What Causes Irregular Periods?

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Irregular periods are a common and concerning phenomenon for many women. Although instances of missing or late periods can be anxiety-inducing, it might alleviate the stress and confusion by understanding why it may occur. Regular periods are usually a sign of good health and changes to this cycle may hint at a potential underlying issue. To fully understand the female reproductive system and how it works we can break down the reasons for irregular periods.

How Does The Menstrual Cycle Work?

When we unravel the menstrual cycle, it can be understood as an elaborate system. This system relies on the intricate interplay of different hormone groups and endocrine organs working in harmony to maintain hormonal equilibrium within the female reproductive system. The key elements of this system include the ovaries, hypothalamus and pituitary gland. In general, a cycle is regarded as approximately 28 days long. In reality, it ranges anywhere from 21- 40 days while in adult women it may fall between 21 -35 days. For one to understand the deviations of the menstrual cycle, it is necessary to understand what occurs in each stage.


Exploring the Stages of the Menstrual Cycle

A woman will encounter different menstrual cycle's stages, from shedding the uterine lining to potential pregnancy preparation and renewal. Discover more below:


The Menstrual Stage

It all starts here, with the body shedding the lining of the uterus. This process is what is commonly known as the period.


The Follicular Stage

After the period, the brain's hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland. In response, it releases the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This hormone's job is to get a follicle in the ovary ready, which will eventually grow into an egg.


The Ovulation Stage

As the follicle grows, it boosts oestrogen levels. High oestrogen signals the pituitary to release luteinising hormone (LH). LH is the green light that tells the egg it's time to leave the ovary.


The Luteal Stage

After the egg is released, the leftover follicle turns into something called the corpus luteum. This new structure has a crucial job: it pumps out progesterone, which makes the uterus thicker, in preparation for a pregnancy. If pregnancy doesn't occur, the corpus luteum breaks down. This breakdown cuts off the progesterone supply, leading the body back to shedding the uterus lining – and the cycle begins anew.

Exploring the Effects of Hormonal Imbalance on Menstrual Cycles

Hormonal imbalances play a pivotal role in disrupting bodily functions, particularly in the context of menstruation. This imbalance manifests in various forms, each impacting the menstrual cycle differently.


Stress and the Menstrual Cycle

The intricate balance of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is central to menstrual regulation. Stress can throw off this delicate equilibrium, leading to changes in menstrual patterns. This is primarily due to the altered release of hormones caused by stress.


PCOS and Menstrual Irregularities

A leading factor in menstrual disruptions is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Characterised by insulin resistance, high levels of male hormones (hyperandrogenism), and problems with ovulation, PCOS significantly alters the menstrual cycle.


Thyroid Function

The relationship between thyroid health and menstruation is intricate. An overactive thyroid, known as hyperthyroidism, as well as an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, can significantly influence how the body metabolises sex hormones. This change in hormonal balance often leads to variations in the regularity of menstrual cycles.


Menstrual Changes During Perimenopause

The lead-up to menopause, known as perimenopause, is characterised by fluctuating oestrogen and progesterone levels. These hormonal changes are a common cause of altered menstrual patterns during this transition phase.


Inflammation's Impact on Menstruation

The menstrual cycle is also influenced by inflammation. Prostaglandins, which are involved in inflammatory processes, aid in the shedding of the menstrual lining. An abnormal inflammatory response can therefore affect both the regularity and symptoms of menstruation.


Understanding the Impact of Lifestyle and Environment on Menstrual Health

The menstrual cycle's regularity hinges not just on hormonal functions, but also intertwines significantly with personal lifestyle choices and environmental exposures. Here's a closer look at how these factors can shape menstrual health:


Drastic Weight Changes

Dramatic weight changes have a direct bearing on hormonal balance, crucial for menstrual cycle regularity. Body fat's role in oestrogen production is central here. A decrease in oestrogen, noted by the hypothalamus, can lead to reduced gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) production, subsequently affecting the ovarian release of menstrual hormones.


Exercise Regimen

A sudden uptick in exercise intensity or frequency can trigger notable weight loss, reducing body fat. This reduction can skew oestrogen levels, potentially causing menstrual irregularities.


Dietary Patterns

Adequate nutrition is essential for the proper functioning of all body systems, including hormonal regulation critical for the menstrual cycle. Diets that are either nutritionally deficient or extreme can upset the body's hormonal harmony, leading to altered cycle regularities.


Environmental Exposures

The role of the environment in menstrual health, especially concerning harmful chemical exposures, is significant. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), found in common products and environmental sources, can disrupt hormonal synthesis and metabolism. Furthermore, heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury are known to impact endocrine regulation, affecting menstrual health adversely.

Achieving Regular Menstrual Cycles

In order to achieve  and maintain a regular menstrual cycle, aspects such as diet, exercise, stress management and our environment must be considered. It is clear that key hormones including our oestrogen, progesterone and GnRH levels must be managed effectively for a delicate hormonal balance that will keep your period regular. If you notice any changes to your cycle or irregular periods, this could hint that there's a bit of a shake-up in this hormonal balance. Keep track of the changes to identify and make adjustments that may bring your cycle back on track. 

Everyone's different, and that means our health needs can vary a lot. That's why talking to a healthcare professional or a gynaecologist is a smart move. They can give you personalised advice and help ensure your menstrual health is on track.


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