A young woman recounts her experience with irregular periods:
“The hardest part was knowing when it would come and understanding where the heck my emotions were at. I was tired in school and didn’t have much focus, the emotional instability really rocked me..”.
Irregular, out-of-whack menstrual cycles are common in PCOS. This could look anything like periods that show up twice in a month, or once every month and a half; some periods just change it up each cycle to keep you on your toes. So much for tracking your cycles and planning out safe days to wear white jeans because the irregularity makes Aunty Flow’s next visit unpredictable.
Nearly 20% of women of reproductive age have PCOS and almost 70% of women with symptoms of PCOS remain undiagnosed in Canada. That’s a lot of women living with the discomfort and mental stigma of irregular periods, acne/hair growth, infertility. This article focuses on irregular cycles and how unpredictable menstruation affects the lives of SO MANY WOMEN.
Uncovering the cause of irregular periods
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is the amalgam of an imbalance of hormones, also known as an endocrinopathy (fancy word for, an issue with the endocrine – hormone – system). We know that PCOS presents with irregular periods and increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular issues. The natural cycle of hormones stimulates ovulation which contributes to the balance of estrogen and progesterone with which (if no fertilization) brings about a period. In PCOS, this delicate cycle is thrown off contributing to the lack of regular menstruation.
Stress is another factor that affects the cycle of hormones (mentioned above). If your body is under extreme or chronic stress, it wants to survive first. The body uses any and all of its resources to make sure you’re safe and sound. I.e. the body takes resources away from your digestion and reproductive organs, ultimately affecting your cycles.
Thyroid dysfunction causes a variety of menstrual-related problems as abnormal levels of thyroid hormones affect the release and amount of sex hormones available to bind and act on the body.
Weight: Extreme weight changes disrupt the balance of hormones. Crash diets, malnutrition, anorexia can all lead to irregular periods or amenorrhea (no period). Obese women also demonstrate abnormal hormone profiles; in obese women with PCOS (or at risk of PCOS) tend to carry extra fat around the waist and abdomen rather than the hips.
Do I have PCOS?
While irregular cycles (short: less than 21 days or longer: more than 35 days between periods) are one symptom of PCOS, menstrual irregularities are also present in thyroid dysfunction, periods of stress, and extreme changes in weight or diet. Speak to your doctor/naturopathic doctor about further testing to confirm a diagnosis of PCOS.
Treatment for regulating periods always start with diet and lifestyle interventions. If PCOS is the likely cause, cutting out sugar and increasing exercise (more HIIT training!) are my favourite places to start. The less sugar a woman is consuming, the less her insulin levels will spike and the less fat she will store on her body. This is especially important for obese women. If I suspect an underlying thyroid dysfunction, after a thorough investigation, I’ll recommend specific herbs and supplements to help support natural thyroid hormone balance.
Some of my favorite herbs for treating irregular periods:
Vitex: Also known as Chasteberry, acts on the hypothalamus-pituitary system by slightly elevating LH and decreasing FSH in favour of producing more progesterone.
Black Cohosh: Traditionally used for treating menopause symptoms and painful periods, this herb is estrogenic and helps balance hormones to support menstrual regularity.
Rhodiola: A herb that helps the body deal with stress effectively.
Dong Quai, Alfalfa, Flaxseed, Licorice: which all help to balance hormones
Our young woman with the irregular cycles on her menstrual experiences after making dietary and lifestyle adjustments:
“Having regular periods helps me have regular emotions and I can plan out my outfits”