Getting your period every month can be a literal pain, forcing you to deal with PMS symptoms like cramps, intense food cravings, and constant bloating. While all of those are a regular part of a normal period cycle, sometimes your body throws a curveball with a symptom you didn't quite expect.
When that happens, it's easy to turn to Dr. Google and freak the eff out. But don't cue the hysterics just yet: A weird period may not be a dire red flag; it could just be happening because you're getting older, says Alyssa Dweck, M.D., assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "There's an unspoken rule among doctors that a woman's period tends to change through the decades," she says. "Your cycle is often an indicator of what's going on in your health and in your life, and there are many transitions between your 20s, 30s, and 40s."
Because your period hinges on hormones (they're released, head to your ovaries, and kick off a series of events that eventually cause your uterine lining to shed), anything that can cause them to go screwy - like stress, health conditions, or lifestyle changes that pop up as you age - can disrupt or alter your flow. And while there's no such thing as a "typical" period, most women's cycles occur every 21 to 36 days and last anywhere from a few days to a full week.
These are some of the main reasons your menstrual cycle may be straying from your version of normal, the decade you're most likely to experience these changes, and whether it's worth setting up a time to chat with your OBGYN.
Your Period in Your 20s
1. You just switched to a new birth control.
If you used to take the Pill but recently had an IUD inserted, there's a chance it could change your period cycle from how it was in your teens. (Or at any age, really.) "Depending on the type you're using, starting a new birth control method can lighten your flow or make it non-existent," Dweck says. That's not something to stress about, as it typically takes a few months for your body to adjust. If your cycle continues to be in flux for more than three months, though, consider scheduling an OBGYN visit just to be sure.
2. You're stressed.
There are changes that trigger stress at every stage of life, but there are a lot of monumental (read: stressful) moments that tend to happen in your 20s. Whether it's tackling your first job, losing that job, getting into a serious relationship, or getting out of one, all of these things can affect your period because stress hormones disrupt the signal from your brain to your ovaries, Dweck says. This can cause an erratic period for a few months. But again, if it doesn't last for very long then there likely isn't anything to worry about.
3. You have PCOS.
If you're not stressed out more than normal - and you're definitely not pregnant - but you start experiencing erratic cycles where your period either goes MIA or lasts for more than a week, then there could be a possibility that you have polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS. It's a hormonal imbalance that causes what looks like a string of small cysts to grow on your ovaries, and it tends to show up in women in their 20s (though you can be diagnosed at any time).
PCOS is a serious condition - one that could potentially affect your fertility - so if you think you may be suffering from it, then go see your OBGYN as soon as possible. (Other symptoms of it include excess facial hair growth, acne, and weight gain.)
That said, PCOS isn't the only potential culprit behind your period pulling a vanishing act. Besides pregnancy, your period may stop entirely if you're severely underweight, severely overweight, have experienced a major change in weight in a short period of time, or if you're dealing with a thyroid disorder (which, Dweck notes, can also cause periods to get much heavier). There are treatment options for each, so it's important to be honest with your doc so she can help you get to the root of your particular problem.
Your Period in Your 30s
4. You have an unknown health condition.
"Periods can be indicators of your health, and your 30s tend to be a time when some benign health conditions pop up," Dweck says. Some of the most common: fibroids, polyps and benign uterine growths. While most of these aren't harmful to your health, they can interfere with your period, potentially making it heavy and painful. It's worth a doctor's visit to see if you can take care of the problem and put your body more at ease each month.
5. You just had a baby.
Surprise! Having a child, regardless of age, is likely to affect your normal period cycle. It can take time to adjust to a new routine after having a baby, especially if you're breastfeeding, which is why Dweck says you shouldn't worry too much if your period doesn't appear according its regularly scheduled programming. Keep in mind, though, that you can still get pregnant before your first postpartum period (you can also get pregnant while you have your period), so use protection if you're not quite ready for baby number two.
Your Period in Your 40s
6. You're working out too much.
Unless a regular exercise routine has been a consistent part of your day-to-day, hitting the gym as soon as you hit your 40s could cause your period to go MIA, Dweck says. (In fact, changes in exercise routines can affect your period regardless of age.) As your body adjusts to this new lifestyle change, your period should return. If it doesn't, check in with the doc to make sure something more serious isn't going on.
7. You're going through menopause.
Chances are you hear the word menopause and immediately think you're too young for that. But "perimenopause-type changes can start up to 10 years before menopause," Dweck says, so you could start noticing changes in your 30s. "You can expect to see some fluctuations in your period, either missing one every now and then or getting a longer period," she adds.
That's because when you're younger, the levels of estrogen and progesterone wax and wane over the course of your menstrual cycle. As you approach menopause though, these hormones stop following their normal patterns and trigger changes in your cycle, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. If it isn't resulting in any painful symptoms, this isn't a cause for concern.
Medically speaking though, menopause doesn't occur until your period has stopped showing up for a full year. If you experience bleeding after that point, that's major cause for concern and you should give your doctor a call ASAP.
8. You have cancer.
When you reach your 40s, changes in your period can potentially signal something more serious. "Uterine cancer is something that can come up," Dweck says. "Keep in mind that this is an extreme rarity, however it's possible to find a pre-cancerous cell that could be causing a problem with your periods around this time in your life."
In other words, if your periods are getting really weird (either extremely abnormal or super heavy), it's time to talk to your doctor.
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