A lot of people who menstruate view their periods as yet another dreaded thing to deal with each month, but consider this: Your cycle can actually be a helpful measure of your overall health. “The menstrual cycle is a vital sign of [people’s] well-being,” says Dr. Felice Gersh, an OB-GYN and author of PCOS SOS. It can indicate new underlying health issues or the presence of chronic, long-term hormone imbalances, Dr. Gersh tells us, so it should never simply be covered up with treatments that only mask symptoms, like oral contraceptives, before you’ve identified underlying conditions. Instead, pay full attention to your period each month, monitoring the signs, symptoms, and mood changes you experience, as it’s these tiny details that help you take charge of your personal health.

If and when you start to notice shifts and broader alterations, work with an integrative doctor, nutritionist, or other specialist trained in lifestyle medicine and natural remedies to get back on track. But first, read on to find out what’s normal — and what’s not.

What’s “Normal”?

A woman holds up a menstrual calendar

“The ideal cycle is five to seven days, starts and ends with a bright, happy cranberry color, is the consistency of a Jell-O mix that hasn’t set yet (medium viscosity, not too thin and not too thick), and generally occurs every 28-30 days,” says Alisa Vitti, functional nutritionist and founder/CEO of Flo Living. However, there’s still a wide range of what’s considered “normal” in the Western medical community, and there are myriad reasons why your monthly cycle may deviate from these ranges. Sometimes things can shift for a month or two, or sometimes cycle issues can last years, Vitti tells us.

Significant deviations from these hallmarks of a normal cycle, Dr. Gersh notes, could be signs of hormonal imbalance, excessive environmental toxin exposure, high stress, lack of sleep, or nutritional deficiencies. The best way to tell if something more serious is going on is to track your cycle regularly. We love the Clue app, which has a super-smart algorithm to let you know when something’s amiss.

Signs and Solutions

A woman curls up on the sofa cradling her stomach

1. If Your Cycle Is Short and Light: Maybe you barely notice your period and it’s over before it even seems to get started. A short, light cycle is characterized by one that occurs every 24 days or fewer and lasts for only 1-2 days, and it could be a sign of low estrogen, low iron, or a thyroid issue, says Vitti. Or maybe you’re dealing with a ton of stress, hitting the gym too hard, or skipping meals — any of which can contribute to hormone imbalance or possible iron deficiency, resulting in missing a period altogether, says Rachel Fine, registered dietitian and owner of To The Pointe Nutrition, a nutrition counseling firm in NYC.

Do This: Attempt to reduce your daily stress through gentle movement (think: yoga, walking, swimming) or mindfulness or breathwork exercises. Vitti recommends increasing iron- and protein-rich foods to build up your blood — including beef, turkey, tuna, eggs, lentils, oatmeal, spinach, and pumpkin seeds — as well as seaweed and iodized salt to help support your thyroid. Incorporating phytoestrogens such as freshly ground flaxseeds (try on oatmeal or blended with butter on toast) can help boost your estrogen levels too.

2. If Your Cycle Is Long and Heavy: If you’re suffering through heavy bleeding (changing your pad or tampon more than once every couple hours), blood clots and/or severe cramping, and periods lasting longer than eight days, you could have an out-of-whack estrogen/progesterone balance, says Vitti. You also might only get your period every 35 days or longer. Get checked for estrogen dominance, endometriosis, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which are generally marked by very long, heavy cycles and often feature debilitating pain.

Do This: Increase your leafy greens intake to help your liver detox any excess estrogen, up your water intake to at least 64 ounces daily, and boost your B vitamins too (sunflower seeds, chickpeas, and lentils are a few faves). You may need specific supplementation to help correct any nutrient deficiencies — just be sure to work with your doc before starting any new supplement regimens.

3. If You Get Bad Cramps: Many experts suggest that mild cramping is expected on the first and second day of bleeding, “but it shouldn’t be disabling at any time,” says Dr. Gersh. “The period is an inflammatory event, triggered by the production of prostaglandins in the uterine cavity. The uterus does cramp and must propel the uterine contents out of the cavity, but the cramping should be only mild and short term. Excessive cramping is abnormal and a warning of possible nutritional deficiencies and an inflammatory state.”

Do This: To help stave off cramps before they start, add more magnesium to your diet, such as by increasing your intake of foods like chickpeas, nuts and seeds, and dark chocolate. Also aim to make your diet less inflammatory by removing refined flour, white sugar, alcohol, and caffeine, which will help reduce the general inflammation your body experiences on a daily basis.

4. If Your Cycle Is Inconsistent: A varied cycle that fluctuates greatly from month to month could mean that you’re stressed to the max, overworked, and not getting the rest you need. “It’s not an accident that the beautiful [menstrual] cycle is the same as a lunar month. We evolved on planet Earth, and in ancient times [people] cycled together with the phases of the moon,” Dr. Gersh claims. But in modern times, menstruation is no longer seen as a time for cocooning and rest. Being intentional about making your moon cycle a time for self-care and slowing down can bring major benefits.

Do This: Start protecting your schedule around the time of your next period, and give yourself the time and space to do what you love, like diving into a new read, finishing that knitting project, or even just going to bed super-early. Ramp up your leafy greens intake to ensure you’re getting the nutrition you need to stay balanced and grounded, and incorporate plenty of plant-based fats for healthy hormones, like olives, avocado, coconut, and nuts and seeds.

What are your best period tips? Tweet us @BritandCo.

(Photos via Getty)