the sac that held the egg turns into after ovulation has taken place. This raises the body temperature,?dries cervical fluid, and inhibits a second ovulation.

The basis of the method is a combination of male and female fertility. This includes both how long sperm can survive and how long an egg can survive, as well as knowing the window that the egg was released due to cervical fluid build up and drying off coupled with a temperature increase.

The sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness is 1.) very unforgiving if practiced incorrectly and 2.) best learned through another person (there is so much variability from woman to woman and it’s hard to account for such variability in books and the learning curve is much slower). The method is easy to learn and simple to use, but can come with confusion at first that is best abated by a trained instructor. It is best to look for a fertility awareness educator to teach you. Since there are very few, most people’s best bet is an online course, which I am now offering via 180DegreeHealth’s Get Help Program. That being said, I would also recommend Taking Charge of Your Fertility as an excellent book that explains the sympto-thermal method in depth. Do not attempt to use the method just through information that you glean online. Those who do generally are those that have unplanned pregnancies. For those wishing to get pregnant, you could certainly get enough info online to use the method, but might be served more fully by an instructor, who also will help you pinpoint any hormonal issues.

Even if you aren’t sure if you would like to use the method (particularly as birth control), you can gain enormous amounts learning about it, and will learn a lot about your body practicing it, even just for awareness. And what a great excuse to take your temperature every morning to watch it elevate if you are working towards a better metabolism, right?

You can learn more about the sympto-thermal method through Hannah’s 4-hour online class HERE. ?