Causes of Change in Menstrual Cycle Lengths

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Typical Lengths

  • Both the menstrual cycle and the menstrual period vary in length, depending upon the woman. Although the terms are used interchangeably, they refer to different events in a woman's body. A menstrual cycle refers to the time frame between the start of one period and the start of the next, while the menstrual period refers only to the time frame that a woman bleeds. A menstrual period generally lasts three to six days, while the typical menstrual cycle lengths average between 24 to 37 days. No two women's menstrual cycles are the same in length, and some womens cycles are much longer, meaning that they have fewer periods per year. When dealing with changes in menstrual cycle lengths, the woman should compare the changes against what is normal for her body. Keeping track of each menstrual cycle through a diary or calendar can help determine what is normal for each individual woman's body and cycle.

Stress

  • Stress leads the way in causing changes to the menstrual cycle. When the body is under stress, it releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol affects multiple areas of the body, including estrogen, and a change in estrogen levels alters menstrual cycle lengths. This pattern of cortisol affecting estrogen occurs regardless of the reason for the stress, which can include environmental factors, travel, job-related stress, death of a loved one and sickness are just some of the stress-causing agents that may alter the length of the cycle.

Excessive Alcohol

  • In addition to viewing alcohol as a stressor to the body, excessive consumption of alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to metabolize estrogen and progesterone, which in turn can alter the length of the cycle.

Other Factors

  • Although not technically caused by stress, the body will respond to certain drugs and medications, alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants in the same way that it responds to stress, triggering the cortisol-estrogen effect that alters cycle lengths. The same can be said of eating disorders, extreme weight loss, excessive exercise and dieting, though poor nutrition can further affect menstrual cycle lengths by altering proteins in the brain responsible for regulating the ovulation signals.

Medical Conditions

  • In addition to cortisol and estrogen, a woman experiencing changes in her cycle's lengths may have other hormonal imbalances. The body's hormones all affect the performance of each other, and if one hormone level is off, that can cause a chain reaction, which can culminate in changes in the menstrual cycle. Other medical conditions related to changes in the cycle include polycystic ovarian syndrome, uterine cysts and polyps, chemotherapy, child birth or miscarriage, breastfeeding and a change in birth control.

Aging

  • After the age of 30, the changes in the menstrual cycle lengths typically occur. Most commonly, either the menstrual cycle or the menstrual period reduces in length. Between the late 30s and mid 40s, the beginning stages of the transition to menopause begin, and the cycles lengths and regularity are usually altered. These natural changes in menstrual cycle lengths occur because the hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone, change within the body with age.

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