Your menstrual cycle is a wealth of information about your health, and an irregular period can tell you quite a bit. Getting to know your personal rhythms is the best place to start when it comes to uncovering your body’s language.
Do you know when your last period began, or how long your cycle typically lasts? Is the flow regular, heavy, or light? If you’ve noticed that your cycle is a bit unpredictable from month to month, there are a few common reasons why that you may want to consider.
What is considered an irregular period?
When we say “irregular period” typically we’re referring more to the length of the cycle than the menstrual phase itself. A healthy menstrual cycle can fall within a range of 25-35 days. Anything shorter or longer is worth looking into because it could be symptomatic of an underlying hormone issue.
If the duration of your cycle varies, that’s considered irregular as well. For example, one month your cycle is 25 days and the next month is 35, etc.
Consistency is key. Even if you fall on the short or long end of the healthy range, it’s unlikely an issue as long as it’s the same from month to month. If it were 25 days one month, and 35 the next for instance, then it would be irregular. That doesn’t always mean something bad is happening, but again, it’s just worth exploring.
As for the menstrual phase itself, an irregular flow would be one that is extremely heavy or light, signifying an imbalance with estrogen or progesterone.
So to recap, an irregular period is:
- A cycle shorter than 25 days or longer than 35 days.
- A cycle that is inconsistent in length from month to month.
- A period that is extremely heavy or light in blood flow.
What causes irregular periods?
Because your hormones are so interconnected, there can be a variety of reasons that your cycle is off. Here are a few common culprits:
The very first thing I’d ask a client is what their stress levels are like. Is there something particularly overwhelming happening in your life right now? How do you like to relieve stress? Do you have time for yourself throughout the week?
We’re often our own last priority when things get hectic, but that sends our body into fight-or-flight mode. In this state, our body’s instinct is to make simply staying alive a priority, even when the mind is too maxed out to work towards that goal.
I detailed in this blog post how, for this reason, your stress hormones are prioritized above all else. Reproductive hormones are put on the back burner, especially in a state of burnout or chronic stress.
Try to carve out time for yourself, whether it’s for a walk around the block to clear your head, a few minutes of meditation, an hour-long bath with your laptop propped up on the toilet seat playing the latest Netflix series — however it looks like for you. Here are a few more self-care ideas to help.
2. Dieting and disordered eating
Don’t scroll by if you think disordered eating doesn’t apply to you — especially if you are a chronic dieter. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, dieting itself is considered a form of disordered eating.
Though a diagnosed eating disorder is a definite contributor to irregular periods, it’s different from disordered eating. (The difference is in the number of behaviors, level of obsessiveness, and how much it interferes with your daily life. If you suspect you may be suffering from an ED, contact your healthcare provider or the NEDA helpline.)
Disordered eating can look like very normalized behaviors such as plugging food measurements into an app that has an algorithm decide how many calories you’re allowed. It could be strictly following advice from a friend, tips from a celebrity, diet advice from an influencer. It’s cutting out whole food groups (“carbs”) without being medically advised to do so and fearing them.
We all require different amounts of food, which can change depending on where you are in your cycle, your energy level, the temperature outside, physical activity, etc. Sticking to arbitrary food rules or diets developed for mass consumption is a recipe for failure. Most people don’t know that though, so they move to the next one and the next one and the next one trying to find the magic bullet.
As you may have learned in my workshop on the Patriarchy vs. Your Body, diets don’t work. As well, the research done on them does not take menstruators’ hormone fluctuations and changing needs into consideration because they are too difficult to study. No wonder nothing ever sticks!
Most people are surprised when they come to me and I tell them to eat *more* food. They’re so used to restricting their intake and it’s antithetical to everything they’ve ever been taught.
But not consuming enough calories to meet your needs can impact your ability to ovulate (and it’s a physical form of stress). Ovulation is the event that triggers oncoming menstruation, so if that’s not happening or it’s taking a longer time than usual to happen, so will your period. This can also be the case from rapid weight loss due to dieting.
The solution I recommend is not another diet, but to practice intuitive eating.
Another physical form of stress is over-exercising. This can lead to hypothalamic amenorrhea (missing period). The hypothalamus in the brain controls your reproductive hormones.
Overexercising is often paired with disordered eating. Restrictive habits have you doing too much high-intensity exercise or working out too often without refueling properly.
To put this in perspective, think of your body as a bank. Food is considered a deposit, and exercise is considered a debit (in terms of energy only — exercise can be a deposit in other contexts!).
If you are spending a lot on exercise (lots of debits), and not depositing enough food to make up for the energy expenditure, your bank account is going to be in the negative. Done enough, your bank is going to get a little fed up and freeze your account, only allowing you to make deposits from here on out until you’re out of the red.
Maybe a little silly, but you get the idea. Back to what we talked about with stress — this chronic energy deficit without adequate nutrition when refueling is a physical stressor. You’re back in fight-or-flight mode and the energy that remains is channeled towards the essentials only for survival. Ovulation and menstruation? Not necessary to live.
It’s evolutionary — in a state of stress your body perceives that it’s unsafe to bring new life into the world, so there’s no need to ovulate.
If your cycle is irregular, and especially if you’re having fertility troubles, it’s important to take a look at your physical activity and whether you’re meeting your needs. Listening to your body rather than following a specific fitness plan will be much better for your hormones and your overall health.
Hypothyroidism means your thyroid gland is not producing enough active thyroid hormone, or proper uptake of the hormone is impaired. Most of us know the thyroid as the governor of metabolism, but it also governs the metabolism of the ovaries.
Thyroid hormone is important for the brain as well, which is where the menstrual cycle begins (remember the hypothalamus is located in the brain). The hypothalamus communicates with the ovaries to stimulate the whole process of estrogen and progesterone buildup and breakdown.
The thyroid is also important for follicle development, where eggs are released from during ovulation.
Testing for hypothyroidism
An at-home test you can do prior to going to your doctor is to track your basal body temperature, as a major responsibility of the thyroid is to regulate your body temp..
Do this in the follicular phase of your cycle — the first half, prior to ovulation — first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. Use a digital thermometer that tracks to the tenth degree (I use this one with Bluetooth).
If there are three consecutive days with a body temp below 97.0°F, the next step should be to give your doctor a call and ask for a full thyroid panel. Most doctors will only test TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), but you want the full picture — ask for TSH, Free-T3, Free-T4, Anti-TPO, Anti-tg.
Timing is important for temperature-taking because in the second half of your cycle, progesterone takes over and naturally warms the body up. The typical post-ovulation body temp is 97.7° and higher (though it may vary — for me it’s 98.0° and up).
Heavy bleeding during your period, short cycles, and spotting throughout your cycle are also symptoms of a thyroid issue. This is due to a potentially impaired ability to produce enough progesterone.
Irregular cycles are a hallmark of the condition known as PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome.
It’s typical for those with PCOS to have very long cycles, and it may seem that you ovulate and simply don’t have a period.
However, even though there may be signs of ovulation (which you may notice if you track your cervical mucus), that’s actually a sign that your body is *attempting* to ovulate. The egg either hasn’t developed adequately, or it isn’t being released properly.
A definitive cause for PCOS is unknown, but there are a couple of known contributors:
- High levels of androgens, which govern the development of traits of those assigned male at birth (AMAB) and can prevent ovulation.
- Insulin resistance, manifesting in the ovaries.
What you can do
As I mentioned, the primary ways to work towards a regular cycle are stress reduction and intuitive eating. I also highly recommend tracking your cycle if you haven’t already, making note of how you’re feeling each day, and logging your basal body temperature each morning as well.
As well as looking for a sign of hypothyroidism, temperature tracking can help you determine where you are in your cycle and if ovulation has occurred. With a balanced cycle, your period will typically arrive 12-16 days after that.
The more data you have, the better you’ll be able to understand your body and communicate with your health care practitioner on what the steps forward to a better cycle will be.
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