First and foremost, regular periods signify that your body is ready to become pregnant! But besides reproduction, your menstrual cycle rhythms reflect balance in other systems and functions.
This is because every month your periods are the result of a coordinated conversation between your brain and your ovaries. Two of the brain regions that direct this conversation — the hypothalamus and pituitary gland — are also intimately connected to the adrenal glands, thyroid, and gut along these same pathways. So when one system is disrupted, others may suffer. Changes to a woman’s periods, or irregular periods, are often the first signs of disrupted signaling along these pathways, with implications that are felt throughout the body. For example:
- Hormonal imbalance. Regular menstruation tells you that your body is in homeostasis, making appropriate levels of sex hormones optimal for reproduction. When these hormones are in balance, you feel great, are energetic, sleep well, and take interest in sex. When you’re under constant stress, your hormones become out of balance. An irregular period is one of its first ways of asking for help.
- Bone health. The natural balance between the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone helps ensure both healthy periods and healthy bone turnover. And so does balance between other important hormones, including insulin, thyroid, parathyroid, and stress hormones. In fact, your bones are an endocrine, or hormone-generating, organ. If the balance is disrupted, your periods may become irregular — providing a useful clue that bone build-up may not be keeping pace with bone breakdown.
- Thyroid function. Centrally located between the brain and rest of the body, the thyroid acts like a “transfer station,” controlling the rate of function for every cell and gland in the body, including growth, repair, and metabolism. When your thyroid is underactive or low functioning, it can lead to fatigue, weight gain, depression, high cholesterol, and other symptoms. If your thyroid is healthy and doing its part, your periods are much more likely to be regular.
- Healthy weight maintenance. Fat, particularly around the waist, also acts like an endocrine organ, creating estrogen (as well as leptin, a hormone that helps regulate energy intake and expenditure, including appetite). Estrogen dominance and insulin resistance are both types of hormonal imbalance associated with extra body weight and menstrual irregularities. Also, being underweight as a result of stringent dieting, overtraining, or other extreme physical or emotional stress, can cause menstrual irregularities, including amenorrhea (lack of periods).
- Adrenal function. When we are under stress, regardless of the source (danger, personal relationships, work, environment), there is increased activity along the axis between the brain and adrenal glands. This generates stress hormones such as cortisol that help us respond to a threat. Cortisol indirectly affects the balance between sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone, and DHEA. As a result, many women will skip or have irregular periods or suffer from PMS when they’re under stress — which can be reduced by supporting our adrenals.