If you’re actively trying to get pregnant, you might rejoice at the thought of skipping a period. But if you’re not, and your period is MIA or very late one month, it can send you into a full-blown anxiety spiral. Noticing that your menstrual cycle has suddenly stopped or gone off its usual schedule raises a lot of questions, including why your period is late or not showing up at all.
For people with periods, paying close attention to our cycles helps us stay in tune with what our body is trying to communicate. A missed period can be a signal that something else is going on with our body that we need to look into, or it can be as simple as a disruption in your normal schedule, such as a shift in your time zone for a period of time. It can be worth doing a mental self-check about any changes you’ve experienced lately and talking to a doctor about those factors that might be causing irregular periods on a long-term basis.
A normal period vs. an irregular period
Everyone’s period will be slightly different in length, but there is a general baseline for the menstrual cycle. “The monthly menstrual cycle typically occurs every 28 days, is controlled by various hormones and is a key function of the female body,” Dr. Sherry Ross, MD, OB-GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SheKnows. “Your period may begin around 11 or 12 years of age, lasts 2 to 7 days and continues until your reach menopause, which typically occurs around 51 years old.”
Ross continues: “Ovulation is an important part of the menstrual cycle and occurs around Day 14, when an ovarian follicle produces an egg, which can be fertilized by sperm. The egg is only available to be fertilized for 24 hours before it disintegrates. Once you have ovulated and not fertilized an egg, your period will occur, which is typically 14 days later.”
The amount of blood shed during a period varies from person to person too. Some people who menstruate routinely have heavier periods (losing up to 12 teaspoons of blood each month) while others may experience a period that’s almost nonexistent (losing as little as four teaspoons of blood).
If you’ve been menstruating for a while, your body will get into a period flow, which is why an irregular period is usually defined as any type of bleeding that’s abnormal when compared to your last few menstrual cycles. It can include everything from a late period to early bleeding, and scant bleeding to extremely heaving bleeding. For many individuals, this can even mean an absent period (amenorrhea) or two periods in one month (metrorrhagia). Two periods in one month, or a period every two weeks, are thought to be caused by an imbalance in estrogen and progesterone and may require a trip to the gynecologist’s office, since this much bleeding can induce anemia.
And if you’re not prone to PMS, you can also consider a period irregular if you experience heavy cramping and bloating or headaches.
The many causes of irregular periods
Every person who menstruates will experience an irregular period from time to time, and though in most cases they aren’t dangerous, it’s important to figure out what’s causing the irregularity. Here are a few common reasons you may be experiencing an abnormal flow.
Affecting up to 5 million people with uteruses in the U.S., this condition causes cysts to form on the ovaries, interfering with regular ovulation. Other potential symptoms of PCOS include hair growth, weight gain, dandruff, and symptoms of infertility.
While Thompson reminds us that PCOS is far more complicated than a missed period, she says that anovulation (absence of ovulation) is one of the hallmarks of the disorder. “If the egg is not released from the ovary, the progesterone withdrawal never occurs, so the uterine lining never sheds. The lining can build under the continuous influence of estrogen until it can no longer sustain itself, then a heavy and lengthy period can result,” she explains.
Ever skipped a period (or had your period arrive late) when you took a vacation and stayed in that time zone for a while? There’s a reason for this. According to research published in the Clinical Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, your menstrual cycle affects and is affected by your circadian rhythms, a.k.a. the body’s regular internal clock that controls its sleep-wake cycle. So any disruptions in the circadian rhythms, like a trip to Australia, which could confuse your body as to whether it’s day or night and bring on jet lag, could then cause changes in your period’s normal schedule.
Treating irregular periods
One irregular period is not usually something you have to worry about (unless of course, you think you’re possibly pregnant and don’t want to be). But in general, getting a period regularly is a sign of good health. “Unfortunately, not having a period is not how our bodies are meant to function from a hormonal perspective. When you get a period each month, this suggests your hormones are balanced,” says Ross. “There is something magical when your body is in sync hormonally. When your periods are monthly, a lot of women feel more emotionally and physically balanced.”
If you are not getting your period for more than six months, Ross advises, it’s important you visit your health care provider for a general workup. If you are having irregular periods, there are treatment options available for you. Hormonal options, such as the birth control pill or progesterone, are typically used to regulate and balance out your periods, she says. She also suggests trying acupressure or a homeopathic alternative to try to regulate your menstrual cycle, but hormones tend to work best.”
And as the rule goes with most health concerns, if something doesn’t feel right, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for help. Ross says, “Always better safe than sorry, especially with irregular periods.”
A version of this article was originally published in October 2014.
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