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What can affect your menstrual cycle?

Your menstrual cycle can tell you a great many things about your health and keeping on top of patterns is certainly important. However, it is a misconception that a menstrual cycle is a perfectly predictable part of someone’s life. Even without contributing factors, a person’s menstrual cycle can fluctuate between 21 to 35 days and even an “irregular cycle” isn’t necessarily something to worry about if that is what is normal for you.

Figuring out what is normal for each and every individual is the first step to a healthy relationship with your menstrual cycle. However, there are certain factors that can affect this routine, regular or irregular, and may cause concern. Cycles can change over long periods of time as well as over the course of just a few weeks depending on your life circumstances and as such, it is always helpful to be aware as to what can cause these fluctuations.

Mental health 

We like to think that our physical and mental health are somehow independent of each other, but this is simply not the case. These days there are so many mental health strains on everyday life, whether it’s work, school, or even dealing with the repercussions of the global pandemic. Several studies have shown that anxiety may be on the rise as a whole over the course of the last few decades for various reasons and this is certainly having an effect on our physical health. 

There is a strong biological link specifically between stress and irregular or altered menstrual cycles. When we feel stressed, whether that is positive stress (i.e, lifting something heavy or taking part in an activity we find pleasantly challenging) or negative connotations of stress, such as a deadline at work, we experience an increase in a number of hormones, including the typical “stress” hormone called cortisol. These hormones are known to physically suppress normal levels of reproductive hormones and even cause irregular ovulation patterns. 

Not only can stress affect how regular your cycle is, but it is also able to affect its length. Studies have shown that shorter cycles have been linked to high stress jobs, such as nursing. These symptoms do not always make themselves apparent immediately and may even take years to fully show themselves. As a result, people may not even recognise that stress is actually affecting what their “normal” cycle length looks like.

Of course, most people will not leave a high stress job simply for the sake of regulating their period, especially if it is one they enjoy. However, if you feel as though stress is negatively affecting your cycle and causing disruptions to your life, it may be worth considering anti stress techniques such as meditation. 

Medicine 

Medicine can have a whole host of side effects on our bodies. Many of us may not even realise we are experiencing them, seeing as they can often seem like side effects of everyday life – headaches, tiredness, trouble sleeping being just a few common examples. Menstrual irregularity is certainly not excluded from this list. 

Unfortunately, many medicines that aid with mental health, such as antidepressants, antianxiety and anti ADHD medication can cause fluctuations in someone’s menstrual cycle. Usually, this is simply a case of a mismatched dose that may be fixed with a tweak of a prescription from your doctor, but it’s certainly something to bear in mind if you are thinking of starting a long term cause of medication. 

Additionally, birth control can severely affect your period either during, or after you stop using it. The progesterone only pill, designed to be taken without breaks, may take a few months to completely stop or severely decrease the intensity of your period. 

Even non medicinal forms of birth control can cause major changes to your cycle. The copper coil, for instance, contains no hormones and simply releases copper into the uterus to help prevent pregnancy. However, it is well documented that these methods can cause heavier and more painful periods for about three months following insertion. Whichever contraception method you choose, you will likely need to factor in your menstrual cycle in your decision making process if this is something that concerns you. 

Reproductive factors 

There are other reproductive and hormonal factors that have an impact on your menstrual cycle, namely, the stage of your reproductive life as a whole. General trends suggest that from puberty and into their 20s, people will be more likely to experience irregular periods and ovulation. However, as you transition into your 30s, menstrual cycles tend to regulate themselves and become more predictable. 

Your 40s are your perimenopausal years and that means that nothing can be predictable anymore. As your body prepares for the end of your menstrual life, hormonal fluctuations are perfectly normal, until eventually, your periods cease altogether. 

Of course, one of the most vital factors to take into account when it comes to these trends is at what point in your life you may fall pregnant. For example, your 30s may usually be the time for your cycle to even out, but if this is the decade when you choose to have your children, as many people do nowadays, then you will notice significant changes.

First of all, your period likely won’t return for about six weeks following birth if you are not breastfeeding. If you are, however, your period will not return until after you have stopped or significantly decreased your nursing. People who have given birth also report less intense cramps going forward, usually due to the cervical opening being a little bit wider, allowing for easier menstruation.

Regardless of whether you intend to have children or not, knowing what to expect at various points in your life will help to alleviate any concerns you may have when your cycle eventually can and will change.

Lifestyle changes

Finally, lifestyle choices and changes cannot be underestimated when it comes to how they affect our physical health. A change in diet or exercise in particular can have either huge benefits or repercussions on all sorts of physical factors such as headaches, fatigue and yes, even menstruation. 

Exercise in particular can drastically alter your period or in some extreme cases, such as with athletes, stop it altogether. This is, once again, due to stress, this time a more positive kind. Unfortunately, our bodies do not necessarily know what counts as “good” stress or “bad” stress and will react exactly the same. If your body is being put under physical stress due to extreme or increased exercise, it will temporarily decrease or stop your reproductive hormones, as you cannot carry a baby under such conditions. 

As a result, being over or underweight can also have an adverse effect. Being overweight, for example, releases extra estrogen which, much like the pill, will eventually prevent you from ovulating. Overweight people typically experience irregular, long and heavy periods as a result. On the opposite side live underweight people, who cannot produce enough estrogen if they are underweight for a prolonged period of time, which they need in order to menstruate at all. This can also be a short term impact of losing a large amount of weight over a short period of time, but if you are still within a healthy range, these side effects could level out eventually. 

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If you feel as though your period is behaving abnormally, it is always best to seek advice from a medical professional. However, it is important to remember that these sorts of fluctuations can happen for a variety of reasons, some of which are to be expected as we age and our bodies change. Even lifestyle factors are not necessarily things that are a detriment to our health. For example, no one could accuse an athlete of living an unhealthy life, even though their period may decrease or even stop due to their training regime. 

Finding a baseline for what your normal bodily functions are is the first step to being able to notice specific patterns as they emerge. But the more we know about what can and may happen to our menstrual cycles, the less concerned we will be and be more equipped to understand them.

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