It’s estimated that around 14 percent of women have irregular periods according to research published in the journal American Family Physician. It’s more common than you’d think to experience PMS, cramping, and spotting at various times throughout the cycle without fully menstruating. So how can you balance your cycle and avoid the unpredictability? “It’s about regulating your body as much as you can,”says Tiffany Lester , MD, a doctor at Parsley Health San Francisco. “Having a healthy period for women is like having another vital sign, like heart rate, blood pressure, and weight.” Here’s what you should know about unpredictable periods and how to get them back on track, naturally.
“Normal cycles can be anywhere between 25 and 35 days,” Dr. Lester explains. “If you have your period every 26 days or every 34 days, that’s normal too,” she adds. But if you’re finding that your cycle is repeatedly falling into a pattern of much shorter or longer than that, there may be abnormalities with the two main hormones that regulate your cycle, estrogen and progesterone.
Experiencing typical PMS symptoms like cramps, bloating , and mood swings—but then not actually starting your period at that time—can be a sign that your period slipping into an irregular pattern. “Depending on how in tune with your body you are, you may also be able to sense when you’re ovulating,” Dr. Lester says. And if ovulation doesn’t seem to sync up within about 2 weeks of your period, it could be a sign that your cycle is irregular.
Another sign of irregularity is the consistency of the blood you’re seeing, Dr. Lester points out; you may experience spotting beforehand or throughout your cycle and then not see bright red blood on the first day of menstruation. “That could be a signal that you may have a hormonal imbalance like low progesterone,” she explains. Keep in mind that you can still have a regular 28-day cycle but have inadequate sex hormone levels, says Dr. Lester.
If you think your period falls outside a normal pattern, it’s best to ask your doctor about it, as it could be a sign of a deeper issue. There are a few reasons your period could be off.
Stress doesn’t just affect your mood—it can also have all kinds of effects on your body. “We all respond to stress differently, and it can cause you to miss a whole month altogether,” Dr. Lester says. The stress hormone cortisol is intricately connected to the hormones estrogen and progesterone, and has the ability to throw off your cycle completely. “If cortisol is high, it can deplete progesterone, which you need to completely finish the second part of your cycle, to build up the uterine lining and prepare for either pregnancy or shedding the lining and having your period,” explains Dr. Lester.
Not getting enough sleep or not getting to sleep at regular hours can also cause irregular periods, recent research shows. That’s because the circadian rhythms in your sleep-wake cycle also contribute to regulating the menstrual cycle (which is why shift workers often struggle with irregular periods). Dr. Lester adds that it’s important not just to watch the quantity of sleep that you’re getting, but the quality of sleep, in terms of going to bed at regular hours and having a restful night of sleep.
Constantly jet-setting, especially across different time zones? Travel can alter both your sleep patterns and therefore your circadian rhythms, and your stress levels. It’s not uncommon to miss a month or two while you’re traveling. But if you find that your period is irregular for more than two cycles, you should bring that concern to your doctor, Dr. Lester says.
Believe it or not, periods tend to be more irregular around the holidays , or any other stretch of time you’re doing more unhealthy eating and drinking than usual. Excessive consumption of alcohol, sugar, and carbohydrates can actually affect your hormones. Even one glass of wine alone can increase your estrogen levels by up to 10 percent, Dr. Lester explains. The inflammation associated with drinking alcohol to excess, along with overeating carbs and sugar, can mess with the sex hormones that regulate your cycle, she adds. “On top of that, add in the preservatives and chemicals found in processed food and it’s a perfect storm,” says Dr. Lester. This increased inflammation can lead to irregularity or additional cramps and bloating.
One key reason for irregular periods might be a pre-existing hormonal imbalance. Some women who have estrogen dominance may experience irregularity, says Dr. Lester, and since progesterone is even more key in making sure your cycle stays on track, an imbalance there is also likely to lead to an irregular period. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS , is one of the most common hormonal imbalances that cause irregular periods. With PCOS, the ovaries make too much testosterone, which inhibits ovulation from happening some months. Because ovulation is irregular, the whole cycle is often thrown off in women with PCOS.
“Parsley Health offers specialty testing for hormonal imbalances, particularly caused by thyroid issues or digestive dysfunction,” Dr. Lester says. The team will test your levels of progesterone to see if they’re low, as well as estrogen and testosterone.
“Typically, birth control regulates your cycle,” Dr. Lester says. But if you’ve recently stopped birth control, you may notice that your cycle becomes irregular. The first three to six months after stopping birth control are really an adjustment period for your cycle. “Depending on how long you’ve been on it, it can take up to a year for your cycle to regulate after you get off hormonal birth control or a copper IUD,” Dr. Lester explains.
If you’re noticing irregularities while taking hormonal birth control, it could be that you’re not taking it at the same time every day or missing a dose here or there.
The main reason irregular periods can make fertility tricky is because they make it more difficult to track your cycle and know when you’re most fertile. There are really only six peak fertility days in a month, Dr. Lester points out. So if you have a hormonal imbalance , getting pregnant could become even more challenging. “If periods are irregular because you’re deficient in progesterone, your uterine lining likely can’t support implantation, even if you’re ovulating,” she says. If you have PCOS, your ovulation is typically irregular, so it’s not easy to track when you’re fertile.
To get a better handle on tracking your fertility when you have irregular periods, Dr. Lester recommends ovulation strips, which show you when you’re ovulating, or trackers that measure your basal body temperature, or temperature at rest. Your basal body temperature tends to drop before ovulation and rise afterwards, so it can provide insight into where you are in your cycle. Other indicators of ovulation are the consistency of your cervical mucus (it’ll be thicker and whiter during peak fertility), and your sex drive (you may notice an uptick when ovulating.)
There’s no miracle trick for making menstruation happen on time, and what’s “normal” for you may be different than what’s normal for other women, but there are a few hacks that can help regulate your body as much as possible.
We’ve already established how important regulating your sleep is for keeping your circadian rhythms on track, but maintaining consistency with your workouts is just as important. “Exercise helps to eliminate toxins via sweat and the lymphatic system, balances blood sugar, and reduces cortisol , at which high chronic levels can deplete progesterone,” explains Dr. Lester. One study found that anxiety and other manifestations of stress are likely to reach their peak during the pre-menstrual period, which can be even more unpredictable if periods are irregular. Getting your workouts in (and maybe even incorporating mind-body movement like yoga) will help your mental health feel more manageable.
“Certain foods, like cruciferous veggies (kale, broccoli, and many dark, leafy greens) contain a component called DIM, which helps eliminate estrogen and balance hormones,” Dr. Lester says.Studies have shown that the DIM found in these veggies can help metabolize estrogen and decrease the risk of estrogen-sensitive cancers.
Fermented foods like kimchi and tempeh help increase the number of good gut bacteria in your system. “That will help balance the estrobolome, the group of enzymes that help metabolize estrogen in the intestine,” Dr. Lester says, and that proper balance of estrogen can help regulate your cycle.
An overall healthy diet is important to keeping a regular menstrual cycle, but there’s one key macronutrient in particular that can help you stay regular in more ways than one: fiber . Research has shown that food with enough fiber in it (such as cruciferous vegetables, berries, and whole grains) help to speed up the metabolism of estrogen in your gut. Dr. Lester suggests adding 1 tablespoon of freshly ground flaxseeds to your morning smoothie for a solid hit of fiber every day.
Mara is a freelance journalist whose print and digital work has appeared in Shape, Brit+Co, Marie Claire, Prevention, and other wellness outlets.
Most recently, she was a member of the founding team of Bumble Mag, a branded content project for Bumble at Hearst Corporation. She enjoys covering everything from women's health topics and politics to travel. She has a degree in Communications as well as Italian Studies from Fordham University.