Perish the thought of letting nature take its course—now we can’t resist monitoring our monthly cycles with apps, charts and forums. Why this is appears to fall into three common camps. First is the appeal of a far less queasy and much more natural contraceptive method that isn’t the pill, condoms, the coil or injection.
Two—the desire to become more in tune with our menstrual habits, especially if irregular periods are an issue and three—an aid to increasing awareness of when we’re at our most fertile in order that we can conceive quickly and easily. Because despite what we were told in sex education, not everyone is going to conceive when they get within sneezing distance of some sperm.
The magnitude of how reliant we’re becoming on these apps, though, was even shocking to me. I had no idea how many of us were at it, tracking everything from temperature to cervical fluid to mood swings to bleeds. When I put a shout-out on Facebook to see if anyone had ever used one, all of my friends who have now had babies came forward.
It also surprised me how many apps there were—Glow, Ovia, Clue, Kindara, My Days, Period Tracker—although the only one that’s “certified” (and also a paid-for subscription) is Natural Cycle. Billed as a contraceptive app, it studied almost 23,000 women with an average age of 29 to demonstrate how plotting their periods and could be the answer to avoiding pregnancy.
They backed up the accuracy of their algorithms with three clinical studies, and overall success rates came out at 93%. Sounds good, except when you realise that means seven women out of 100 may get pregnant while using the app. The reason for this? Method failure (where the app has a blip) or manual failure (where you input the wrong data).
What do you actually record?
It’s all down to temperature. During your cycle, your body temperature rises and falls owing to the change in your hormone levels. By analysing your temperature, past cycles and any irregularities, the app determines whether you are fertile or not and so plots out your red and green days (i.e., when to use contraception and when not to). Your body temperature also impacts how long sperm will survive inside you.
There are also options to add in luteinising hormone tests (ovulation sticks that you urinate on to check hormone levels), which can increase the accuracy, but Natural Cycles says they aren’t a necessity. What is incredibly crucial, the team says, is watching out if you’re sick, hungover or have slept more or less than usual. It’s advised that you take your temperature every day first thing when you wake so you can be aware that any changes to your routine could impact your algorithm. Read: Don’t go with what the app says!
Does it really work?
There doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut yes or no. One user I spoke to downloaded Natural Cycles after her GP diagnosed her irregular periods as PCOS. Not convinced and not wanting to go back on the pill (the NHS-advised solution), she began monitoring her temperature and ovulation via the app. Incredibly, it helped her detect that her lack of periods was actually down to a calcium and vitamin D deficiency. After loading up on supplements, she’s managed to get her cycle back on track.
At the other end of the scale, another user was keen to speak up about the fact that Natural Cycles isn’t interchangeable with the rhythm method (menstrual history), which it claims to be. That, coupled with the fact she’d heard stories about women getting pregnant on green days (when you should be A-okay to have unprotected sex and at no risk of conceiving) led her to buy a book about fertility awareness instead. “I wanted to be able to read my own fertility signs rather than relying on an algorithm although using the app has made me more attuned to my body, and interestingly I’ve discovered that I ovulate every new moon and have my period every full moon!”
The thing is those “stories” she flagged up aren’t just rumours. In fact, one friend who responded to my plea reported that she knew two separate people who were relying on the Natural Cycles app as their method of contraception but who, after having unprotected sex on the days it listed as “safe,” fell pregnant and ended up having abortions.
Are all apps the same?
Pretty much, but whereas some focus on telling you when to not have sex, other fertility apps highlight when you should be getting jiggy with it. Some also include a more advanced list of things to log, such as vaginal sensation, spotting, pregnancy tests, when you have sex and whether it was protected or unprotected, and journal areas to note how you’re feeling emotionally. It’s no wonder there’s a danger of becoming obsessive.
“I’d been using Period Tracker for years as I used to have a crap cycle, but when my husband and I started trying for a baby, I became obsessive as it took us 15 months to conceive,” says Emily. “My husband kept telling me the app must be wrong as we’re both fit and healthy, and ironically we ended up getting pregnant on a date when we were drunk and the tracker said I wasn’t fertile. For me it was added pressure and not even accurate.”
That extra pressure can also be a passion killer, with the majority of my peers claiming that there was nothing more stressful than having sex on specific days, even if it got them where they wanted to be in the end. “I used Glow for no reason other than it was free. I liked it and it seemed very accurate and we were pregnant after six months,” Karn told me. “But it definitely took the romantic side away, and eventually I stopped telling my hubbie when I was ovulating so he didn’t feel under pressure to perform.”
Fertility expert, acupuncturist and creator of the 90 Days Fertile support programme Emma Cannon says it’s something she sees all too frequently in her clinic. “It gives the user a feeling they’re in control, but it also encourages fixation on a small window to have sex, often reducing the sex life in the process. In an audit, we found that couples that routinely use apps have less sex and fewer pregnancies,” she reveals. Her advice? “I encourage couples to have sex throughout the month rather than trying to pinpoint their ovulation—regularity is the aim, and it’s good to keep some mystery around sex and not turn it into a baby making ‘mission.’ Modern couples frequently get this wrong.”
To app or not to app?
Despite Natural Cycles being the certified app, from my mini focus group, it’s Glow and Ovia that get the most thumbs-up. Rachael got pregnant with her first within a month of trying and her second within three months of using Ovia. Two others got the results they wanted via Glow.
There’s without doubt a place for them, and if it’s clarification on your regularities, symptoms and habits, you have nothing to lose. One final thing to be mindful of is how long you need to record your results for, too. Sophie used a variety of apps but ended up reverting back to Ovia. “It’s crazy the different results you get in terms of fertile/not fertile windows if you only put three to four months of data in versus six to 10. I’d definitely say they work best if you’re charting dates over a longer time.”
Would you ever use the app? We’re still not sure.