Dealing With Irregular Periods

Sanitary pads, clock and calendarOften, since you’re not expecting menopause at such an early age, you won’t notice that your periods are getting irregular. Sure, you’re a few days late, or your flow is lighter or heavier, but since you’re not thinking menopause, you can easily overlook these signals.

Many women learn that they’re going through premature menopause when they keep trying to get pregnant and can’t — and finally go to a doctor to see what’s wrong.

Or you may miss a period, immediately assume that you could be pregnant, take the test and learn that you’re not — and wonder why you skipped that period in the first place.

On the other hand, you may be like some women who notice that their periods are changing, but have no idea why this is suddenly happening, and assume there’s something very wrong with them.

Your Experiences

I started missing periods — I hated that feeling of “am I pregnant?” every month. The doctor checked thyroid, blood sugar, etc. and said it was stress. I asked about the possibility of it being premature menopause, which he quickly dismissed. I was much too young, and it is very rare (yeah, right!)

— Cheryl, age 36

Volatile Periods & Premature Menopause

A change in your menstrual cycle is one of the first signals that you’re going through menopause, a signal that about 80 percent of all women experience. On average most women have an approximately 28-day menstrual cycle and usually can count on having their period for about five days (1). But when you start going through menopause, you can’t count on your cycle running normally anymore.

You may find that your periods arrive more frequently, perhaps every 25 days instead of every 28, or they may arrive later than the time to which you are typically accustomed. You may experience very light bleeding that lasts only a few days; then the next month have a very heavy period.

Distressed woman suffering irregular periods

Your period may have a shorter duration, or last for what feels like an eternity. Irregular and unpredictable patterns may emerge — like skipping a month, before returning to normal for several months, then skipping multiple consecutive periods. In fact, when you first begin to enter menopause, often the only consistent thing about your monthly menstrual cycle is its inconsistency.

This inconsistency mirrors the fluctuation of hormones in your body. In the initial phases of premature menopause, your hormones are erratic, and your periods are reacting to this instability. The nature of the irregularity you experience is usually a useful clue as to what is happening in your reproductive system:

Shorter Cycles (your period comes more frequently)

Shorter cycles usually signal that you are producing insufficient amounts of estrogen during your preovulatory stage and that your follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels are elevated as your body attempts to revive your flagging estrogen. In the presence of more FSH, your follicles begin to develop faster, which shortens your cycle.

Extremely Light Periods

Likewise, this usually means that you aren’t producing enough estrogen. In this instance, the lack of estrogen prevents your body from building up your uterine lining adequately. These light periods may also be a sign of an anovulatory period.

Extremely Heavy Bleeding

Heavy bleeding, counter-intuitively, can also be a sign of an anovulatory period. This is because, while your estrogen may be sufficient to build up the uterine lining, you may also be producing too little progesterone (because your body hasn’t ovulated and so hasn’t created what’s known as a corpus luteum).

Without the presence of progesterone to halt it, your uterine lining keeps on accumulating until the estrogen levels in your body finally drop off, and the lining is shed causing very heavy bleeding.

Very possibly, you will experience all of the above in the initial stages of premature menopause. Your cycle will fluctuate from one month to the next — one month light, another month relatively normal, and another month heavy.

Then, as your ovaries continue declining as your eggs dwindle, your menstrual cycle starts to wind down. As time passes, even surging levels of FSH aren’t sufficient to trigger enough estrogen for your eggs to properly mature or for the uterine lining to thicken.

Woman with menstruation related pain

As you get closer to menopause, the menstrual cycle typically lengthens. Periods also tend to come less often, with more time between each menstruation. After some time you may begin skipping periods altogether. And eventually, in the biggest change to your cycle, you will cease having periods completely.

Remember: you should bear in mind that certain irregularities in your menstrual cycle are not necessarily related to early menopause, but could instead be a sign of an altogether different abnormality, including cancer, polyps, nonmalignant tumors, or fibroids (which are very common when women first begin going through menopause).

If you’ve had a checkup, however, and all other possibilities have been ruled out, then you may have to adjust to the reality of menopause-related irregular periods for some time.

How To Cope

It’s one thing to read about these changes with your period and another to experience them. One of the most annoying things about having irregular periods is the feeling of being out of control. In the past, you probably could count on your period coming at a set time.

Now you have no idea when it will come — or even if it will arrive at all. And when it does come, you may be flooding or barely spotting. The bad news is that there really isn’t much you can do to get your irregular periods back to normal. But you can get at least a little control back:

Be Prepared

Since you may be dealing with this for a few years, it’s a good idea to keep tampons or sanitary napkins with you at all times, just in case your period sneaks up on you out of nowhere. This is especially important if you’ve skipped periods because you can’t be sure when your cycle will suddenly start up again.

Your Experiences

I remember going to a wedding after I hadn’t had a period in three months when I suddenly had an unwelcome surprise. Of course, I hadn’t brought any protection — after three months without a period; I had assumed (incorrectly) that that was that.

Well, it wasn’t, and I had to spend some frantic minutes discreetly asking other female guests if they had a tampon I could use. After that, I made sure to keep carrying tampons even when I had been period-free for a few months.

— Anonymous

Keep Track!

Start keeping a menstrual calendar when you notice your cycle is getting irregular. It sounds annoying, but it isn’t as difficult as you may think, and there are even apps to help. Alternatively, you can jot down the basic information — when your period comes, how heavy or light it is, any unusual cramping, and the like — on a calendar, date book, or a plain piece of paper.

Not only will this allow you to see if there are any trends in your cycle (time between periods is getting longer, periods are shorter in duration, and so on), but also it’s very helpful when you see your doctor. It’s difficult to remember the specifics about the past for months of periods when you’re sitting in the doctor’s office. Having a calendar enables to and your doctor to better assess your condition. It may also alert your doctor that you’re experiencing problems other than premature menopause.

Your Experiences

About four years ago I started having my periods closer together. I discussed this with my doctor of 16 years, and she asked me to chart them for a year. After the first year, I started skipping one or two from time to time.

After this had happened a few times, I got a little worried, since I was as regular as clockwork for years. For some reason, I was convinced I had cancer or something.

— Karen, age 39

Consult Your Doctor

Finally, if you’re frequently having very heavy bleeding, you may want to talk to your doctor about some form of treatment. Taking progesterone for the second half of your cycle often helps reduce bleeding and regularize your period.

It can also help with the bloated PMS feeling you may be getting more strongly than in the past and will prevent your endometrium (uterine lining) from building up excessively. But taking progesterone isn’t risk-free, and it doesn’t work well for everyone, so be sure to discuss all possible side effects with your doctor.

Your doctor may also prescribe a low-dose birth control pill to regularize your periods — but again, be aware of any potential side effects.

1 comment
  1. I was diagnosed with POI at 38 years old. My periods were alway like clockwork every 28 days. Then when i turned 32 they started changing and happening more frequently, charting them it was like 19 days apart some months and 34 days apart others, sometimes i had bleeding episodes that lasted for months. Doctors told me it was stress. I also had chronic dry eye, joint pains, horrible cramps, pain during the supportive time of ovulation, and always felt tired. I then developed food allergies too. After trying to convince for 2 years i went to a fertility specialist, she told me as long as i get a period I’m still working…long story short, i eventually went in an elimination diet for my food allergies which greatly helped with my cramps. After a year and a half of using ovulation pee sticks i finally got pregnant at 36 years old! After my pregnancy my periods never seemed to return right, now they were 56 days apart. Finally my new OB did the proper tests, AMH and FSH and diagnosed me with POI. Since then I’ve been on HRT and feeling so much better! Wish i knew sooner what was going on. All these years without a proper diagnosis. Doctors said it was a miracle i got pregnant on my own.

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