One of the most frustrating things about being a woman is being stuck with an irregular menstrual cycle. When you never know from one day to the next whether you'll be bleeding and overcome by cramps or your usual happy-go-lucky self, even making basic plans becomes a challenge. Up to 30% of women deal with irregular periods, but the good news is in most cases, it's possible to get back on a regular cycle.
So let's start with the most important question: Why is your period irregular in the first place?
Many things can cause an irregular period, so identifying the exact cause is a process of elimination. In general, a woman's cycle is regular until something throws it off. That 'something' may right itself in a matter of weeks or months, or it may need to be addressed by a medical professional. Some causes are:
Puberty – Often when girls first get their menstrual cycle, its irregular. This is fairly common, and though annoying, most doctors don't believe it's any cause for alarm. During puberty, your body is going through a lot of changes, and sometimes it takes several months (or even a couple of years) for your body to begin releasing eggs on a regular cycle.
Stress – Stress can wreak havoc on your menstrual cycle, causing spotting in some cases, or causing you to miss your cycle altogether in others. Sometimes a stressful situation (such as a death in the family or a move) is temporary, in which case your irregular period will resolve itself. Other times, stress is ongoing, and it's important to learn and use stress management techniques for your menstrual and overall health.
Extreme weight loss/gain or dieting – Any extreme change in your body can cause menstrual irregularities. If you've gained or lost a significant amount of weight in a short period of time, or started a severe diet, your period may be affected. Talk to your doctor to help you get your health back on track if you've experienced a serious bodily change.
Major changes to physical activity levels – If you've suddenly started a new exercise routine or dramatically changed your lifestyle (for instance, switching from a sedentary job to a more physical line of work) it can knock your system for a loop. The good news is that as long as you're not overexercising or crash dieting, your body will catch up with these changes on its own in a month or two.
Reproductive system disorders – Poly-cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis are two causes of irregular periods that need to be addressed by your doctor. These disorders may come with a host of different systems, but can also exist with no symptoms at all. However, if you struggle with infertility or irregular cycles, talk to your doctor about ruling out PCOS or endo.
Except for cases in which your activity level changes suddenly and dramatically, or cases of a temporary rise in stress, an irregular period in an adult is usually a symptom of an underlying problem. So while it could be little more than an inconvenience to you, it may be a warning sign for something else. It's always best to check with your doctor to try to narrow down exactly why your periods are irregular, and find out the best way to get your body back on track.