For the past five months, 27-year-old Sara Robbert has been tracking her menstrual cycle — in a graph-ruled notebook, scribbling down a sentence each day about how she feels. Every 28 days or so, she has a new set of data points, which she mentally adds to an ever-expanding portrait of her own emotional and physiological patterns.
Though she’s been tracking her cycle since high school, Robbert says, she now uses these patterns less to predict her periods and more to predict — and make decisions around — her mood and energy levels, using the information to guide her social calendar, exercise routine, and work commitments.
For example, “I’ve noticed I have far less social energy at the end of my cycle, during the luteal phase, so I try not to commit to too much during those days,” Robbert says. “That way, I can be more present with the friends I do hang out with, and reserve some of my emotional energy for taking care of myself.”
On the most basic level, this kind of tracking is nothing new, though the methods have changed over the years. In addition to marking things down the old-fashioned way, women can now keep tabs on their sex hormones with at-home tests and natural family planning apps. Femtech is now a billion-dollar industry.
But Robbert’s form of cyclical self-care, which she calls “cycle syncing,” is a step beyond traditional hormone awareness: She’s using the information to structure the rest of daily life. In recent years, a more dedicated form of cycle syncing has been gaining popularity, and it’s becoming easier than ever to sync up. Apps like MyFLO, which incorporates principles of functional medicine and nutrition, and My Moontime, which is focused on the lunar calendar and spirituality, help users “live seasonally” with the stages of their menstrual cycle.
The idea of living in rhythm with one’s cycle pushes back against a common misconception: that “that time of the month” really is an isolated time, rather than one of multiple steps in a constantly regenerating rotation. Each of the four phases of a woman’s cycle — pre-ovulation, ovulation, the luteal phase, and the period — involves a particular rise and fall of hormones, which can differently affect women’s moods and overall sense of well-being. (Current research indicates it’s the sensitivity to the hormonal shift, rather than the actual level of hormones themselves, that contributes to syndromes like PMS and PMDD.)
Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein, author of Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything, says this type of thorough understanding of one’s cycle can be beneficial if it leads to greater self-compassion.
“Rather than thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me? Two days ago I did a strong workout, and today I can barely do anything,’ you might think, ‘Oh, that’s right, it’s this day of my cycle, and this is where my progesterone is probably at,’” she says. “We can so easily spiral into figuring out all the things that are wrong about ourselves, so it could be really nice to think, ‘It’s just a hormonal thing.’”
While Robbert’s approach is more about cultivating personal mindfulness, some women take a more aspirational path, using hormone awareness to optimize their diets, work schedules, and even their sex lives.
Nutritionist Alisa Vitti, author of the book WomanCode, founded FLO Living, a digital resource for women’s health, after using diet to manage her own polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The MyFLO app and associated online courses offer users cycle phase-specific nutritional suggestions. The app, which is currently in the top 10 paid apps in the App Store, also recommends lifestyle changes based on hormonal fluctuations happening during each week of a woman’s menstrual cycle. For example, Vitti encourages women to pay attention to their sex lives during ovulation, when estrogen levels are rising and the body creates more natural lubricant. And because metabolic rate decreases after ovulation, a hard workout might be more effective during that phase, before the egg drops.
“We’ve been conditioned from an early age to ignore our bodies’ cues,” Vitti says. “Without the context of a proper hormonal education, women do the wrong things that actually create a suboptimal performance from hormonal, metabolic, immunological, and cognitive points of view.”
While the practice of cycle syncing itself hasn’t been studied comprehensively, research has demonstrated that different parts of the menstrual cycle can affect people physiologically, cognitively, and emotionally. One study, for example, suggests that pain perception can fluctuate with hormones; another found evidence that a diet adapted to the menstrual cycle can help with weight loss.
While the nutritional, supplemental, and lifestyle suggestions of the “FLO” protocol may seem excessive, they’re meant to be more intuitive than prescriptive; Vitti sees her recommendations as a tool to help women listen to their bodies.
“Women don’t need to ‘hack’ their hormones,” Vitti says. “What they need to do is let go of all the belief systems they’ve been conditioned to think are appropriate for your self-care and instead align with these hormonal patterns and do what they need.”
But Epstein cautions against overstating the power of hormones as the primary drivers of one’s physical or emotional state. There are plenty of other external factors, she notes, that can influence how we feel throughout the month — and even shift our actual hormones. Events like a stressful day at work or a romantic first date can literally affect our neurochemistry, which means planning around one’s cycle could be more of an art than a science.
“It goes both ways: Attention to your cycle might help, but we forget our lives can have potent effects,” she says. “The fourth day of your cycle one month might be very different another month because different things are happening. We can do our best to control how we react to things, but we can’t control our lives.”
Dr. Rosie Worsley, an endocrinologist who specializes in women’s health, agrees that the desire for control can do more harm than good. If a certain approach or protocol feels burdensome, or makes people anxious that they’re not doing enough to feel their best, it may be counterproductive — especially for those with PCOS or PMDD, who may feel guilt for not “fixing” their conditions with diet or lifestyle changes.
“For women who aren’t feeling well, tracking their cycles can be very useful to see if there is a link between their symptoms and their cycles. I’m all for women being knowing their bodies and being in touch with how their cycles do or don’t affect them,” Worsley says. “But suggesting that lifestyle approaches can ‘fix’ women’s cycles downplays how severely affected some women are, can delay women in trying effective treatments, and can add another litany of items to women’s already overloaded to-do lists.”
But Robbert says that for her, at least, the point of cycle syncing is to lessen guilt, not to induce it. “My moods and my body are telling me things, but they don’t have to control my life,” she says. “Cycle syncing is here to serve me, and if it stopped serving me, I’d need to take a step back. Being too rigid defeats the purpose, which is to see a fuller picture of yourself so you can give yourself more grace.”