Every month, you prepare for the inevitable. You keep your eye on the calendar and gather your supplies. You steel yourself for the cramps, the bleeding, and the drop in energy levels. The day looms closer and closer, you brace yourself for battle, and…
Your period doesn’t show.
No matter how careful we are in the bedroom, or how long it’s been since our last sexual encounter, a late period will always bring up the fraught question: Am I pregnant?
The answer, in many cases, is no.
Like a bad prom date, our periods eventually make an overdue appearance. But if we’re not pregnant, then what’s the deal? Why do reliable cycles suddenly become unreliable? And how do we know whether we should take the delay in stride or seek the advice of a medical professional?
Here are some of the most common causes of a late period other than pregnancy.
Stress and Depression
At first glance, stress and depression don’t seem to be likely culprits for a late period. But all the parts of your body work together to achieve one thing: survival. If your body perceives outside factors as a threat, it can shut down “unnecessary” functions.
This includes your menstrual cycle.
Stress and depression can cause your cortisol levels to rise, which signals a part of your brain to turnoff your ovulation. As a result, your period may be late or absent altogether.
Think of it this way: a long time ago, when we humans were evolving into what we are today, pregnancy was a risky condition. An expectant mother required more nutrients for herself and her growing child, and she became more and more vulnerable physically the further into her pregnancy she progressed. By avoiding pregnancy altogether during hard times, your body is trying to keep you in fighting form.
Some options for alleviating stress are exercise, meditation, therapy, and medication.
Changes in weight
Another cause of a delayed period is tied to your weight. Having a low body mass index (BMI), paired with a restricted-calorie diet and a high-intensity workout routine, can trigger the same sort of cortisol response as depression and stress.
But did you know that sudden weight gain and greater BMI can also disrupt your menstrual cycle?
Increased fat stores affect your hormone levels and lead to late or missed periods. This is especially true if you gain a significant amount of weight very quickly.
So if you’re menstruation is running late or a no-show altogether, adjustments to your diet and exercise routine may help.
We’re all aware of the dreaded “M” word: menopause. It occurs once a woman has gone 12 consecutive months without a period. You’re most likely to experience menopause sometime after you turn 40 years old (though the average age is 52).
But have you heard of perimenopause? If menopause were a novel, perimenopause would be the prologue.
You will most likely experience perimenopause sometime between your mid-30s and 50s. It’s when your reproductive functions begin to wind down. Hormones start to fluctuate, and you might find yourself experiencing a multitude of symptoms like weight gain, adult acne, and moodiness.
While this may sound like having to go through puberty all over again, it’s also accompanied by less reliable periods.
Most seasoned travelers have a routine when preparing for a trip. They make a list of appropriate clothing, shoes, and gadgets. And, of course, they pack essentials like a toothbrush and deodorant.
Travel, especially over long distances, can disrupt your circadian rhythms. These rhythms are the different ways your body responds to light and dark cycles. When you move through different time zones, these cycles change, and your bodily rhythms fall out of, well, rhythm.
One common consequence is that you may find it harder to sleep well and at proper times (aka jetlag). But your hormones are also heavily affected by disruptions in your circadian rhythm. This, paired with the physical stress of travel, can lead to a delayed or skipped period.
Before you reach for that pregnancy test, ask yourself, Have I started any new medications recently? If the answer is yes, this may be why your period is overdue.
While the most obvious culprits might seem to be the harsh drugs used in chemotherapy or those medications that specifically target your hormones, there are a few wildcards.
Medicines for epilepsy and your thyroid can interfere with your regular menstrual cycle. Ironically, antidepressants, though useful for treating stress and depression (common causes of a delayed or missed period) can also lead to tardy menstruation, especially in the first three months they are being taken.
So if you’re experiencing a late period and you’ve recently started an unfamiliar drug, you can ask your doctor if delayed menstruation is a common side effect of the new medication.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
More likely than not, you know someone who suffers from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). It’s a common condition that affects up to 10% of women between the ages of 15 and 44. Irregular periods are a classic symptom of PCOS.
PCOS can also cause excess hair growth and adult acne. It’s one of the leading causes of infertility in women. But don’t worry; women who suffer from PCOS can still conceive, though they may need to seek medical assistance to do so. PCOS is treatable with hormone therapy (like birth control) and lifestyle changes.
When to Seek Medical Advice
Irregular periods can be caused by everything from stress to travel to normal changes in the body as we age. But they could also originate from more serious medical conditions.
It’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor if you have any concerns about your health, especially if you encounter more severe or troubling symptoms.
When it comes to your menstrual cycles, you are advised to consult a medical professional if your periods are irregular, delayed, or absent for three months in a row.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Can you miss a period and not be pregnant?
Yes! There are many factors other than pregnancy that can cause a missed or late period. Stress, new medications, and even travel can all lead to delayed menstruation.
How long is it normal for my period to be late?
Variations in your menstrual cycle are to be expected, but your period is considered “late” if it doesn’t start within five days of the day you expect it to.
How do I make my period come faster?
The only proven way to control when your period comes is through hormonal birth control. Still, you might be able to speed up the arrival of your period through activities like light exercise, relaxation techniques, and even orgasms.
What should I eat if my period is late?
Some women swear by edible remedies to encourage timely menstruation. Ginger, papaya, cinnamon, and many other foods may help coax out a stubborn period.
At what age do periods become irregular?
Periods typically become irregular when you enter perimenopause. This happens for most women in their 40s, but some women start to experience perimenopause by their mid-30s.