Your menstrual cycle isn’t always like clockwork. While some women get their periods right on schedule every 28 days, other women’s cycles aren’t so predictable.
“At least 30 percent of women have irregular periods during their childbearing years,” says Amy Autry, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics-gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. While an irregular cycle is not usually a problem, it can occasionally signal health complications.
Menstrual periods are often irregular during the first few years after menstruation starts. It may take several years for the hormones that control menstruation to reach a balance.
When Is a Period Irregular?
To determine whether your menstruation schedule is irregular, count from the last day of your previous period and stop counting on the first day of your next. Repeat this for three months. “If the number of days between stopping and starting your period is significantly different each month, you have an irregular cycle,” says Dr. Autry.
Causes of Irregular Periods
Sometimes an irregular period may be due to subtler hormone imbalances. You may still be ovulating, but the timing of your ovulation can vary greatly month to month. This is because lifestyle and medical conditions can influence your menstrual cycle.
Pregnancy is the most common cause of a missed period. If you might be pregnant, treat yourself as if you are pregnant until you know for sure. Use a home pregnancy test as the first step to finding out whether you are pregnant.
The following factors can trigger irregular or missed periods:
Stress. Chronic stress or even short-term anxiety about a specific problem can wreak havoc with your hormone balance, causing a missed period and irregular cycle.
The pill.Birth control pills can make your periods lighter, or cause you to miss periods or have less or more frequent periods — or even no periods at all.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This medical condition causes tiny cysts to form on ovaries, interfering with regular ovulation. Women with PCOS usually have a history of irregular periods. In addition to causing infertility, PCOS can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Other illnesses. Thyroid disorders can cause irregular periods if blood levels of the thyroid hormone go too low or too high. Other health conditions that may cause an irregular cycle include sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes, fibroids, eating disorders, and endometriosis.
Age. When teens first start having periods, their menstrual cycles may not always be on the same schedule every month. It may take several years to settle into a pattern. In addition, missed periods and lighter or heavier periods are common as women near menopause.
When Should You Be Concerned About an Irregular Period?
You should also be screened for thyroid disorders and other diseases that may be linked to irregular periods.
An irregular cycle can also make it more difficult to get pregnant, especially if you’re not ovulating every month. Your doctor can run tests to see if you’re ovulating. Women with irregular periods who are trying to have a baby are sometimes prescribed fertility drugs to increase ovulation. “While it’s possible to get pregnant on your own if you have irregular periods, it’s still a good idea to be checked out by a doctor just to make sure that nothing serious is going on,” recommends Autry.
Prevention and Treatment of Irregular Periods
Oral contraceptive pills may be prescribed to get your period back on track. But if you’d rather travel the natural treatment road, consider black cohosh. This medicinal herb is sometimes used for menstrual irregularities and premenstrual syndrome, though rigorous scientific studies haven’t verified these properties. Black cohash should not be used if you have any symptoms of or a past history of liver disease.
You may have heard that completely darkening your room at night will help regulate menstrual cycles — but whether it really works is unknown.
A couple of irregular periods per year are usually nothing to worry about. Any more than that, and you should see a doctor to be sure an ovulation problem or health condition isn’t the cause. However, you might want to rule out pregnancy first. “If you’ve had sexual relations in the past month, take a home pregnancy test first,” advises Autry. If the test is negative, then you can explore other options and talk to your doctor about how to get your menstrual cycle back on track.
Remember, you can still become pregnant even though you are not menstruating. Practice birth control if you do not wish to become pregnant.
Premature ovarian failure is when you stop menstruating before age 40. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy to the abdomen or pelvis may cause premature ovarian failure.
Other diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, tuberculosis, liver disease, and diabetes can cause missed or irregular periods, although this is rare. But if any of these diseases are present, you will usually have other symptoms besides menstrual irregularities.
If you’ve skipped a period, try to relax. Restoring your life to emotional and physical balance can help. Many women miss periods now and then. Unless you are pregnant, chances are your cycle will return to normal next month.
Missed or Irregular Periods – Check Your Symptoms
Call a doctor if:
- You have lower belly pain and think you could be pregnant.
- A home pregnancy test says you are pregnant, or you think you’re pregnant even though the test says you are not.
- You have missed two regular periods and don’t know why.
- You miss two periods while taking birth control pills, and you have not skipped any pills.
- You have not had your first period by age 16.
- You have not developed breasts or pubic hair by age 14.
Missed or Irregular Periods – Home Treatment
Missed or Irregular Periods – Prevention
- Avoid fad diets that greatly restrict calories and food variety, and avoid rapid weight loss. To maintain a healthy weight, focus on eating a variety of low-fat foods.
- Use contraception consistently, as directed by your doctor.
- Increase exercise gradually.
- Learn and practice relaxation exercises to reduce and cope with stress.
- If you participate in endurance sports, you may miss periods or stop menstruating. Eat a healthy, balanced diet, and keep track of your periods. Tell your doctor about any changes in your menstrual periods.