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The short answer is, yes! We know that both dietary and lifestyle factors affect the hormones that help to regulate our menstrual cycle. A regular menstrual cycle is essential for regular and predictable ovulation. If you’re trying to conceive, it is hard to get pregnant if you can’t predict your cycles, and impossible to get pregnant if you aren’t ovulating! 

There are many lifestyle changes that can affect our cycles, but let’s rewind a little before we explore those in more detail. 

Let’s talk about typical menstrual cycles first. Your menstrual cycle is measured from the day your period begins to the day before your next period. This length usually falls somewhere between 21-35 days, but that can change a little cycle-to-cycle.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG), you have an irregular cycle if you have:

  • A cycle that is shorter than 21 days in length
  • A cycle that is longer than 35 days in length
  • Eight or less menstrual cycles in a calendar year

Other definitions also include more than a 10-20 day difference between your longest and shortest cycles.

So, if you have an irregular cycle and wonder what may have caused this? Well, there are many factors that can contribute to the irregularity (or regularity!) of our menstrual cycles.

These include:

  • Diet
    • Eating too much or too little for your body (particularly when it impacts your fat mass, or weight changes suddenly by a considerable amount)
    • Being deficient in certain nutrients
    • Blood sugar imbalance
    • Chronic low-grade inflammation
  • Over-exercising 
  • Consuming too much alcohol, smoking, or taking recreational drugs
  • High levels of stress over the long term
  • Medical conditions
    • Diabetes (particularly when your blood sugars are above target)
    • Eating disorders
    • Endometriosis
    • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
    • Fibroids
    • Some thyroid conditions
    • Premature ovarian insufficiency
  • Medications
    • The oral contraceptive pill (which works by stopping ovulation)
    • Other forms of hormonal birth control
  • Stage of life
    • Breastfeeding
    • Perimenopause and menopause
    • Recent pregnancy or recent pregnancy loss

What are the steps I can take to help regulate my cycle?

Step 1: See your Doctor

Go and get a comprehensive check-up from your doctor. It’s always best to check that there is nothing else going on before making any lifestyle changes.

Step 2: Take a look at your diet!

Studies have shown that dietary changes can help to regulate your cycle and help you ovulate more consistently. It’s always best to get personalized advice from a dietitian, but you can start with:

  • Follow a Mediterranean-style diet (think plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, legumes, seafood (especially oily fish at least twice a week), moderate intake of dairy foods, eggs, and poultry, and limited consumption of red meat). A study of nearly 18,000 women found that following a ‘fertility’ or Mediterranean-style diet was associated with regular cycles (and ovulation!).
  • Include some plant-based proteins (like lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, and peanut butter). Research shows that swapping just 5% of your total energy intake from animal-based proteins to plant-based proteins was associated with a greater than 50% lower risk of ovulatory infertility (being unable to fall pregnant because you aren’t ovulating).
  • Consume plenty of folate-containing foods (dark leafy green vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds) and take a folate supplement. Studies have found an association between adequate folate intake and regular ovulation.  
  • Balance your blood sugars. Research shows that slightly higher blood sugars (even within the healthy range and even for those without diabetes) are associated with a longer time to pregnancy.

Step 3: Get plenty of sleep.

Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Studies have shown that poor sleep is associated with disturbances in menstrual function. This was highlighted in shift workers who were more likely to report irregular and longer cycles.

Step 4: Think about how you can best manage your stress levels.

Don’t worry, we’re not telling you to “just relax”! We know this is such a tricky one when you’re struggling to conceive. Studies have shown that when we are stressed, particularly for long periods of time, our hormone levels are disrupted. This can cause your cycle to become irregular and even sometimes stop completely. If you are feeling stressed, it’s often best to start by talking to a professional. You can also try journaling, regular exercise, and meditation to help keep your stress in check.

Step 5: Cut back on alcohol (and cease recreational drug use and smoking)

We know that large amounts of alcohol aren’t good for your fertility. Alcohol is believed to impact our cycles through the suppression of follicle development and ovulation by elevating our estrogen levels. Does that mean you need to stop drinking entirely while trying to conceive? It wouldn’t hurt! But if you (like many people) find it difficult to do, enjoying one to two standard drinks occasionally is unlikely to greatly impact your cycles and fertility.

So while some aspects of fertility may be out of your control, there are many dietary and lifestyle changes that you can make to help regulate your menstrual cycle and increase your chances of regular ovulation and (fingers crossed!) pregnancy. Making small, but sustainable changes to your lifestyle each day, can make a big difference in the long run.