Should You Be Freaked By Your Irregular Period?

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We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: what causes irregular periods and when to worry.

Q: My period started being irregular this year. Like, one month my cycle will be 26 days long, but then the next month it will be 40, the next 35, etcetera. I know that there are some reasons why irregular periods signal unhealthy things or the obvious (pregnancy), but I feel like this is just the way I am right now. I feel otherwise pretty healthy. Is there anything I should be worried about if my period is always kind of irregular?

A: A normal menstrual cycle is 28 days on average, with the concept of “normal” extending seven days in each direction, making the average cycle anywhere from 21 to 35 days. Anywhere outside of that is deemed “irregular,” but what does that even mean? You’re totally right to ask: if everything else is feeling OK with you, is having a period that comes and goes at a less regular schedule something to worry about? Especially when this “irregularity” is so common — at least 30 percent of humans with menstrual cycles have irregular cycles sometime during their lives, and basically no one gets their cycle exactly the same number of days apart each month.

Lots of totally normal things (by which I mean things you don’t need to go to the doctor to take care of) can cause your period to be irregular. Some culprits, however, may be cause for concern.

1. Stress

Stress is the most common reason why people have irregular periods. You can thank cortisol, the hormone that floods your body every time you’re feeling stressed. This hormone interferes with your normal hormone balance, specifically impacting how much estrogen and progesterone your body makes. These are two of the main hormones that dictate your menstrual cycle, so if you’re stressed and you have lots of cortisol in your system, this can cause your period to come late or be skipped.

2. Weight Changes

Did you know that your weight helps dictate your hormones? If your body is too low in fat (under 17 to 22 percent) your body will stop focusing so much on maintaining your menstrual cycle, because you need to be at a certain level of health for it to make sense for you to make a baby. This is why a lot of athletes stop getting their period, and also why those on extreme diets or struggling with eating disorders can have irregular or no periods.

On the flip side, if you gain a significant amount of weight, that will also affect your body’s hormone production, which can also mess with your period.

3. Irregular Sleep Patterns

Sleep is super important for lots of things like giving your body time to repair itself and being able to function in the world as not a zombie, but you might not know that the amount of sleep you get each night also affects your hormone production. Specifically, the regularity of your sleep cycle affects the hormone leptin, which in turn affects ovulation. Most healthcare providers say that you need eight to 10 hours of sleep per night on average to keep your hormones in balance and, as a result, your cycle regular.

4. Hormonal Birth Control

If you’re on hormonal birth control, your periods can start to get lighter or even go away altogether. This is a perk for lots of people, but if you don’t know it’s coming it can be an alarming side effect. Also, if you go on a hormonal birth control, your body can take a few months to get used to these new levels of hormones, which can mean irregular periods. Finally, if you just stopped using a hormonal method of birth control, it can take your body several months to get back to its normal rhythm. During that time, your period could be irregular.

5. Other Medications

Besides hormonal birth control, there are other medications that can mess with your cycle. Common meds including ibuprofen, naproxen, asprin, and coumadin can interfere with your body’s estrogen and progesteron production, which we now know can cause your period to become irregular.

6. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS for short, is when you get tiny cysts on your ovaries. This medical condition is pretty common, with around 5 million people in the United States dealing with it. These cysts not only interfere with your normal ovulation cycles and cause irregular periods, but they can cause infertility, weight gain, and increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. So if you think you might have this condition, definitely talk to your doctor to get treatment.

7. Thyroid Disorders

Your thyroid controls how your cells metabolize energy, which in turn affects your temperature and the rate of your heartbeat. Thyroid disorders can go in either direction — with hypothyroidism, your thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone, and with hyperthyroidism, it’s just the opposite, with your gland overproducing this hormone. If you have hypothyroidism, your body slows down and you can feel sluggish. If you’re dealing with hyperthyroidism, your body speeds up and you can feel nervous and anxious. You can also have trouble sleeping or lose weight.

If your body has too much or too little thyroid hormone, it can also cause your period to be irregular. So if in addition to an irregular period you are either feeling too slow or too fast, ask your doctor to check out your thyroid.

8. Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a condition in which the lining of the uterus grows outside of the uterus. This situation can cause significant pelvic pain, infertility, and irregular periods. In fact, having an irregular period is the most common symptom of endometriosis. This happens because since the endometrial tissue (aka the lining of the uterus) isn’t where it’s supposed to be, it isn’t regulated by the body in the same way. Some people with endometriosis experience spotting between periods. At least for right now, endometriosis can only truly be diagnosed through exploratory surgery, so if you think you have this condition, talk to your gynecologist to get checked out.

9. Certain Sexually Transmitted Diseases

If your period starts getting shorter than usual or you’re experiencing bleeding between periods, the culprit could also be a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Specifically, chlamydia and gonorrhea are two bacterial STDs that can infect the uterus. If they cause inflammation there, it can result in more frequent periods. Luckily, it’s easy to test for and treat these STDs, so if you think you might be at risk, go get tested so you can get the care you need.

The Bottom Line

Many of the culprits that can make your period irregular are things many of us have to deal with often — like stress, or not getting enough sleep. If you can somehow regulate your period amidst all of these everyday challenges, I commend you! But if you are experiencing an irregular period and it’s not due to one of the more serious medical concerns we just learned about, it may just be a symptom of living life as an active human. Definitely don’t let it stress you out (because now we know that will only make it worse).

If your irregular period is annoying you — it is nice to know when to wear your new white lacies and when to reach for your THINX — and de-stressing, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough sleep isn’t helping, there are other things you can do. You can talk to your gynecologist about getting on hormonal birth control, which will regulate your cycle for you. Acupuncture, acupressure, and herbs can also help. Basically, do what you need to make your cycle work for your life. Good luck!

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