“Not very regular, adjust your lifestyle” bluntly commands the app I downloaded to track my menstrual cycle as I log this month’s visit from Aunt Flo.
The app seems to suggest there’s something seriously wrong here, that my irregular periods should not be happening, are not normal.
But that’s not exactly true is it?
For years now we’ve been promoting that women come in all shapes and sizes, so surely this logic can be extended to our cycles? Just as there is no ‘normal’ body type, there is no ‘normal’ cycle.
As I consult the app telling me how “irregular” I apparently am, I’m struck by the fact 7 out of the 12 periods I have recorded so far have been on an average cycle of 33 days apart, with the rest ranging between 26-50 days. And although that 50 is a bit of an anomaly, this all seems pretty regular for me and my body.
What the app is probably getting at is that from March of last year to now I have missed 3 random periods, which could be seen as fairly unusual.
But there are so many reasons that your period decides to take a little holiday – and this doesn’t mean it’s booked a 9-month transatlantic cruise.
Increased exercise, your contraceptive pill, stress or more serious problems such as PCOS or thyroid issues can be to blame, so it’s always worth consulting your doctor if you’re concerned.
I was 13 when my fatigue and heavy or missing periods meant my mum suggested we do just that. I’d spend days on the sofa holding my stomach trying to decide if I needed surgery on my uterus or a big bar of chocolate — luckily it was always chocolate. My mum had suffered from anaemia [a deficiency of red blood cells] for most of her menstruating life and had noticed similar traits in me. The annoying thing about anaemia and low iron is that it can either result in heavier periods or see them disappear altogether, so you never quite know where you stand.
My doctor wasn’t the most helpful, nonchalantly commenting: “Well, you are a bit pale, but sometimes young girls just don’t put on their make up to get a day off school”. He was very quick to order a blood test though when he met my mum’s dagger-like eyes. Don’t mess with a woman who’s bleeding.
For me, my irregular periods can often be linked to 3 main factors, all of which are known causes of menstrual cycle changes: stress, poor diet and low iron levels. As a student; my Saturday nights are often spent dancing away to Stargirl by McFly in my local club. Sundays are full of junk food (you can’t beat a McDonald’s breakfast when you’re hungover af) and none of these foods are particularly iron-rich or nutritious. Most of my week is spent hunched over my laptop researching critical theory surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Flo considers herself too old to stomach the Maccies and too tired to sit and study with me. Therefore, she chooses not to grace me with her presence some months.
I’ll admit that these factors could be better managed, however low iron is something a lot of women don’t even realise is affecting their menstrual cycle. Studies suggest only 1 in 4 of childbearing aged women meet the recommended dietary allowance for iron.
Although my blood test results revealed I had sufficient haemoglobin levels in my blood and therefore didn’t qualify as anaemic, I continued to suffer through symptoms of anaemia throughout my late teens. Some days I had no choice but to take days off school watching Loose Women and repeats of Friends. It wasn’t until I went to university, and the increased stress and change made my periods more MIA than ever, that my mum suggested I take an over-the-counter iron supplement to see if this made any difference. Within a few weeks, I noticed I felt more awake and my periods returned with some regularity. I now take the supplement when I begin to PMS and throughout my period, and it makes such a difference to how I experience my period.
Finding this solution to my irregular period has meant I’ve been able to give some advice to friends who, unbeknownst to me, have suffered similar irregularities with their cycles but for their own different reasons. Speaking up about my unique relationship with my period made me realise how common irregular cycles and missed periods can be. Life changes, sexual activity, medication – the list of things that could affect our cycles is endless. What may be an unusual cycle for some could be completely normal for others and our irregular periods are not necessarily something we need to worry about. When we notice changes from our own version of normal, though, we should reach out to a medical professional for reassurance.
What was once a week of chocolate-induced hallucinations and rubbish day-time telly is now much more manageable – although a bar of chocolate is always welcome.