Whether you're trying to get pregnant or are actively trying to avoid it, tracking your ovulation is important. Being able to pinpoint the dates of that short window of time when your ovaries release an egg helps you understand your cycle and figure out when you have the best chances of conceiving, or know when to avoid sex to reduce your chances of conceiving. It's equally as important to do if you're experiencing health issues related to your menstrual cycle, as it can help uncover what's happening and how to treat it.
While tracking ovulation is used as a form of birth control -- also called the fertility awareness method -- it is riskier than some others. There are several different types of FAMs, but collectively they are about 76% to 88% effective when used perfectly, depending on the exact method (more on that below). Meaning, if you use FAM as your only birth control, you have a significantly higher risk of getting pregnant than using hormonal birth control pills (99% effective), but about the same as using only condoms (85% effective).
Read on for everything you need to know about ovulation and how to track it.
What is ovulation?
According to the American Pregnancy Association, ovulation occurs "when a mature egg is released from the ovary, pushed down the fallopian tube and ... made available to be fertilized."
A normal menstrual cycle lasts roughly 28 days, but a cycle a few days shorter or longer is considered "normal." Most people ovulate between Day 11 and Day 21 of their menstrual cycle. Ovulation itself only lasts 12 to 48 hours, but you're fertile in the days leading up to ovulation and until the egg is no longer viable.
During ovulation, changes occur in your body to support pregnancy: Your body temperature rises, the lining of the uterus thickens and cervical fluid changes.
How do I know if I'm ovulating?
Many people don't notice any signs of ovulation unless they're specifically looking out for them. If you're monitoring signs of ovulation, you might notice:
Light spotting (not everyone experiences this)
Slight pain on one side of your abdomen
Changes in discharge
Should you track ovulation?
The short answer: It depends on what you want and need. If you're trying to get pregnant, tracking your ovulation can go a long way to helping you conceive.
"A person can only become pregnant if they have unprotected sex five days before ovulation, plus up to 24 hours after ovulation has occurred. It's actually a relatively short time frame," Nicole Telfer, naturopathic doctor and science content producer at Clue, told CNET.
And even then, a mature egg lives only 12 to 24 hours after it's released from the ovaries, so try to have sex within that window if conception is the goal.
On the other hand, you might consider avoiding sex during this period -- in addition to using birth control -- to increase your chances of avoiding unwanted pregnancies.
"For those who are not ready for a baby, tracking ovulation is a great way to know when you should be extra-careful," Janell Sanford, Favor pharmacist-in-charge, told CNET. "And perhaps double up on hormonal and nonhormonal contraception to avoid getting pregnant."
Regardless of your goals, it's important to remember that ovulation does not happen at exactly the same time and can change from cycle to cycle, Telfer said.
Apart from trying to get pregnant or prevent it, here are some other reasons tracking your ovulation could be beneficial.
Irregular cycles may indicate reproductive health problems
Tracking ovulation can help uncover the cause of unexplained symptoms
Symptoms such as acne breakouts, mood swings, sleeplessness, weight fluctuation and extreme fatigue -- especially if they seem sudden and random -- can all stem from your cycle.
"More than just our ovaries and uterus react to these hormonal changes [during the cycle]," Telfer said. "Some people notice changes in their hair, skin, poop, breasts, chronic disease symptoms, mental health, migraine headaches or the way they experience sex at different points in the menstrual cycle."
For example, Telfer said that some people notice that their hair and skin are less greasy around the time of ovulation, and become oilier closer to their period. Other people may experience premenstrual mood changes that can negatively impact them during the second half of their cycle.
It can help you know when your period will start
If you struggle with irregular cycles, tracking ovulation can be a helpful tool for understanding your monthly patterns -- it can even help you know when to expect your period.
"It's helpful to know when to expect Aunt Flo," Sanford said. "It can help you to be prepared and stocked with tampons or pads in the bathroom, backpack or purse, and great to keep extras in the car. It's also great to know if your period is coming on a weekend planned to spend in your swimsuit, on a camping trip or on a first date."
How to track ovulation
Depending on how regular your cycles are and how accurate you need your tracking technique to be, you can track ovulation in a number of ways. Here are four options to try out:
1. Use a calendar.The calendar method is easy, but typically only works if you have a very regular cycle. You'll actually track your period, not ovulation, but if you know when your period happens, you can do the math and determine when you're likely to be ovulating.
2. Chart your basal body temperature.Your basal body temperature is the temperature of your body before you start moving -- think of it as your "resting" body temperature, just like your basal metabolic rate is essentially the same as your resting metabolic rate.
To chart your body basal temperature, take your temperature in the morning before you get out of bed. Yes, that means keeping a thermometer by your bedside. Write down your temperature every day, and you should notice an increase in temperature when you begin to ovulate.
3. Use an ovulation predictor kit.Ovulation predictor kits are similar to home pregnancy tests. They analyze urine for luteinizing hormone, which indicates ovulation. A surge in LH is a good sign that you'll ovulate in the next 12 to 36 hours, so it's a good idea to have sex in the next couple of days if you are trying to conceive.
These tests come in kits because you'll need to take one several days in a row for the most accurate prediction. Mira makes a more advanced version of these kits that uses a small device and a connected app to provide more insights.
4. Wear a fertility monitor.Wearable fertility trackers are relatively new to the health wearable market, but there's already a surprisingly large number of options.
The Ava bracelet works by tracking your skin temperature, resting pulse, breathing rate and other metrics while you sleep. The company says it recognizse more fertile days of the month than a traditional ovulation predictor can.
Tempdrop records your skin temperatures throughout the night and uses an algorithm to calculate your basal body temperature. This makes it a good replacement for traditional body basal temperature charting.
The Ovusense tracker is a little more invasive, but potentially more accurate. You insert it vaginally before bed and remove it in the morning. While you're sleeping, the device reads your body's core temperature every 5 minutes.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.