Irregular Periods & Pregnancy — A Bad Combination, Or No Problem? Here's What You Need To Know
Even before I went on birth control, I had periods that you could set your watch by. (The fact that I frequently forgot what day it was is another issue altogether.) But I'm one of the lucky ones: up to 30 percent of adult American women have abnormal or irregular periods, for a huge variety of reasons. Irregular periods can be chalked up to hormonal fluctuation, weight gain or loss, ovary problems, starting or stopping birth control, or just a slightly uncooperative reproductive system. It's not a big deal. Unless, of course, you're trying to get knocked up, and you've heard the scare stories that irregular periods could significantly impact your chances of pregnancy.
Here's the good news: having periods that show up once in a blue moon according to some weird logic of their own (have you eaten cheese today? Period!) doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have trouble conceiving on a hormonal level. It's mostly just a massive practical headache — because it makes it tricky to figure out when you're actually fertile, and so when the sperm can actually tackle the egg head-on.
However, there are some underlying issues behind irregular periods that may also impede your baby-making. It's not the periods themselves that are the problem: it's whether they point to fertility and ovulation issues under the surface. So let's get intimate and squishy about this — what's the real relationship between irregular periods and pregnancy?
Problem 1: Tracking Ovulation
Here's the basic reason that having periods all over the shop will get in the way of getting on the nine-month bus to Babytown. (Sorry.) Human females, as you'll know from ninth-grade biology, aren't at peak fertility all the time; their menstrual cycle is a 28-day recurrent series of rising and falling hormone levels, and it's centred around tracking when ovulation occurs (i.e., when your ovaries release eggs, ripe to be fertilized by a passing bit of man-jam).
The problem for women with irregular periods is that there's actually a set point where you can get pregnant: the "fertile window". Typically, this is five or six days long, and it takes place just before you start ovulating and at the start of your egg-producing. In regular, fertile women, they ovulate around day 14 of their cycle (counting each cycle from the first day of your period), and they can get pregnant in the six days before that, though it's more likely the closer to the 14th day they get.
You're probably guessing the difficulty here. If your periods are all over the place, your ovulation point and fertile window are mysteries worthy of Hercule Poirot. There are ways in which you can track the elusive window down, though: tracking body temperature, checking your cervical mucus (ew), or getting yourself an ovulation predictor kit from a pharmacist.
Problem 2: Underlying Causes
Outside of the basic "when the hell am I fertile?" issue of irregular periods, though, there can be other more serious underlying issues that can be getting in the way of parenthood. This is why, if you've had irregular periods recently or for a significant portion of your menstruating life, it's probably crucial to see a gynecologist even before you start trying to get pregnant.
The nicest situation for conceiving couples stuck with an irregular menstrual cycle is that they just have to have more sex, in the hope that they'll nab an ovulating day. However, irregular periods can be signs of more serious possibilities. One is anovulation, a condition in which you have menstrual periods but release no eggs, which is obviously a slight handicap when aiming for a baby.
Another possible cause is polycystic ovary syndrome, where cysts grow on your ovaries, which may exist in as many as seven percent of adult women. It's rare that PCOS, as it's known, will show up without other symptoms, though: it tends to be associated with excess hair growth, oily skin, and weight issues. If your doctor suspects you have PCOS, you'll have a swathe of blood tests and possibly a pelvic ultrasound, so don't worry — it won't just be an unconfirmed theory.
Other potential causes for irregular periods are conditions that interfere with your hormones, such as those that affect your thyroid. Some psych meds can cause period disruption, as can diabetes and using illegal drugs. And there are other, more prosaic reasons: losing a lot of weight or exercising to excess is commonly associated with losing your period entirely or having it pop up like a nasty surprise at inconvenient moments. (White dress? Ta-dah!) Unhelpfully, periods can also disappear if you're just stressed out. Which is not likely to stress you out less.
The Bottom Line
The important thing here is not to get freaked out. Even with some of these conditions, it's possible to get pregnant, with the aid of fertility drugs like Clomid. Ovulating inconsistently is obviously far more useful than not ovulating at all. And even if you're diagnosed with anovulation, it's still apparently possible to do what The Bump calls "kick-starting" your menstrual cycle with fertility treatment.
The big take-away, though? If you're lusting for a small fat progeny to take to the park, and your periods are all over the place, it's a good plan to go to the doctor and outline your period history. With a bit of prodding and medical magic, chances are good that an underlying cause may be found, or at the very least that your fertile window might become a bit less of a mystery. And irregular periods themselves are no hindrance to IVF if needed. No worries.