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Why your period is heavy, erratic, or missing altogether …and what to do about it
Wouldn’t it be great if you could circle a date on your calendar and have your period actually show up then? You’d plan exotic holidays around it and you’d never be caught without a tampon. Unfortunately, a little variation is typical: The average cycle is 28 days—that’s 28 days between the first day of one period and the first day of your next period—but anywhere in between 24 and 31 days is considered normal. Still, a highly irregular period is usually a sign that something else isn’t right in your body. Take note of the things that could be messing with your menstrual cycle, and see your doc if anything seems too far off.
Heard of marathon runners losing their periods? It’s not a myth: frequent rigorous exercise combined with low body fat puts stress on your body, and this stress tells your brain to stop producing reproductive hormones. Since you can’t nourish a baby under extreme stress, your body temporarily shuts down the production of fertility hormones. One study found that half of exercising women experience subtle menstrual irregularity. A period that arrives a few days off schedule is nothing to worry about, but see your doctor if you haven›t had your period for longer than three months. It’s a condition called amenorrhea, and it can compromise your bone density long-term.
Carrying extra pounds does more than sabotage your skinny jeans. Excess fat cells result in elevated levels of estrogen, which can ultimately stop your ovaries from releasing an egg. Meanwhile, the endometrial lining continues to thicken. Obese women usually experience heavy, infrequent, longer-lasting periods. If you’re overweight and experiencing these symptoms, don’t just stock up on “super” tampons. Having too much estrogen for an extended period of time increases your risk of endometrial cancer. If you can’t seem to drop pounds, talk to your gynecologist about going on the pill. Birth control thins out your endometrial lining, decreasing your risk for endometrial cancer.
Your body has the opposite reaction when you’re underweight; it doesn’t produce enough estrogen. And you need adequate levels of estrogen to build your uterine lining and have a period. Still, if you’ve always weighed less than average, this might not be a problem. You’re more likely to notice a difference if you’ve lost a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. If you’ve dropped serious pounds, but you’re still within a healthy range, your body should adjust within a few months.
Taking prescription drugs
Any medication that involves hormones—like thyroid medication (and thyroid problems in general), steroids, or antipsychotics (which release a hormone, dopamine)—can influence your period. The first thing you should know is that hormones don’t act in isolation. All hormones circulate throughout your bloodstream, so they’re all connected, even if they’re produced in different glands. Plus, some hormone receptors look a lot like other hormone receptors, so a drug can easily mistake its target hormone, affecting a fertility hormone as well as the intended thyroid hormone, for example. Don’t panic if your cycle is a couple days off, but see your doc if your period is consistently over a week early or late.
Working with pesticides
Pesticides mimic hormones. They compete with and block the hormones in your body, making it difficult for your endocrine system to function properly. One study found that women living on farms that used pesticides had longer cycles and more missed periods than women who lived on pesticide-free farms. What’s more, those who were exposed to hormonally active pesticides were 60 to 100% more likely to have long cycles, missed periods and spotting. Limit your exposure any way you can. Even choosing organic food at the supermarket helps.
Feeling stressed out
Evolutionarily speaking, times of high stress aren’t conducive to bringing a baby into the world, and a regular cycle is designed to do just that. That explains why stressed out women were less likely to conceive than their more zen counterparts in a Human Reproduction study.
Many people go on birth control pills to make their periods regular. But it takes your body a few months to adjust. As the lining of your uterus gradually becomes thinner, you may see some spotting in between periods. Give your birth control two to three months before giving up in the name of irregularly. Then, if you still see spotting, make sure you’re taking the pill at the exact same time every day. The pill stabilizes the lining of your uterus, but the lining needs a steady supply of hormones in order to stay put. That’s why you bleed when you take the placebo pills at the end of the month—there’s nothing stabilizing the lining anymore. If you wait longer than 24 hours before taking your next pill—say you usually take it at 10:00am every day, and you suddenly take it at 1:00pm one day—you may notice some unexpected spotting.
While you probably expect your periods to become less frequent as you approach menopause, it can throw some surprises at you. Thanks to shifts in your hormones, your cycle gets shorter before it gets longer. Then, at a certain point, the number of eggs in your ovaries declines such that your periods are infrequent. Unfortunately, that means you’ll need to put up with more frequent periods before you can start saying goodbye for good. Until menopause comes, may we suggest stocking up on chocolate and keeping an emergency tampon in your purse?
You know skimping on sleep can make you feel off, but subpar slumber patterns can throw off your cycle, too. In fact, people who work irregular hours (like nurses and flight attendants) are more likely to experience irregular periods. Shifting your body clock affects your reproductive hormones, which influence ovulation and menstruation. Plus, irregular sleeping patterns make your melatonin levels wonky (melatonin has been shown to affect reproduction and menstruation in animals).