Whether you love it, can’t stand it, or feel entirely indifferent about it, menstruation is simply a part of life, and that’s that.
But when it comes to periods, there’s really no such thing as “normal.”
Why? Because every single person on the planet is unique, and only you know what falls into the realm of “normal” for you.
Still, if you’ve never had an issue with inconsistent visits from your dear ol’ Auntie Flo, it can be a bit puzzling when your cycle suddenly changes length — and even weirder when things don’t go back to the norm. That said, why does this happen? We’ll tell you.
Read on as we explore the perplexing world of menstruation to uncover what the average period length is and when you should consider contacting a doctor.
What Is a Menstrual Cycle?
Hint: it’s much more than just your period.
In short, the menstrual cycle is what a woman goes through to get her body ready for pregnancy. This cycle is the time from the first day of your monthly bleed up to the day before your next period.
Your menstrual cycle is broken up into four phases:
- Menstrual phase
- Follicular phase
- Ovulation phase
- Luteal phase
As estrogen rises during the follicular phase, your uterus lining thickens in preparation for ovulation — aka, the release of the egg from your ovary and is usually the midway point of your cycle.
If pregnancy doesn’t occur when you’re ovulating, the uterine lining sheds following your luteal phase. This is your period.
Your hormones control all of these essential steps — namely, progesterone and estrogen. As a result, anything that throws a monkey wrench in your hormonal balance can trigger changes in your cycle.
What Is the Average Length of a Normal Menstrual Cycle?
When discussing what’s considered “normal,” it’s important to keep in mind that since we’re all different, there is a pretty wide range of what’s considered normal. Menstrual cycle length can vary from person to person and even change monthly within your own cycle.
With that in mind, the average menstrual cycle is around 28 days. However, it is normal to have regular cycles that are shorter or longer than this (from 21 to 41 days).
As for ovulation, it really doesn’t matter how long your cycle is, as most ladies will ovulate around ten to 16 days before the start of their next menses.
What Can Impact Period Length?
According to the experts over at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG ), shark week can last anywhere from two to seven days. If the length of your period falls anywhere on that spectrum, doctors will usually consider it “normal.”
But as mentioned a little earlier, only you know what’s typical for you and what’s not. All bodies are different, and if you fall out of the range that is considered “normal,” that’s okay.
That said, there could be a few culprits behind an irregular period. Many factors can influence period length — these are just a few. If you are dealing with an irregular period and aren’t quite sure what may be causing it, reach out to your gynecologist.
An irregularly short, or missed, period could be indicative of pregnancy.
When an embryo (aka, fertilized egg) attaches to the lining of the uterus, implantation bleeding can occur. More often than not, this type of bleeding is lighter than a normal flow and goes away within 48 hours.
It can be tough to tell the difference between a short period and an implantation period because this type of bleeding can happen roughly six to 12 days after conception — which is often when you’d expect to get your period.
So, if there’s any chance that you could be pregnant and you’re not entirely sure what’s going on in your nether regions, a pregnancy test can help rule pregnancy in — or out.
If you experienced a missed period, or if your period is a bit late, it might be worth taking a test in that case as well.
Stress and Anxiety
Have you been feeling especially stressed lately? If so, it’s likely to blame for your irregular period.
High levels of stress can cause an uptick in the production of cortisol (aka, your stress hormone), which can wreak havoc on the way your body functions normally.
When your stress levels are under control, your brain’s hypothalamus makes itty-bitty chemicals that trigger your pituitary gland to signal your ovaries to release progesterone and estrogen.
With an increase in cortisol thanks to stress, that axis can get out of whack, resulting in an irregular menstrual cycle. And when estrogen levels are low, there is less stimulation of the lining of the uterus — so as a result, there’s less bleeding (aka, a shorter period).
Here are a few quick tips to help ease your stress:
- Take a few slow, deep breaths
- Try a yoga class
- Listen to music
- Get a massage
- Squeeze a stress ball
- Watch a funny movie
- Talk to your bestie
- Get some vitamin D
If you are dealing with chronic stress or persistent anxiety, you might want to call your healthcare provider for treatment options and professional guidance.
As women get older, their menstrual cycle may become shorter — especially as they reach menopause.
Perimenopause, the time before menopause when the body starts transitioning hormonally, typically starts in a woman’s forties but can start as early as the thirties, lasting anywhere from four to six years.
During this delicate time, the ovaries produce various amounts of estrogen, which causes menstruation changes. It can make the length of your cycle longer, or it can even make it shorter. Some women may experience a lighter flow, while others experience a heavier flow.
In addition to period irregularities, perimenopausal women may experience:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Vaginal dryness
- Poor sleep
- Mood swings
- Changes in sexual desire
To combat these icky symptoms, we recommend Whole Love 50+ Multivitamin + XOmegas — this powerful duo is formulated just for women in this life stage to address the specific needs that come with perimenopause and menopause.
Other Reasons for an Irregular Period
In addition to pregnancy, stress, and perimenopause, other reasons why your period may become irregular include:
- Thyroid disease
- Hormonal contraception, like birth control pills or intrauterine devices (IUD)
- Ectopic pregnancy
- Excessive exercising
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Uterine fibroids
- Anovulatory cycle
- Eating disorders
- Extreme weight loss
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
When Should I See a Doctor?
As you can see, many things could alter the number of days between your last menstrual flow and your next one.
That said, if you’re concerned there’s something else going on, listen to your gut. Some culprits — like thyroid conditions or PID — may require a closer look via your gynecologist. Contact your doc if your irregular cycle is accompanied by:
- Particularly heavy menstrual bleeding or irregular bleeding
- Severe pain near your reproductive organs (not typical PMS cramps)
- Menstrual blood that contains blood clots bigger than a quarter
- Nausea, fever, or body chills
Remember, your menstrual cycle is a reflection of your health as a whole, so any changes to your flow are absolutely worth paying attention to.
A Final Word
So, how long is the average menstrual cycle, you ask?
The menstrual cycle lasts anywhere from 21 to 41 days, with 28 days being the average. Menstrual bleeding itself can last for up to a week.
From stress and thyroid issues to menopause and PCOS, there are a number of possible reasons why you might develop an irregular menstrual cycle or period — meaning one that strays from what is normal for you personally.
An irregular menstrual cycle is not always a cause for concern, but it never hurts to check in with your gyno if you notice that things have changed down under.
A healthcare provider can review your medical history, discuss your lifestyle and diet, and more to get to the bottom of your period irregularities.
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Normal Menstruation (Monthly Period): Menstrual Cycle & Symptoms | Cleveland Clinic
Your Changing Body: Puberty in Girls | ACOG
Polycystic ovary syndrome | Office on Women’s Health
Perimenopause | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Getting to know the four phases of your menstrual cycle | Open Access Government