Periods can bring a lot of unexpected surprises, like unusually heavy flows, mind-numbing cramps, or the urge to eat salted dark chocolate in your bed and watch Love Island (been there). One thing we often expect, however, is that we will experience our period monthly. The average menstruating person experiences their period 11 to 13 times a year, and often experience it around the same time each month. So what happens when your period starts popping up at different times, or you’re missing your period all together?
An irregular period (more formally known as amenorrhea) stems from an imbalance of hormones, and can be attributed to an array of factors. “One missed or late period is usually nothing to worry about, as long as it returns to monthly,” explains Dr. Sara Twogood, a Los Angeles-based OBGYN. However, if it’s consistently irregular, she encourages people to do some investigating as to why. “Irregular periods can seem normal to some people because that's the way their period has been their entire menstruating life, but I would recommend evaluation,” she recommends. Here are some common reasons for irregular periods, as well as tips for what you can do to get back on track.
Meet the Expert
Sara Twogood, MD is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, working and living in Los Angeles for more than a decade. She did her internship and residency at Los Angeles County and University of Southern California and subsequently practiced medicine at Keck Medicine of USC while serving as an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She is a Los Angeles Magazine "Top Doctor" and has a passion for educating the public about female health and wellness.
Stress can be a common factor in everyday life, but if it’s not treated or addressed properly, our body can respond in a multitude of ways, including irregular periods. Severe stress can repress the functions of the hypothalamus, a region in the brain that sends messages to the pituitary gland. This gland controls several hormonal glands in our body, including the ovaries. Think of stress as the first domino in a long row, once it tips over, it can result in a chain reaction that affects different parts of your body. If stress is affecting your periods, make a plan to keep your stress levels down. Whether that includes taking a run every day or seeing a weekly therapist—find a way to manage through actions that best fit your needs.
Do you remember the first year or two of your period? For many people, early periods are inconsistent in flow, the cycle length, and when it arrives. Experiencing irregular periods early on is common, as the body is adjusting to the period cycle and will, in time, establish a reliable, monthly pattern. Just as our bodies experience irregularity in our first few years of menstruating, we could see the same symptoms in our final menstruating years as well. Menopause often begins after one year of not experiencing a period cycle. Even if you feel confident that menopause is the cause of your irregular period, it’s still encouraged to discuss with your doctor in case there are any other potential factors.
While the primary function of birth control is often to prevent pregnancy, it’s also commonly used to balance hormones for those who are looking for regular, less severe periods, or for those who don’t want to experience a monthly period altogether. If you’re experiencing unexpected irregular periods and think it may be your birth control, talk to your doctor about the side effects of your contraceptive and if it’s the best choice for you. Between oral contraceptives, IUDs, implants, and more, we have lots of options to find a birth control that works with our bodies and not against it.
There are an array of personal factors that could be attributed to your irregular periods, including rapid weight loss or weight gain, excessive or increased exercise, alternative drug use, eating disorders, and stress-related sleep deprivation, among others. If you’ve experienced any lifestyle changes like the mentioned examples, consult your doctor and discuss what changes to make to get yourself regular again.
A clean, balanced diet (free of processed, high-sugar, and fried foods) is ideal for regular hormone production, and, in turn, a regular period.
Underlying Medical Conditions
An underlying medical condition, including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or hypothyroidism, could be causing the irregularity. PCOS is a hormonal disorder in which the ovaries can develop follicles and stop releasing eggs. The symptoms for PCOS are most commonly irregular and/or heavier periods, but could also prompt severe acne or hair loss. Through a doctor's recommendation and guidance, your treatment could include a hormone balancing birth control or prescribed medication. Hypothyroidism, also known as an under-active thyroid, is caused by your thyroid gland not producing enough hormones. Symptoms, along with irregular periods, could be a significant weight gain, extreme fatigue, constipation, or cold sensitivity. It can be treated by oral supplements that help restore the sufficient level of hormones.