Most people who menstruate don’t have a consistent 28-day cycle. It’s normal for there to be some variation from person to person, and also from cycle to cycle. Sometimes my cycle is 27 days, sometimes it’s 31 days. Occasionally I’ll bleed for 3 days, mostly I bleed for 5.
When I’m stressed (or I’ve had too much alcohol or caffeine), my pre-menstrual phase seems to last forever. Other months I breeze through that week and I’m almost surprised when my period arrives. I often joke that it would make my life much easier if everyone’s cycles were exactly the same length, month after month, and we all bled and ovulated on the same day.
But that’s just not how it works. The menstrual cycle by nature is variable. And in my opinion, it’s more fun and insightful this way!
My job is to help women and menstruators translate the language of their cycle, to better understand their flow, so they can work with it, not against it. I teach menstrual cycle awareness and I coach women who want to use this self-knowledge to be the best version of themselves.
A tool that I teach my clients is cycle-syncing.
This is approaching your life, work, self-care, social life, fitness, sex, and creative projects differently in each the phase of your cycle — because how we feel changes. Cycle-syncing is less about micro-managing our schedule, and more about holding ourselves in the awareness that the female hormonal journey means we shift and change from week-to-week. The question then becomes, how can our self-care, creativity, productivity, relationships, attitude and self-talk flow with these inner changes?
Naturally, I’m often asked how on earth one can work with their menstrual cycle if they have an irregular cycle.
…or if their period has signed off and left the building entirely. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
This topic of cycle irregularity is multi-faceted and there are areas outside of my understanding, experience and parameters of qualification that I won’t explore in depth, but I will give further resources where I can. Friends, this blog post is quite long. It’s one you might need to read (or listen to – audio coming soon) a few times. It’s my hope that it’s one you’ll come back to, and certainly one you’ll want to share!
Right, let’s get on with it.
Menstrual Cycle 101
Let’s do a very quick revision on the menstrual cycle so we’re all on the same page.
In my eBook and audiobook Adore Your Cycle, I go into much more depth on how you can optimise each of the four phases or ‘seasons’ of your cycle. I like to use the four seasons of the year to explain the four phases of the menstrual cycle, as they line up beautifully and make sense to most people.
Day one of your cycle is the first full day of blood flow. You might get some spotting before your period starts, but you won’t chart day one until you see that full juicy flow of blood. This is menstruation, and it is what I call the Winter phase of your cycle.
After menstruation ends, you’ll move into the Spring phase of your cycle. This is the pre-ovulatory phase of your cycle and you’re building up to ovulation here.
A few days before you ovulate, you’ll move into the Summer phase of your cycle. You’ll stay in this Summer phase as you ovulate, and a few days-ish past ovulation. You’ll then move into the Autumn phase of your cycle, which is the pre-menstruum, and here you’re moving back down towards menstruation again.
You have the two poles of menstruation and ovulation on either side of each other (Winter and Summer) and your transition seasons, pre-ovulation and pre-menstruum (Spring and Autumn) on either side. If you have a natural menstrual cycle you will ALWAYS be somewhere on this cycle, in one of these phases, or in a crossover phase, transitioning between one phase and the next.
WHAT DAY OF YOUR CYCLE ARE YOU ON TODAY?
Have a look back in your calendar and check to see what your last day one was, that first day of full flow blood, and then count forward from there. That’s today’s cycle day.
The next time you have a period, you’ll start counting again from day one.
The seasons of the cycle are:
Winter = Menstruation
Spring = Pre-ovulation
Summer = Ovulation
Autumn = Pre-menstruum
It’s also important to note these two phases:
Follicular phase = From day one right up until the day you ovulate.
Luteal phase = From ovulation back down until the last day of your cycle.
These two phases sit over the top of the entire cycle, and these can fluctuate. More on that soon.
So what is a ‘normal’ menstrual cycle?
(Please mentally add an -ish to the end of each number, yeah?)
- A normal cycle is considered to be between 24 and 38 days.
- A normal period lasts between 2 and 7 days and more commonly lasts from 3 to 5 days.
- A normal follicular phase is considered to be between 12 and 24 days.
- A normal luteal phase is between 11 and 16 days in length, but more commonly between 12 and 14 days.
- Late or delayed ovulation is ovulation that occurs on or after cycle day 24.
- A ‘normal’ cycle varies no more than 9 days in length between each cycle, in one year.
- For someone who has a 28-day cycle, each season will be about 7 days (this too can vary), and ovulation will happen around days 12-16.
And an irregular cycle?
Say you bleed for 10 days, or ovulate on cycle day 30, or have a menstrual cycle that is 24 days one cycle and 38 days the next, then you would be experiencing an irregular cycle.
Sometimes, we just have a weird month and bleed less or ovulate later (or not at all) and then things return to ‘normal’. That’s cool. Charting over a number of cycles and consistently noting irregularities is when we need to listen up. Charting your menstrual cycle can help you to figure out what’s ‘normal’ for you and what isn’t. And hey, even if your cycle is in the ‘normal’ range, it can still vary (even a few days variance in length can throw our cycle-syncing, right?), and so knowing how to flow with that possibility of variance is important.
So how do you work with a cycle that is shorter, longer, irregular or totally AWOL?
I’ve got one word for you, friends: OVULATION.
Figuring out when you ovulate (or if you ovulate) is key. Here’s why:
- The day your period arrives is determined by when you ovulate. This is because ovulation triggers a series of events that results in menstruation, if conception hasn’t occurred. Once you ovulate, it’s generally somewhere between 10-16 days until you bleed, but more commonly a much more deliciously predictable 12-14 days. This is true no matter the length of your cycle. This is fabulous information for anyone with a rowdy cycle!
- Charting ovulation will tell you exactly when you’re moving from the follicular phase to the luteal phase. You’ll also know that you’ll be in your Summer for a little longer, but can expect to transition into Autumn in the next week.
- So if you have a longer cycle, you’ll likely be ovulating later than the middle of your cycle. If you have a shorter cycle, you’ll likely be ovulating earlier than mid-cycle. eg. If your cycle is 44 days, you’re ovulating somewhere around day 30.
AN IMPORTANT BIT ON CHARTING FOR CONTRACEPTION OR CONCEPTION: Do not do not do not use the ‘minus fourteen days off of the length of your cycle’ approach to figure out when you are and aren’t fertile. This is NOT a reliable form of contraception or helpful for conception. Why? Because ovulation is variable. Ovulating on day 16 one cycle doesn’t mean you’ll always ovulate on day 16. For contraception and conception, I recommend the symptothermal Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) and I’ll speak more on that in a tic.
How do the seasons work in an irregular cycle?
If you have a natural menstrual cycle, and you’re ovulating and menstruating, no matter the length… you’re still going to be moving through the four seasons.
- Your Winter is the clearest season to identify, because it’s when you have your period. That’s easy.
- Your Spring is going to start when your period comes to an end, and it’s characterised by an increase in oestrogen. It’s going to end a few days-days-ish before ovulation. This means that if you have a longer cycle, as you are ovulating later, then you have a lengthier Spring. I’ll get to why it might not feel like that in a moment.
- Your Summer is always characterised by ovulation. If you are ovulating earlier, then you’re going to have a shorter Spring and Summer’ll come early. A ’normal’ cycle might mean that day 12 marks the beginning of Summer, while someone who has a longer cycle, and ovulates later, could still be in Spring on day 12.
- Your Autumn will begin after you ovulate, about 4 – 7 days after. For some, it might feel like it begins earlier. Autumn is characterised by an increase in progesterone, and progesterone is dependant on a successful ovulation. So you need to have ovulated to move into Autumn.
MY TIP: Get to know where your two poles of menstruation (Winter) and ovulation (Summer) are, and the other two seasons will fall into place.
How to Chart Ovulation
I’m not a qualified Fertility Awareness Method practitioner (yet), but I 100% recommend FAM, not only for those wanting to use it for contraception and conception, but for anyone who wants to know when ovulation is happening. And if you’ve read this far, I don’t need to tell YOU why that’s important! But just in case: knowing when you’re ovulating is going to help you “see” your cycle and the four seasons more clearly.
FERTILITY AWARENESS METHOD, BABY
FAM includes charting your basal body temperature every day, charting changes in cervical mucus, and possibly observing changes in the cervix (I don’t do this), as well as other signs of ovulation such as an increase in libido and energy. You know that ‘wet’ feeling you get around ovulation? That’s the kind of thing you’ll be charting.
I use a Daysy fertility tracker for my basal body temperature charting. But any basal body thermometer will do the job. You can pick one up from a pharmacy. You can use an app like Kindara to chart your temperature and mucus changes, or use a pen-to-paper chart. I chart changes in my cervical mucus in my period app Clue, in conjunction with my daily temperature taking.
This is a skill to learn and there’s a lot more to say on why temperature and mucus and cervical position equal ovulation, so I’m going to direct you towards Nat Kringoudis’ excellent online program Debunking Ovulation and herbalist Clara Bitcon’s free resources on cycle charting, as well as the nudge to google ‘Fertility Awareness Method Practitioner’ and see if there’s someone local or online you can learn more from. Other great resources include Pen and Paper Fertility and Nathalie at Fertility Awareness Project.
THERE’S NO NEED TO BE AFRAID OR OVERWHELMED 🙂
Increasing body literacy is exciting! Consider it a fun new curiosity. Many women tell me they’d never considered ovulation until they decided they wanted to have kids. While the FAM method is brilliant for both natural contraception and conception, it’s a great tool for anyone who has a menstrual cycle, particularly if knowing when you ovulate is going to give you more clarity on what is going on with your cycle.
So what is going on with your cycle?
22 reasons your cycle might be shorter, longer, irregular, or totally AWOL include:
- Being pregnant!
- You’ve just started having periods!
- You’re on the pill or have an implant!
- You’ve come off hormonal contraception in the last year!
- You have a condition like endometriosis or uterine fibroids!
- You have polycystic ovaries or PCOS!
- You have a bleeding disorder!
- You’ve recently had an abortion!
- You’ve recently miscarried!
- Hormonal imbalance such as low progesterone or oestrogen dominance!
- Nutritional deficiencies!
- You’re in peri-menopause!
- You’re post-menopause!
- You took a long haul flight!
- You’re not getting enough sleep!
- Thyroid issues!
- You’ve recently started new medication!
- You’ve lost a lot of weight or aren’t eating enough calories!
- You drank A LOT of alcohol or coffee this past cycle!
- Your body is trying to tell you something!
If you’re not ovulating or menstruating, it’s possible there’s something bigger going on.
The female body needs a certain level of wellbeing to be able to ovulate successfully. The primitive function of the menstrual cycle is to create life. Growing a human takes a great of energy and inner reserves. Your menstrual health holds up a mirror to the health of your entire being. If something is out of balance, then ovulation and ultimately menstruation can be delayed.
Your body also doesn’t require the function of ovulation for its own survival, as opposed to say something like, you know, breathing. If your body is under stress or in survival mode, it’s going to send its resources to other systems such as respiratory and digestive. It’s quite clever in that way! Your body is always trying to find the sweet balance of homeostasis. So if you’re regularly charting irregularities in your cycle, then I’d say it’s time to figure out why.
Who can support you to figure out what’s going on with your cycle?
I suggest a combination of…
- Seeing your GP to have an extensive blood panel done!
- Working with a herbalist, either Naturopathic or with a Chinese Medicine background!
- Finding a gynaecologist you trust!
- Working with a Fertility Awareness Method practitioner!
- Hiring a period coach like me who can help you navigate your cycle and appropriate self-care!
- Taking one of my online courses!
Let’s go to your questions…
Q: My cycle is 40 days long. Does this mean I ovulate on day 20? Are my four phases / seasons an equal 10 days each? It feels like I’m in Autumn forever!
A: It’s possible that what is happening here is delayed ovulation, for any of the reasons mentioned above. It’s most likely you’re ovulating between cycle days 24 and 30, because the luteal phase after ovulation is the most predictable. If ovulation is delayed, your period will be delayed. This means you have a longer pre-ovulatory phase, which lines up with the Spring phase.
But it also makes sense that you feel like you’re in Autumn all of the time, if your body is attempting to ovulate in that pre-ovulatory phase. Your body can attempt to ovulate multiple times before it gets over the line and successfully releases an egg. So let’s say your body is building up and up and up to ovulation and you’re feeling great and Spring-ish or Summer-ish, and then — it doesn’t have what it needs to ovulate, and hormones drop again. Then it goes to build up and up and up… and again, doesn’t get there. This could happen a few times before a successful ovulation. And this ‘up and down’ hormonal landscape is similiar to the Autumn phase, where oestrogen and progesterone undertake what I call the ‘hormonal dance off’. So you might feel like you’re in the second half of your cycle before ovulation has even occurred! Charting ovulation is going to be super helpful for you.
Q: I’m on the pill! Do I still experience the four seasons?
A: Not really, but maybe. Ovulation is halted when you’re on hormonal contraception (whether that’s the pill or a hormonal IUD), for most women. On the pill you’re experiencing something like a post-menopausal hormonal landscape that is more liner, as opposed to the ebb and flow of oestrogen and progesterone that occurs in a natural menstrual cycle.
We need ovulation to trigger the hormone progesterone that characterises the Autumn phase. And if we’re not ovulating, then there’s technically no Summer either.
Saying that, some women on hormonal contraception tell me they DO feel the seasons of the cycle! Others tell me they feel as if they’re in one season all of the time. It’s important to remember that we are ALL cyclical beings, and we have the archetypal imprint of the seasons lodged deep in our cells. We are affected by night and day, the seasons of the year, the weather, the waxing and waning of the moon… so to this question, I say: “Trust how you feel.”
Q: I’m pregnant (or breastfeeding) and miss my cycle! Do I still have one? What can I use to chart?
I haven’t had children, so I can’t speak from experience, but what I’ve heard from clients and friends is that the first trimester of pregnancy can feel like the Winter phase, the second trimester is like a Spring, the third trimester is like a Summer phase, and postpartum is like Autumn. When working with a client who is pregnant or postpartum and doesn’t have a menstrual cycle, I show them how to use the moon’s cycle to chart how they’re feeling. I also recommend this method for post-menopausal women.
New moon = Winter / Menstruation
First quarter = Spring / Pre-Ovulation
Full moon = Summer / Ovulation
Last quarter = Autumn / Pre-menstruum
The moon has cycle days too! The first day of the lunar cycle is the new moon, which is day one. The full moon occurs mid-lunar-cycle and just as you track with your menstrual cycle, you simply chart how you’re feeling from there. When I’m sat in circle with women who are post-menopausal, they’ll often say “I’m day 11” — which is the moon’s day 11, and I really love that.
Q: I’ve just come off the pill and my cycle still hasn’t come back. Where in the cycle am I?
A: It’s normal for your body to take some time to readjust after coming off hormonal contraception. Until your first “real” period after coming off the pill (not that initial withdrawal bleed you had when you stopped taking the pill or had an implant removed), I suggest using the same method as above to chart how you’re feeling. I borrowed the lunar cycle to chart in the 12 months that my cycle went AWOL after I came off the pill. In that year of waiting, it helped me to practice charting and feel into my cyclical nature, even though my period was nowhere to be seen. When my period finally did come back, it came back on a full moon! Which I thought was very cool. You can download my free lunar and menstrual cycle chart right here.
Q: How do I plan for a bleed when I don’t know it’s coming?
Remember, the menstrual cycle is by nature variable. In over six years of charting, I still can’t predict exactly when my period is going to arrive, and my cycles can vary by up to a week. Charting ovulation gives me a clearer picture (remember that 14-ish days window after ovulation) and there are observations you can make with temperature charting that can indicate menstruation is soon to happen. The more you know, the more you know. And the more you know, the more you can look ahead and prepare. With lots of wriggle room, because sometimes surprise periods happen! It’s important to be flexible and gentle. Sometimes plans can change last minute. And when they can’t, we can always choose how we hold ourselves, treat ourselves, and speak to ourselves.
Q: My cycle is only 24 days. How do my seasons work?
Winter is as per normal! Let’s say you ovulate around day 12. You’d then have a slightly shorter Spring — say something like days 6 to 10. You’ll possibly move into Autumn around day 17, taking you right up to the end of your cycle, where you might move into your Winter on day 23 or 24. As long as you know when menstruation (Winter) and ovulation (Summer) are happening, you’ll be able to figure out the rest.
Q: How do I stay motivated to chart if my cycle is irregular?
It can be tough! I felt wildly frustrated and impatient when my period went missing, and sometimes I get a random few cycles that throw me off. But it’s so very helpful to chart if you have an irregular cycle. It is a beautiful act of self-care, a nourishing and supportive practice that can give you so much insight into what’s going on in your body, how you’re feeling, and how you can show up as your best self that day. Make it fun. Chart in a way that works for you — pen-to-paper chart, a period app, journal your cycle, or use the notes app on your phone. Use colourful pens, make a ritual out of it, sip a hot herbal tea, and let it become a sweet and conscious moment for yourself each day, that you can look forward to. And when you DO chart ovulation or when your period arrives and you know EXACTLY where you are in the cycle — CELEBRATE THAT!!!
Q: I bleed for 10 days. How do I figure out my seasons?
A: Without knowing the length of your cycle, or what day you’re ovulating, it’s hard to say. Bleeding for 10 days (over a number of cycles) would be considered a cycle irregularity, so I would want to figure out what might be going on.
Q: I feel like my Autumn is longer than my Spring. Does that happen?
A: It can feel like Autumn lasts forever for a few reasons. As I explained above, if your body is attempting to ovulate multiple times, it can give you that Autumnal ‘up and down’ hormonal feeling. It can also feel like you’re moving into Autumn a couple of days after ovulation sometimes, but I consider this point in the cycle to be more like a mid-Summer dip, rather than the actual crossover into Autumn. I also find that many women move into their Winter a day or two before bleeding (remember the seasons are more about how you FEEL), when that feeling of wanting to separate from the world takes over and they’re called to the period cave. This is why identifying the crossover from each season to the next is helpful. I talk more about identifying crossover days in my courses FLOW and Radiate.
Q: I feel like I’m in peri-menopause and my cycles are changing. How can I chart this?
A: The female body’s hormonal landscape starts to shift mid-30’s onwards. Peri-menopause (the years leading up to menopause where oestrogen is declining) usually begins in a woman’s early to mid 40’s. You might notice cycles lengthening or shortening or just becoming weird and irregular. Keep paying attention, and be open to the change in your cycle and seasons. It’s normal. Spring might start to feel more like Autumn and your Winter might last for just a few days. You might find that charting ovulation is helpful, for all of the reasons mentioned above. But whatever you do, keep charting! Keep paying attention. Ask yourself every day: “How do I feel today?” and respond to yourself appropriately. Do consider herbal or therapeutic support during this transition — this time in the female life journey is one we don’t talk about enough!
Q: Is it possible to not ovulate at all and still get your period?
No, but kind of. A anovulatory cycle is a cycle where ovulation does not occur. This can still result in a breakthrough bleed, which is kind of like a period but technically different. Menstruation is bleeding that occurs from a drop in progesterone. If there’s no ovulation, that progesterone dominant luteal phase doesn’t occur either — so there’s no progesterone to drop. The breakthrough bleed is the body letting go of the uterine lining that had built up due to oestrogen in the first half of the cycle, so it’s a bit different to a period. It’s usually lighter.
Q: Is a 26 day cycle and then a 29 day cycle something to be worried about?
Not at all! Both normal length and normal variance.
Alright friends, I’m at about 4000 words so I am going to sign off here. Please let me know if this article has helped shed some light on charting irregular cycles, or if you have any more questions. And please feel very welcome to share this post with your community. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or over on Instagram or Facebook.
Further Reading & Resources
My eBook & audiobook Adore Your Cycle.
Nat Kringoudis for fertility & hormonal support.
Clara Bitcon for cyclical naturopathic support & FAM.
Dr. Larisa Corda for holistic fertility guidance.
Kindara App for digital FAM charting.
Pen and Paper Fertility for pen-to-paper FAM.