Irregular Periods (Oligomenorrhea)
Periods can sometimes be a real pain. They can make you feel sick. They can give you a headache. They can make your stomach ache. Yes, periods can be a real pain, and things can be even worse if they decide to become irregular. Irregular periods are one of the most common menstrual complaints around. Usually, irregular periods are nothing to worry about, but on occasion, they can signal health complications.
Before we can define an irregular period, we must first determine what a regular period is. People often say that a regular period occurs every 28 days, but actually, every woman's menstrual cycle is different. Depending on your body and your hormones, you may get your period every 20 days or your may get your period every 35 days. A good way to determine if your periods are regular is to keep a chart and count the number of days between each period. If they occur with roughly the same number of days between each cycle, then your periods are regular. A regular period typically lasts 5 days, but it is completely normal to menstruate for anywhere between 3 and 7 days.
Irregular periods aren't unusual they affect about 30% of women in their reproductive years. An irregular period is any type of bleeding that is abnormal when compared to your usual menstrual cycle. This can include a late period, an early period or bleeding between periods. It can also appear as particularly heavy bleeding (menorrhagia) or scanty bleeding. Many women also experience irregular periods in the form of a missed period, continuous periods, or periods that occur twice in one cycle.
Causes of Irregular Periods
Irregular menstrual periods are usually the result of hormonal signals that have been thrown out of sync. In order to produce a period, your body makes hormones, like estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are kept in the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries inside your body. In order to trigger ovulation and menstruation, these parts of the body need to send signals to one another. Sometimes, these signals get crossed or skipped, causing irregular periods.
But what causes these hormone signals to get out of whack? Well, there are actually a number of things that can easily cause your hormone levels to change.
- Pregnancy: If you are pregnant, your body will begin producing different levels of hormones. This will cause numerous pregnancy symptoms, including an end to your period.
- Stress: Stress is a common cause of irregular periods. If you are fatigued, worried, or anxious this can cause your hormones to become unbalanced.
- Diet: A poor diet or extreme weight loss or gain can also affect your hormones. Women with anorexia or bulimia often have no period or irregular periods.
- Exercise: Intense exercise can wreak havoc on your body, often causing irregular periods.
- Menarche: the cycles after a girl's first period may be irregular for some time. It can take up to 3 years to get regular periods.
- Menopause: Menopause causes changes in your hormone levels, and is often signaled by irregular periods.
- Hormonal Birth Control: Birth control pills and irregular periods sometimes go hand in hand. It can take a while for your body to adjust to the new levels of hormones delivered by hormonal birth control.
For most women, an irregular period is nothing to be worried about; the majority of women will eventually develop a regular cycle with regular periods. Sometimes though, underlying complications can be the cause of these period problems. If you are noticing particularly irregular periods, or have gone a year or more with missed periods, see your health care professional. If you experience extreme cramping, heavy period bleeding, dizziness, nausea, or fainting you should also visit with your health care provider.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a fairly common complication, affecting about 10% of all women. PCOS causes cysts to form on the ovaries, interfering with regular ovulation. Symptoms of this syndrome include: excessive hair growth, weight gain, acne, dandruff, high blood pressure, and infertility. If you display any of the symptoms, you may want to make an appointment to get checked for PCOS. Left untreated, it can lead to other more serious complications, including endometriosis, heart disease, and ovarian cancer.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease caus
es inflammation of the lower intestines (also known as the bowel). It is linked with irregular periods, and may also be accompanied by symptoms of weight loss, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Inflammatory bowel disease can become severe, and sometimes requires hospitalization or surgery. If you have any of these symptoms, ask your doctor to check you for inflammatory bowel disease.
Treating Irregular Periods
Depending on the cause of your irregular periods, there may or may not be much you can do about them. If you have only been experiencing irregular periods for a short time (less than 7 months), it is likely that your periods will become regular again on their own. However, if there is an underlying medical condition that is causing your irregular periods, then receiving treatment for the condition should help to get your periods back on track. If you find that irregular periods are becoming annoying, there are some things that you can try to help regulate your hormones.
- Reduce your stress levels. Take time to meditate, relax, or just hang out. This may help put your cycle back on track.
- Get help for your eating disorder. If you are anorexic, bulimic, or if you suffer from other types of disordered eating, you must seek help. Not only will these eating disorders interrupt your menstrual cycle, but they can also severely affect your liver, bowel, throat, and heart functions.
- Don't over exercise. While it is important to exercise regularly and keep fit, exercising too much can be problematic. If you are an endurance athlete, try to cut back on your training a little bit, until your irregular periods return to normal.
There are a few medical treatments which may be helpful in regulating your period:
- Hormonal Contraceptives: Hormonal contraceptives are often used to help regulate menstrual cycles. These contraceptives combine estrogen and progesterone. They are available by prescription and come in oral, patch, ring, and injectable forms. Keep in mind, however, these wil not cure an underlying problem.
- Hormone Supplements: If you have a specific hormone problem, such as overproduction of testosterone, hormonal supplements may be able to help regulate your periods. Speak with your health care provider for more information.
For more information about irregular periods, check out our menstruation forum.