Irregular Menstrual Cycles & What Causes Them
Can you remember when your last period was and how long it lasted? If not, it may be time to take notice starting with tracking your menstrual cycle and identifying important changes. While irregular cycles are sometimes nothing to worry about, they can sometimes signal health problems that you and your gynecologist should be aware of.
What is a menstrual cycle?A menstrual cycle is a series of changes that a woman’s body goes through monthly preparing for the possibility of pregnancy. Every month, the ovaries release an egg in a process called ovulation. At the same time, hormonal changes in the body prepare the uterus for pregnancy. If ovulation occurs but the egg goes unfertilized, the lining of the uterus sheds out of the vagina. This entire process is called a menstrual cycle. Menstrual cycles can occur every 21 to 35 days and last from two to seven days. Comparing your menstrual cycle to another woman’s will not give you an accurate sense of what’s regular or irregular; it’s comparing your own cycles that will confirm regularity. Does your cycle come about the same time and length each month or is it somewhat inconsistent? Is your cycle light or heavy? Painful or painless? Do they last two days or seven? What we refer to as “normal” is what’s normal for you. Bear in mind that the use of some methods of contraception, such as birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs), can alter your menstrual cycle. Your gynecologist can give you a better sense of what to expect.
How should I track my menstrual cycle?To figure out what a normal menstrual cycle looks like for you, you should start keeping track of it. There are countless apps on the market that allow you to track your cycle on your phone or you can use a calendar. Start by tracking the start date several months in a row to get a sense of the regularity of your menstrual cycles. You can also make a note of the following:
- End date: How long do your menstrual cycles typically last?
- Abnormal bleeding: Are you bleeding in between your menstrual cycles?
- Pain: Does the pain feel worse than usual? Is there pain in a different area than usual?
- Flow: Record the heaviness of your flow. Have you noticed blood clots? Does your flow seem lighter or heavier than usual? How often do you find that you need to change your feminine hygiene products?
- Any other changes: Have you noticed a change in mood or behavior during your cycle?
What’s causing my irregular menstrual cycles?
- Pregnancy or breastfeeding: A missed menstrual cycle may be an early sign of pregnancy. Some women may experience lighter than usual or late cycles before their menstruation cycle ends altogether. Breastfeeding generally delays the return of menstruation after pregnancy.
- Stress: The hormone caused by stress, cortisol, directly impacts the amount of estrogen and progesterone the female body produces. Too much cortisol that comes along with high-stress levels will change the time and flow of your menstrual cycle.
- Birth control pills: Your body may take several months to get used to the hormones that birth control pills add to your body which will then affect your menstrual cycle.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Women with this endocrine system disorder have enlarged cysts form on the ovaries. The presence of these cysts can cause irregular menstrual cycles.
- Extreme weight loss and excessive exercising: A woman’s body needs energy in order to menstruate. If too much of that energy is being used up at the gym, her menstrual cycles may become irregular. Low body weight is also a common cause of missed or irregular cycles.
- Pre-Menopause: As much as 10 years before the start of menopause, a woman may start to experience irregular cycles as her hormone levels have already started to change.