What Are Irregular Periods: Causes & Treatment
Does your period occur in less than 21 days or last more than 8? You may have irregular periods. Learn about the reasons for irregular periods from WUKA.
Just like you, your period is unique and no two women will experience the exact same cycle month by month,. This is how it’s supposed to be- we’re individuals, and our bodies work differently.
Some women may have periods that arrive like clockwork every single month- they might even say they can set their watch by them. Others are less reliable and can be difficult to predict. You probably already know which descriptions best fits you and your cycle!
What is a regular period?
On average, a woman experiences her period every 24- 28 days, and it can last for anywhere between 2 to 8 days in total. Of course, from month to month the length of your cycle might vary by a day or so, and you might experience a slightly shorter gap between periods one month, but in general these variations are slight and nothing to be concerned about.
If your period falls into the every 28 days range, then it’s classed as regular.
What is considered an irregular period?
A period is classed as irregular if your cycle is less than 21 days in length, or if it lasts longer than 8 days. Your cycle is counted from the first day of menstrual bleeding (day 1) to the last day before bleeding commences again. Keeping a track of dates that your period starts can be helpful if you’re not sure whether or not your period is irregular.
Mr Narendra Pisal, consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology explains more about what is considered an irregular period:
“When it comes to the menstrual cycles, women can have quite a lot of variation. The normal gap between the first day of two consecutive cycles (also known as cycle length) can range between 21 and 42 days.
It is normal to have irregular periods during teenage years as the ovulation is still sporadic and unpredictable. It can take a few years (early 20s) for regular ovulation to establish and for periods to develop a particular pattern.
A late period is very common and often nothing to be worried about. If pregnancy is ruled out, it is OK to wait for a few more weeks before seeing a doctor. Keep a record of your period dates and any other symptoms you may have.”
Signs of Irregular periods
There are some other signs to look out for if you’re concerned about your period. These include heavy bleeding (loss of more blood than normal- if you’re suddenly having to change period protection more often, for example), less blood flow than normal, or a missed, early or late period.
Again, cycle tracking can be very helpful in trying to determine whether or not your period is irregular. Track for a few months to see if there is any kind of pattern to your cycle length or blood flow, Begin with the last day of your cycle, and end with the first day of the next one. If there’s a significant difference between the number of days between each period, then you’re experiencing irregular periods.
Is it unhealthy to have an irregular period?
If you‘re concerned about your cycle, you might be wondering what causes irregular periods and what you can do to regulate them too. Rest assured though that you’re not alone. It’s estimated that around 30% of women go though changes to their normal cycle at some point in their lives, and they can actually be caused by a wide variety of issues. And the good news is that most of these issues can be resolved without a visit to the doctor.
It is important, however, to determine the cause of irregular menstrual bleeding before deciding if it’s unhealthy or not.
Reasons for irregular periods
There are many factors that can be identified as causes of irregular, early or missed periods.
Stress is one of the major causes of irregular periods, especially among young women. and in some cases can even be responsible for missing a period altogether.
When you’re under a significant amount of stress, the body produces more cortisol to help regulate your body’s response to that stress. Cortisol also works to support your metabolism, blood pressure levels, blood sugar levels and your circadian rhythm (your sleep-wake cycle)- plus, it’s helpful in reducing inflammation in the body too. So cortisol is an important hormone in the body, as long as it’s released in normal doses. If there’s too much, important processes can be disrupted- and this includes your menstrual cycle.
If you know you need to reduce stress in your life, try to first pinpoint the triggers that make you feel anxious or overly worried. Meditation can be an amazing way to reduce stress too, and gentle exercise such as yoga is another great way to bring things into a little more balance.
Over exercising or dieting
Over exercising or dieting can place a huge strain on the body, leading to stress- which we already now know is a major cause of period disruption.
While it’s healthy to be physically active, too much exercise can have a detrimental affect on your cycle, as can extreme dieting too. Both can lead to significant weight loss, which can actually cause your period to stop altogether.
This is officially referred to as hypothalamic amenorrhea, occurring when the body is forced to reserve energy by prioritising essential functions- such as breathing and sweating- over others.
Luckily hypothalamic amenorrhea is reversible; you should speak to your GP if it's been 90 days or more since your last period.
When you gain weight, your body’s adipose tissue (fat cells) increases, and this can lead to a hormonal imbalance. Adipose tissue is responsible for producing extra oestrogen, which plays a huge role during the menstrual cycle, and this is the reason why weight gain and/ or being overweight can impact on the regularity of your cycle.
Weight gain can also lead to heavier periods, as higher levels of inflammation in the body can stop the endometrial lining from being repaired, thus leading to an increase in blood flow. If you’re concerned about weight gain and how it’s affecting your cycle, speak to a GP about the safest ways to lose weight.
The oral contraceptive pill can also cause you to miss periods and render your cycle irregular, especially when your first start taking it. The pill can also make your period lighter, or stop them completely.
Mr Pisal at London Gynaecology adds though, that for most women this isn’t the case when they take the contraceptive pill:
“The ‘pill’ usually has a positive effect on the menstrual cycle. It makes the cycle regular and periods less heavy and less painful. Hence, the pill is often used as a therapeutic intervention for conditions such as endometriosis, heavy or painful periods.
But Mr Pisal does observe that “occasionally it [ the pill] can lead to break-through bleeding between periods. The Injection Pill, Implant and mini pill all contain progesterone and often lead to absence of periods. Irregular unpredictable bleeding is a known side-effect.”
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is a hormonal disorder that causes your body to produce more androgen (male hormones) at a higher rate than normal. These hormonal imbalances can trigger changes in your normal cycle, causing you to skip periods and making it difficult to get pregnant.
Other symptoms of PCOS include excessive hair growth on the face, chest or back, weight gain, thinning hair or hair loss from the head, oily skin and acne. Doctors don';t know for sure what causes PCOS, but studies have shown that it’s related to high levels of insulin in the body.
Being overweight or obese can also increase levels of insulin, so following a healthy lifestyle can help massively if you’re dealing with PCOS.
Mr Pisal at London Gynaecology also advises:
“Polycystic ovaries are common and occur in around 22% of women. Some women with polycystic ovaries can also have anovulation (lack of ovulation) and this can lead to a late or missed period. A scan and blood tests may be necessary to make this diagnosis.”
Uterine fibroids can be another cause of irregular periods, often leading to heavy bleeding and intense cramping.
Fibroids are non-cancerous growths made up of muscle and fibrous tissue, found growing in or around the uterus. Experts believe they’re more likely to grow when levels of oestrogen in the body are at the highest, and they’re less likely to occur after menopause.
Many women with fibroids experience bleeding between periods, frequent urination, lower back or pelvis pain, pain during sex and longer, heavier periods than normal. If you’re concerned about uterine fibroids, speak to your doctor about potential treatment options available to you.
Endometriosis is a very painful disorder that occurs when the lining of the uterus begins to grow elsewhere in the body- such as the fallopian tubes, pelvis or lower abdomen. Because the uterus lining is made up of endometrial tissue, designed to thicken, break down and bleed out during your cycle, this is what does, despite being in the wrong place. The result is that the discarded tissue is unable to leave the body, so becomes trapped, leading to irritation and potentially the development of scar tissue and adhesions.
Endometriosis symptoms can vary- and some women experience them a lot more intensely than others. Most women experience irregular periods, and some will also suffer with cramps before and during they period too.
If you suspect that endometriosis might be the cause of your irregular periods, it’s really important to speak to a doctor so that you can get treatment quickly, before it develops further.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
PID is a bacterial infection that’s passed on via sexual contact and its symptoms include a heavy and unpleasant smelling discharge, pain in the pelvis and lower abdomen, fever, nausea and changes to your normal menstrual cycle.
Speak to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms and are experiencing heavier than normal periods, along with bleeding between periods.
Irregular sleep patterns
The amount of sleep you get each might can also affect your hormones, leading to irregular periods, When you sleep, your body uses that time to repair itself, but if your sleep cycle is irregular this can all be disrupted.
Lack of sleep leads to a boost in cortisol, which as mentioned above can lead to irregular periods. A recent study found that women who got less than 6 hours sleep per night were 44% more likely to have an irregular period, and 70% more likely to experience heavy bleeding.
Lack of sleep can also lead a worsening of PMS symptoms and a dip in mood too- so it’s a really good idea to do as much as you can to maintain good sleep hygiene habits. Mind has some great tips on improving your sleep habits.
When you first start your period as a teenager, it may not be on the same schedule every month. In fact, it may take a while to settle down into a regular cycle- and this is normal.
The same happens for women when they reach menopause too, with many reporting missed, lighter or heavier periods than normal.
This is likely nothing to be worried about, but keep tracking if you’re concerned.
Other factors that can trigger irregular bleeding or heavy periods includes having an Intrauterine Device (IUD), breastfeeding, being pregnant, or experiencing thickening of the uterine lining.
How are irregular periods diagnosed?
If your period has suddenly become irregular, or if there is a very big difference between your shortest and longest cycle, or if you’re trying to get pregnant, your doctor might refer you to a gynaecologist who can do tests to find out what’s happening.
Your doctor will ask you to keep track of your cycle and to report on signs and symptoms that you feel are not usual during menstruation. If you’re going through puberty or you’ve always had slightly unpredictable periods, the chances are high that all is well, but it’s always a good idea to check just in case.