Women typically get their periods every 28 to 35 days. But your cycle may get thrown off sometimes ― and you might find yourself stressing out about it. So what’s the deal?
“It isn’t normal, but quite common for menstrual cycles to be late,” said Felice Gersh, an OB/GYN and the founder and director of the Integrative Medical Practice of Irvine in California. Your cycle being off is essentially your body’s way of informing you that “something is amiss with your health.”
“The menstrual cycle is a vital sign of health for a reproductive aged female and whenever it becomes irregular, it’s a big red flag to take stock of your health and your lifestyle habits,” she said.
So what are some things that could be behind your period being late? And should you be concerned? Here’s what you should know:
How Late Is Late?
Your period can be off by about a week before it’s considered late.
Most women tend to have menstrual cycles that stay around the same length, said Ann Mullen, director of health education at Cycle Technologies, which offers educational program resources in the reproductive health, family planning and global health field.
But, she said, it can be perfectly fine to have up to a week of variation in cycle length.
“If someone had a 25-day cycle one month, it would be considered normal if that person had a 30- or 31-day cycle the next,” she said. A period might be considered late if it comes eight or more days after it was expected.
Many Factors Are At Play
There are several things that could cause your period to be delayed or temporarily stop. They include:
Pregnancy: This is the first thing that you should rule out when you miss a period.
Age: “Adolescents and [almost] menopausal women often experience irregular cycles because hormonal regulation is not steady,” Mueller said.
Adolescents’ bodies are getting started on their reproductive years, meaning hormone production takes a while to become regular. And estrogen levels begin to decline in women about to go through menopause, which can cause both early and late periods.
Stress: Prolonged stress can definitely delay your cycle, said Adi Davidov, the interim chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Staten Island University Hospital. The physiological mechanisms that cause this either stem from your brain’s pituitary gland or your ovaries.
Early pregnancy loss: “Some women become pregnant and have a spontaneous miscarriage,” Mullen said.
A woman might not even be aware she’s pregnant when she experiences a spontaneous miscarriage, which often resembles a late, usually heavy period.
Your weight: Specifically, being underweight can affect your reproductive function.
“When the body’s percentage fat dips to a low level, it can disrupt normal estrogen production,” Mullen said. “This can cause periods to be late or cease altogether.”
Your body mass index, which is a measure of how much fat is on your body, could play a role in your cycle. A “healthy BMI” is anything between 18.5 and 24.9, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. A BMI under 18.5 could contribute to missing periods.
Fibroids: Fibroids, which are abnormal growths that can develop on the uterus, can disrupt a menstrual cycle.
“This delay occurs because fibroids are benign tumors that sit in the muscle of the uterus and do not allow the uterus to function normally,” said Paramjit “Romi” Chopra, director of the Midwest Institute of Minimally Invasive Therapies and an associate professor of radiology at Rush University in Chicago.
Hormonal birth control: “Birth control automatically changes and disrupts your cycle,” Gersh said. “That is its purpose.”
She noted that period changes on “so-called hormonal contraception” are “all fake” and have no bearing on your true hormone-production potential. Starting a new form of birth control or getting on it for the first time can cause your cycle to take a while to find its new normal.
Underlying health conditions: “Illness such as mononucleosis, colds and flu, and strep infections can impact your cycle,” Gersh said. “Basically, anything which has a health impact has the potential to affect your cycle, delaying the onset of the period.”
But a delayed period could also be linked to a more chronic condition, she said, such as a hormonal imbalances involving the thyroid or polycystic ovary syndrome, knowns as PCOS.
Getting Your Period Back On Track
“To have a nice, regular cycle, you must take care of your health,” Gersh said.
She recommends eating a well-balanced diet with a focus on nonprocessed foods, prioritizing eight hours of sleep a night, exercising regularly and implementing a stress-management program as part of your everyday routine.
Gersh added that women approaching menopause should work even harder to lead the healthiest lifestyle possible, as the menopausal transition “heralds many health changes women much face and doing all you can to stay healthy is of paramount importance for the rest of your life.”
Davidov said most doctors don’t recommend investigating a single late period, but he recommended keeping track of your cycle and seeing a doctor if it continues to be abnormal.
“Not having a period for three months, having fewer than nine menstrual cycles per year, or having a cycle length greater than 35 days does require investigation,” he said.
It’s important to rule out predisposing factors that cause irregular menstruation, such as an untreated thyroid disorder or PCOS. Women who have PCOS can help regularize their menstrual cycle by taking oral contraceptive pills, which can also reduce the risk of certain cancers, Davidov said.
“Just remember that the menstrual cycle is a good marker of female health,” Gersh said. “If you have irregular or frequent late periods, start looking at all aspects of your lifestyle and make appropriate changes.”
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