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Irregular periods: What your body is trying to tell you

Sarah Kelsey is a lifestyle writer, editor and spokesperson based in Toronto. She was the editor of AOL/The Huffington Post Canada’s StyleList, Style and Living sites. Today, she's a freelancer writing for some of North America’s top pub...

Where is my period?

Women – at some point in their lives – will have a "period" moment that spawns questions. Why is my flow so heavy? Where is my period? Why am I getting my period twice in one month? Though irregular periods aren’t uncommon for many women, it’s important to understand the reasons they happen and what your body is trying to tell you.

A normal period

A woman will, on average, get her period for three to seven days once a month (every 30 days or so). After menstruating for several years, women tend to settle into a cycle; some women can even predict down to the hour when their periods will come.

The amount of blood shed during a period varies from woman to woman. Some women routinely have heavier periods (losing up to 12 teaspoons of blood each month) while others may experience a period that's almost non-existent (losing as little as four teaspoons of blood).

An irregular period

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. If you're not prone to PMS, you can also consider a period irregular if you experience heavy cramping and bloating or headaches.

The causes of irregular periods

Every woman 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.

Pregnancy

When pregnant, the female body produces different levels of hormones that causes menstruation to stop. In some cases, however, women will experience lighter-than-normal flows or late periods before menstruation ends altogether. If there's a chance you may be pregnant, speak with your doctor.

Stress

Stress is the most common cause of irregular periods. Cortisol, the stress hormone, has a direct impact on how much estrogen and progesterone, two sex hormones, gets produced by the body. If you have too much cortisol in your bloodstream, the time and flow of your cycle could change.

Diet

Another common reason for a late or missing period is the food you eat and, more specifically, the weight you're carrying. If you're eating a diet that's rich in unhealthy carbs or if you've gained weight, your body will produce varying levels of certain hormones, shifting when you ovulate. The same goes for women as they lose weight.

Exercise

Our bodies need energy to menstruate. If you're burning too much of your energy in the gym, there will be nothing left for your body to use during that time of the month.

Birth control pills

It can take several months for your body to get used to the dose of hormones birth control pills deliver.

Drinking too much alcohol

The liver helps regulate a woman's menstrual cycle by metabolizing estrogen and progesterone. Excessive drinking can cause damage to the liver and may interfere with how well it metabolizes both period-normalizing hormones.

Polycystic ovary syndrome

A fairly common complication, this condition causes cysts to form on the ovaries, interfering with regular ovulation. Other symptoms of the condition include hair growth, weight gain, dandruff and infertility. Complications include endometriosis, ovarian cancer and heart disease.

Menopause

As with pregnancy, this time of life happens when hormone levels in the body begin to shift. Irregular periods can start as early as 10 years before menopause sets in (usually when a woman is in her late 40s or early 50s).

Taking medications

If you were recently sick and had to take prescription or over-the-counter medication, your period may show up a day or two late. That's largely because most medications interfere with the way your body produces estrogen and progesterone.

Treating Irregular Periods

Depending on the cause of your irregular period, there may or may not be much you can do about it. Speak to your doctor about the symptoms you've been having and how irregular your periods have been. Your doctor may prescribe a treatment plan that includes hormonal contraceptives or supplements (both of which help regulate menstrual cycles and keep hormone levels balanced), stress-reducing activities, diet changes, and an exercise plan.

What more do you need to know about your period?

10 Tips to prevent PMS - naturally
Things that can affect your period flow
Amenorrhea: Dieting to the extreme

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