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Women's Health

When Your Period Signals a Problem

Heavy periods, no periods, painful periods, spotting -- find out when it's time to call your doctor.
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Your Period Has Slowed or Stopped continued...

On the other hand, women in their 40s or 50s could be in perimenopause -- the period surrounding  menopause. As your ovaries slow their estrogen production, periods become less frequent. Periods also can get shorter or lighter during perimenopause. Once your periods stop for a full 12 months in a row, you're in menopause.  The average age for menopause is 51.

Another possible cause of missed periods is excessive exercise. Anywhere from 5% to 25% of female athletes work out so hard that they stop getting their periods. Called exercise-induced amenorrhea, this phenomenon is particularly common among ballet dancers and runners. Intense exercise affects the production and regulation of reproductive hormones involved in the menstrual cycle.

For similar reasons, women who have eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa can also stop getting their period. Severely restricting the amount of calories you eat suppresses the release of hormones your body needs for ovulation.

Other possible causes of missed periods include:

  • Thyroid or pituitary gland disorders
  • Disorder of the hypothalamus (brain area that assists with reproductive hormone regulation)
  • Breastfeeding
  • Obesity
  • Oral contraceptives (although birth control pills will usually just make the periods lighter, rather than stopping them entirely)
  • Stress
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome and other hormone imbalances
  • Ovarian failure (the loss of normal ovarian function before age 40)
  • Disease of the uterus (womb)

Your Period Is Heavier Than Normal

Most women only shed about 2 or 3 tablespoons of blood each month. Those with heavy periods (menorrhagia) can lose 5 or more tablespoons of blood monthly.

When you bleed excessively, you lose iron. Your body needs iron to produce hemoglobin, the molecule that helps your red blood cells transport oxygen throughout your body. Without enough iron, your red blood cell count will drop, leading to anemia. Signs of anemia include shortness of breath, unusually pale skin, and fatigue.

If you have a persistently heavy flow, see your doctor for a blood count to make sure you're not iron deficient, Ginsburg advises.  If so, you might need to take a supplement.

A number of conditions can increase your period flow, including:

  • Uterine fibroids or polyps (noncancerous growths in the uterine lining)
  • Miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy
  • Use of certain drugs (including blood thinners or steroids)
  • A change in your birth control pills
  • Clotting disorders, such as von Willebrand's disease
  • Cancer of the uterus

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