Most women menstruate for at least 35 years of their lives. During this time, periods usually come like clockwork, but it is also common for periods to become irregular at some point over this long span of time.
About the Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle lasts for an average of 28 days, though a cycle is considered typical anywhere from 21 - 35 days. The first day of a period is counted as the first day of the menstrual cycle. During the first half of the cycle, estrogen levels rise and thicken the lining of the uterus. This is to prepare for the potential implantation of a fertilized egg. At the same time, hormones are stimulating the ovaries.
About halfway through the cycle, the ovaries release an egg; this is referred to as ovulation. In the three or so days following ovulation, a couple can conceive. However, if the egg is not fertilized, hormone levels drop near the end of the cycle. This causes the uterine lining to shed, starting the cycle over again.
What's a Normal, Healthy Period?
A period usually lasts three to five days, but within the range of two to seven days is also considered normal. Menstrual flow can vary greatly. It is normal to have some pain and cramping with periods, but the pain should not be so severe that it is incapacitating.
Tracking your menstrual cycle
If you suspect that your periods may be irregular, or if you want to predict your periods, it can be very helpful to track your periods with a calendar. Be sure to note the following factors:
- Any additional symptoms you experience
- Bleeding outside your period
- Length of the period
Flow can be quantified by how many pads or tampons you use in a day. It is normal for teens to have variance in their cycles during their first few years of menstruation. Adult women tend to have more regular cycles.
Possible Causes of Menstrual Problems
Menstrual problems can include abnormal cycle length, abnormal bleeding length, intense pain, heavy bleeding, unpredictable cycles, and symptoms directly connected with periods, such as migraines.
In the majority of cases, menstrual problems are rooted in hormonal imbalance. Since estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones are so instrumental in the regulation of the menstrual cycle, changes in hormone levels can naturally result in irregularities.
Specifically, hormonal imbalance is related to the following processes and disorders:
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). This refers to a group of symptoms that occurs about 3 - 14 days before bleeding. Though symptoms of PMS vary from woman to woman, the most common ones are cramps, breast tenderness, headaches, mood swings, appetite changes, trouble concentrating, and anxious feelings.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This is a condition in which fluid-filled sacs appear on the ovaries, which often disrupts menstruation. PCOS is typically related to amenorrhea or menorrhagia. Often in this condition, too much testosterone is produced.
- Menopause. The menopause transition marks the natural end of the menstrual cycle that all women go through. As menopause approaches, hormonal changes often cause the cycle to become irregular, typically with less frequent but heavier periods.
- Pregnancy complications. A miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy can cause irregular bleeding that may seem like a period.
- Endometriosis. In this condition, pieces of the uterine lining get attached to other parts of the reproductive system, but they still react to estrogen like normal uterine tissue. This can cause periods to be very painful.
- Uterine fibroids. These benign growths usually go by unnoticed, but depending on how and where they grow, they can impact menstruation and cause painful periods.
Signs and Symptoms of Menstrual Irregularity
It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of irregular periods because - although they often do not indicate a major problem - they may signal an underlying condition.
Signs of menstrual irregularity
Medical signs are observable and quantifiable indicators of a problem. Signs of irregular periods include:
- The appearance of blood clots larger than a quarter (about 2.5 cm in diameter)
- Needing to change pads or tampons every two hours or more often
- Bleeding or spotting during the cycle outside of periods
- Bleeding that lasts longer than seven days
- An absence of menstrual periods
- Cycles shorter than 21 days
- Cycles longer than 35 days
Symptoms of menstrual irregularity
The following symptoms can help identify menstrual irregularities:
- Painful periods
- Symptoms of PMS, such as mood swings, headaches, and breast tenderness
How to Overcome Irregular Periods
In most cases, balancing hormone levels will regulate periods once again. Though some hormonal fluctuation is a normal part of the menstrual cycle, maintaining hormone levels within a healthy range will help regulate periods, manage PMS, and alleviate PCOS.
In severe cases, it may be necessary to regulate hormones or curb symptoms with hormonal contraceptives or other medical interventions. However, for many women, it is possible to overcome irregular periods naturally.
Action Plan for Healthy Periods
If your periods are irregular, it's important to first see your gynecologist to make sure they aren't due to an underlying condition, like endometriosis. Barring any medical condition, it's possible to take your health into your own hands to balance hormone levels. With a combination of the following approaches that suits you, you can achieve healthy and regular periods.
High stress levels can disrupt many processes in the body, including menstruation and hormone regulation. In fact, intense, prolonged stress can cause periods to stop altogether until the stress has subsided. Relaxation is highly individual, so no matter what you do to relieve stress, it's important to carve some time out of each day for you to take care of yourself. For many women, this means taking on fewer responsibilities and not trying to do everything. Some helpful relaxation techniques include practicing yoga, meditating, and taking a hot bath.
Maintain a healthy weight
Sudden and extreme weight loss can cause the body to stop menstruating. This unhealthy weight loss can disrupt the levels of hormones like estrogen, luteinizing hormone, and follicle stimulating hormone, bringing menstruation to a halt. Healthy and safe weight loss falls in the range of one to two pounds (450 - 900 g) per week. If your weight loss is related to an eating disorder, it's crucial to see a healthcare practitioner right away.
Regular physical activity is important for maintaining overall health. However, it's likewise important not to exercise excessively, as this can disrupt periods or make them stop altogether, perhaps in part of the weight loss than heavy exercise can induce. If your irregular periods are associated with an increase in physical activity, dial back your exercise regimen and increase the intensity of your exercise gradually. A personal trainer can help you work out the details specific to your body type and skill level.
Consume a balanced diet
Eating a diet that is rich in nutrients and has balanced portions is essential not only for overall well-being, but also for healthy periods. At the core, a wholesome diet is necessary for maintaining a healthy weight, which is integral to regular menstruation. When it comes to menstrual problems, it is particularly important to consume sufficient amounts of iron, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium.
Relieving symptoms with alternative approaches
The following therapies may help with period problems and promote healthy menstruation:
- Aromatherapy. Aromatherapy with lavender essential oil has been shown to help ease mood-related symptoms of PMS.
- Massage therapy. This relaxing modality can soothe PMS pain and anxiety.
- Heating pads. Applying hot compresses to the abdomen is helpful in relieving cramps.
- Chasteberry. This herbal supplement balances prolactin levels, helping with pain and breast tenderness associated with PMS.
- Turmeric. This anti-inflammatory herb can help reduce menstrual pain.
Balancing hormones with alternative approaches
There are two types of herbal supplements that influence hormone levels in women: phytoestrogenic and hormone-regulating supplements.
- Phytoestrogenic herbal supplements. Black cohosh, dong quai, soy, and red clover are among the most commonly-used herbs in phytoestrogenic supplements. These herbs contain high levels of plant-based estrogen, helping to balance out estrogen levels when they are low in the body.
- Hormone-regulating herbal supplements. These supplements, such as Macafem, do not contain any plant hormones, but rather, they are rich in nutrients that support the hormonal glands. This helps the body produce hormones at balanced levels, which in turn regulates periods and relieves symptoms of PMS.
The different elements of this action plan can be combined according to each woman's individual needs. It is generally recommended to practice symptom-relieving techniques while the body is growing accustomed to the beneficial effects of hormone-regulating herbs. While menstrual irregularity is common during the course of women's lives, with this plan in mind, you can get back on track to healthy, regular periods.