4 Reasons your period might be irregular that you shouldn’t ignore
Never knowing when, or if your period will come is beyond a simple annoyance. Let’s dive into the reasons why this may be happening to you, and what steps you can take to get your cycle back on track!
Many women come to work with me looking for a natural solution to their irregular cycles after they’ve been repeatedly told to take birth control to “regulate their cycles”, or when they are sick and tired of a period from hell coming to town for 10 days every three weeks or 3 days every 3 months – they are frustrated that they can’t depend on when their period will be there and they aren’t prepared for it when it does come. Furthermore, these ladies are freaked out because they worry about what could be causing these irregularities and some of these women bleed so heavily for two weeks at a time, making them nutrient deficient and exhausted – unable to look after their kids, go to work or attend class because their cycle wipes them out. Ladies, I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again – YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THIS. Let’s trouble shoot these irregular cycles!
What does a “normal” menstrual cycle timeline look like?
A “normal” cycle (meaning a typical female cycle) is approximately 28 days — but I have it in quotes because “normal” can really be anywhere between 21 to 35 days in length. If you do not have a 28 day cycle don’t worry – every woman is different!
The menstrual cycle is marked by two distinct halves – the Follicular and the Luteal. The first half, Follicular is from Day 1 of your bleeding until Ovulation. Luteal is from Ovulation until the next bleeding phase.
During your Follicular phase your body is preparing for ovulation and during the luteal phase the body is preparing for implantation of the sperm – when that doesn’t happen your hormones fall and your endometrial lining is shed, this is the monthly bleeding we experience.
How is an irregular cycle defined?
If your cycle is less than 21 days or longer 35 days it may be a sign that you are not ovulating each month or not ovulating at all. Did you know that you can actually bleed without ever having ovulated? It’s called an anovulatory cycle. Having an anovulatory cycle once in a while is no biggie but if it’s happening every month it’s time to start asking what’s up.
Why is ovulation actually the MAIN event?
I know we think our menstrual bleed is the main attraction but actually the show started two weeks prior during ovulation and the planning started approximately 100 days prior when your follicles were awakened from their dormant state.
As you enter into the bleeding phase, which marks the first half of the follicular phase, the hypothalamus in the brain secretes gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) which tells your pituitary to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). The FSH travels from your brain down to your ovaries between days 1-4 and begins to recruit those ovarian follicles that have a single egg within them.
The maturing follicles produce estradiol (a form of estrogen) and then between days 5-7 (just around when your bleeding is ending), ONE singular follicle is chosen. Estradiol continues to grow and thicken the blood vessels in the lining of the uterus in preparation for pregnancy.
If everything is going according to plan, those high levels of estradiol will tell the hypothalamus (in the brain) to trigger the pituitary to release a mid-cycle SURGE of Luteinizing Hormone that initiates ovulation. Within 24 hours your hormones work in harmony to excrete one egg from the follicle sac. Wabahm – from there – you are either going to get pregnant or your will have your monthly bleeding.
By the way – the emptied follicle that is created after the egg bursts out of it during ovulation, turns into a temporary gland called the corpus luteum which is the way you create progesterone each month.
Do you see why ovulation is actually what creates and dictates your hormones? Bleeding is just an a reaction to not getting pregnant.
How can you use tools at home to detect ovulation and chart your cycle?
So now that you know ovulation is so vitally important, how can you know that you ovulated? Dr. Lauren Rubal said on the podcast recently that – The only true way is that you become pregnant! Isn’t that nuts?
But incase you aren’t looking to get preggo anytime soon, we can use other biomarkers that are very accurate and they provide different puzzle pieces to approximate ovulation.
- Basal Body Temperature: BBT – is a type of cycle tracking where you take your temperature first thing in the morning every day and note it in an app or a paper cycle tracker. When you notice a rise in your temperature that stays consistent for the rest of your cycle you can back track to note when ovulation occurred. If your temperatures don’t go up, then it was an anovulatory cycle and you made no progesterone
- Cervical Mucus Observation: Cervical mucus changes in relationship to estrogen. Fertile cervical mucus is typically creamy, wet and slippery. At its peak it looks like raw egg white. After ovulation the cervical mucus should change to an opaque and sticky, less fluid like consistency.
- A Woman’s Intuition: Please don’t use this as your only tool to prevent pregnancy – rather start to align how you are feeling to your dominant hormones. Estrogen increases your task orientation, memory, energy and your libido. You may notice you are more outgoing, able to do intense exercise or initiating sexy time right around the time of ovulation. Later in your cycle, as progesterone takes over you may find that you need to eat more, you may find you are more constipated and sleepy.
Working with a skilled Fertility Awareness practitioner can be really helpful to start understanding how you can chart your cycle using different at home biomarkers and how this links to your hormones throughout the cycle.
The Top 4 Causes Behind Irregular Cycles
Stress can definitely be a factor in your period irregularities. Emotional stress, chemical stress, illness and stress from working out too much and not eating enough can force your body into survival mode. Your body will always prioritize survival over reproduction and conserve its critical resources. Reproduction goes to the back burner until the body knows it’s safe to procreate.
2. THYROID IRREGULARITIES
Your thyroid is a butterfly shaped endocrine gland in your neck that makes and stores hormones that regulates your body’s metabolism, controls our mood, hair, periods, bleeding patterns, digestion, heart rate, temperature. Too much or too little thyroid hormone can make your periods light, heavy, irregular or even stop by disrupting ovulation which results in progesterone deficiency.
3. TOO MUCH PROLACTIN
Prolactin is a pituitary hormone – and too much of it can stop ovulation. High prolactin can be caused by a benign pituitary tumor called a prolactinoma, thyroid disease, alcohol, hormonal birth control, stomach acid tablets, some blood pressure and psychiatric medication. It’s also worth noting that you may have temporarily elevated prolactin from sex, exercise, alcohol, eating, sleep, dehydration, stress, mild thyroid disease and also being in your luteal phase so it’s important to test prolactin while you are fasting, hydrated, between 8am – 12pm, not directly after sex or exercise, when you are relaxed, not on birth control and during the follicular phase! (this excerpt on prolactin was paraphrased from The Period Repair Manual by Dr. Lara Briden)
PCOS affects up to 10% of women and is a group of symptoms related to anovulation which results in an imbalance of male to female hormones. The main symptom of PCOS is irregular cycles most often late and long cycles. Other symptoms include acne, hair loss, weight gain, infertility and excessive facial hair. Curious if you have PCOS? Check out my recent article here or listen to the full interview with Dr. Felice Gersh on the SHE TALKS HEALTH PODCAST, here.
Other causes of irregular cycles:
Vegetarian Diet due to zinc deficiency or too many phytoestrogens from soy and legumes which can suppress ovulation. Pregnancy, peri-menopause, breastfeeding and medications (antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, some blood pressure meds)
Irregular Cycles Checklist:
- Manage your Stress
- Eat enough nutrients for your cycle (check out this blog post for more details!)
- Harness your own bodies biomarkers (Cycle Charting)
- Schedule an appointment to see your OBGYN or Primary Care Physician to look into medical diagnosis. You can explore asking for a Full Thyroid Panel (TSH, Free T4, Free T3, Reverse T3, TPO, TGAB), blood panels for prolactin, FSH, LH, Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) and blood work for androgens (total Testosterone, free testosterone, androstenedione, DHT, DHEA-S as well as other diagnostic criteria necessary to rule out PCOS.
- Consider hiring a period support team — like a charting coach or, a functional nutrition practitioner like me who can help you go deeper to repair and support the body as a whole to restore your cycle. We are here to help you get your cycle back on track and get you out of the dark as to why your period has been wonky for so long.
What has been your experience with irregular cycles?
Ready to get your cycle back on track? I’m here to support you.