A regular period is a sign of overall good health. If it doesn’t arrive when it should, we worry. Most women experience some variability in their menstrual cycles. How familiar are you with yours?
Apart from pregnancy, there are a number of things that can affect the rhythm of your menstrual cycle, such as certain medical conditions, medications, stress, working too hard, over-exercising, and drastic weight loss or weight gain.
The menstrual cycle is a series of changes a woman’s body goes through every month in preparation for the possibility of pregnancy. Once a month, one of a woman’s two ovaries releases a mature egg (in rare cases, two or three). This process is called ovulation.
If ovulation takes place but the egg isn’t fertilized, the lining of the uterus gradually sheds and is pushed out through the cervical opening via muscle contractions. This is the menstrual period—the first day of bleeding marks the first day of the cycle. The average cycle lasts for 21–35 days, and the average period lasts for 3–5, although periods anywhere from 2 to 7 days long are also considered normal. Young girls just starting their periods often have irregular cycles, but the rhythm tends to normalise with age.
Track your cycle to understand the average length and variability of your periods. Changes will become easier to manage.
If your period is late, try to remain calm. Stress and excitement may delay your period further. When you experience constant or excessive stress, your body produces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Adrenaline gives you energy, while cortisol increases brain function and tells your body to slow down or stop nonessential functions in order to conserve energy. Stress can suppress the reproductive system—if cortisol signals the brain to stop producing progesterone and estrogen, the menstrual cycle cannot occur.
Each woman responds to stress differently. For some, anxiety and worry can cause early bleeding, “spotting” or bleeding between periods, milder periods, or even more intense periods. Minor unpleasantries—a tense conversation or breaking your favorite coffee cup—are unlikely to affect the reproductive functions of your body, but the loss of a loved one or long, hard hours at work can leave an impact, and not just on your menstrual cycle: headaches, sleep disorders, muscle pain, and an upset stomach can all be caused by stress.
If you are of reproductive age and sexually active, a late or missed period may be a sign of pregnancy. Other early signs of pregnancy include:
If you suspect you are pregnant, take a pregnancy test.
You should wait until a week after your missed period to take the test for the most accurate result. If you wish to be sure, you can take another test two or three days later.
Note that many of the symptoms associated with pregnancy can also be attributed to premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. However, if they persist or your period doesn’t reappear, a visit to your doctor is in order as this can also be a sign of health problems.
Losing a little weight probably won’t affect your menstrual cycle. Moderate weight loss can actually improve general health and normalise the rhythm of the menstrual cycle—in the case of polycystic ovary syndrome, for example.
Drastic weight loss can have a negative effect on reproductive system as it affects the body’s hormonal balance.
The hormone leptin is produced by fatty tissue. If leptin levels suddenly drop, this is a clear signal to the body that it is going through tough times and this is not the right moment for pregnancy as lack of nutrition increases the chances of it failing.
All processes related to fertility and conception, including the menstrual period, slow down or stop to prioritise survival. People suffering from anorexia and athletes with very low body fat often have irregular cycles or have no periods at all.
Starting, changing, or stopping the use of hormonal contraception directly affects your cycle. Some types of birth control will make your periods milder or stop them altogether. Your periods may be irregular for the first few months as your body adapts to a new hormonal rhythm. Use birth control for at least one full month before you start having unprotected sex. When you stop using hormonal birth control your body will also need to readjust.
Your period may be delayed or absent during travel, especially during long trips that include international flights and changing time zones—disruption of the circadian rhythm is also associated with disturbances in menstrual function. Research shows that women who work rotating shifts are more likely to report menstrual irregularity and longer menstrual cycles.
All endocrine organs are responsible for normal menstruation. If you have severe changes in the thyroid or adrenal glands, menstrual bleeding may not occur.
Increased body temperature can affect the functioning of the ovaries and reduce the effectiveness of hormonal contraception.
Fear of pregnancy or excessive focus on conception can become a psychological barrier to the normal functioning of the menstrual cycle.
There are changes in the menstrual cycle as menopause approaches. The majority of women stop menstruating between ages 45 and 55, and the cycle starts to fluctuate a couple of years before that. As long as you’re having periods, pregnancy is still possible. If you wish to avoid it, continue to use contraception until you’ve had no periods for an entire year.
If you have concerns about your menstrual cycle, we encourage you to track your period and familiarize yourself with the changes your body goes through. Talking to your GP or gynecologist is always an option, and it’s better to address a troubling issue than to worry about it.
The more about how your body responds to different situations, the more comfortable you will be managing your period. Don’t be afraid to get to know yourself better.
You can track your period using WomanLog. Download WomanLog now: