Your period should come every 28 days, right? Well, not exactly. That 28 day number is more of an average that many women are led to believe is essential. In reality however, most women have menstrual periods that occur anywhere from 21 to 35 days apart. In addition, for most women, their period lasts somewhere from four to seven days.
But what if your cycle isn’t quite that normal? Or what if it doesn’t occur for months or even years at a time? If your periods are irregular, you’re not alone. A lot of women have periods that are irregular, being described as:
- Cycles that are more frequent than 21 or longer than 35 days
- Missing three or more consecutive periods in a row, a condition called amenorrhea (except during pregnancy, breastfeeding or after menopause)
- Periods that occur irregularly or infrequently, e.g. every few months or cycles with extremely variable lengths
- Flow that lasts longer than seven days or is heavier or lighter than your usual periods
- Spotting or bleeding that occurs in between periods, after sex or after you’ve gone through menopause
- Dysmenorrhea, a term used for painful cramping or periods that may be accompanied by nausea or vomiting
What Causes Irregular Periods?
There are a number of conditions that can upset the regularity of your period, including:
- Medications. Discontinuation of birth control pills. Birth control pills work by keeping your ovaries from releasing eggs, so when you stop taking them it can take some time for your ovaries to get back on line. This may translate into irregular or skipped periods for as long as six months after you’ve stopped taking the pills. Other medications that may contribute to irregular periods include blood thinners and steroids.
- Stress and lifestyle changes. This can include a dramatic increase in your physical activity, gaining or losing a substantial amount of weight, disruptions to your sleep schedule, a major emotional upset and travel.
- Endometriosis, a condition in which endometrial tissue (your uterine lining) grows outside of your uterus, and instead creates lesions throughout your pelvis. Endometriosis is a painful condition, because the lesions can grow around your ovaries and fallopian tubes, and these lesions grow and shed cyclically like normal endometrial tissue. However, unlike normal endometrial tissue this shed tissue has no way to exit the pelvis. Endometriosis can cause severe pain, pressure, menstrual cramping and abnormal bleeding.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is a bacterial infection of the reproductive organs, including your uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. In addition to pain and symptoms of infection, pelvic inflammatory disease can be a source of irregular periods.
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can also cause irregular periods or the complete cessation of periods. PCOS is a condition in which your ovaries produce a high level of hormones called androgens. This causes your ovaries to produce cysts and can suppress ovulation and prevent eggs from maturing. These hormonal changes are also what can disrupt your menstrual cycle.
- Both uterine polyps and fibroids can be a cause of heavy bleeding, bleeding in between periods and pain. Uterine polyps are usually small and benign (not cancerous) growths found in the lining of your uterus. Fibroids are also usually benign uterine tumors that can be small or grow to be very large, and can cause uncomfortable pressure on your bladder or rectum. In addition to uterine polyps and fibroids, uterine or cervical cancer can also cause heavy or abnormal bleeding.
- Premature ovarian insufficiency or failure occurs in women under 40, in which their ovaries cease functioning normally. This causes your menstrual cycle to stop completely and can be the result of genetic or hormonal problems or cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation.
- Certain medical conditions, including thyroid disorders, pituitary problems and bleeding disorders may also contribute to irregular menstrual periods.
If your menstrual cycles have changed, keeping a record can be extremely helpful in determining the cause of those changes. A record should include the days on which your period begins, number of days of flow, and other information such as cramping, clots, the amount of flow and any bleeding that occurs in between periods.
Natural Help for Irregular Periods
The management of irregular menstrual periods in Western medicine may involve hormonal supplementation to regulate your cycle, pain medications for endometriosis or surgical interventions for problematic fibroids. However, many women may not know that there are a number of natural treatment options, too. At BodaHealth our practitioners offer the following therapies for women who are experiencing irregular periods:
- Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine. Scientists have discovered that acupuncture affects the hypothalamic pituitary axis, which is your body’s main system for regulating hormones. Acupuncture can help improve the balance of many hormones, including those that affect your fertility, ovulation and menstrual cycle. Furthermore, acupuncture improves circulation to your uterus and ovaries, which promotes better function, reduces inflammation and helps relieve pain. Acupuncture treatments also help reduce stress by increasing the circulation of feel-good neurotransmitters, which can help resolve menstrual irregularities related to stress and emotional upsets. At BodaHealth, our practitioners are also highly trained in the use of Chinese herbs as a treatment strategy. Herbal medicine can be an effective way to treat the underlying source of your problem, specific symptoms and as a way to augment acupuncture treatments.
- Naturopathic Medicine. At BodaHealth, we have naturopathic doctors who are able to run lab tests to determine the presence of hormonal imbalances, anemia, thyroid or pituitary issues, nutritional deficiencies and digestive issues that may be causing your problem. They can treat these issues by prescribing dietary or nutritional supplements, medications and hormonal therapy when necessary. Dietary and lifestyle modifications are also an important part of your naturopathic treatment plan.
- Laser Therapy. This is a treatment strategy that involves the use of low level lasers (LLLT) that are specifically designed to safely and gently promote healing and reduce pain. The light from a cold laser painlessly penetrates deep into damaged or scarred tissue, which triggers beneficial changes at the cellular level. It can be used to reduce inflammation, relieve pain, repair scarred or damaged tissue and promote uterine and ovarian health. Cold laser therapy can be used in the treatment of endometriosis, PCOS, polyps and fibroids, and for premature ovarian failure.
- Lifestyle and Nutrition. Nutritional deficiencies, inflammation, stress and exhaustion are common factors that may affect your menstrual cycle. At BodaHealth, our practitioners are committed to treating the whole patient, including seemingly unrelated underlying causes of your health problems. Our practitioners understand the importance of good nutrition in your overall health, and are well-trained and prepared to provide you with guidelines that support both your diet and your digestion. Our goal is to help you avoid deficiencies that may be contributing to your menstrual irregularities, promote an anti-inflammatory diet and treat any digestive issues that you may have. We will also provide information and strategies for rest/exercise balance and ways to reduce and relieve stress.
Irregular periods can be concerning, inconvenient and in some cases downright painful—and it may feel like there are no good solutions. At BodaHealth, we get it. And we can offer you help in the form of a variety of treatment options and a caring staff with years of experience in treating women just like you. If you’d like more information, contact us today.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.