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Irregular periods linked to obesity, diabetes

Teenagers who have irregular periods are more likely to be overweight and obese.

Irregular periods linked to obesity, diabetes

Teenagers who have irregular periods are more likely to be overweight and obese and to have early warning signs of diabetes and heart disease than those with regular menstrual cycles.

Irregular periods might be a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS - a hormonal disorder that's also linked to infertility and obesity. To determine to what degree menstrual cycles would be associated with higher body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and diabetes risk, researchers followed 370 American girls starting at age 14 years as part of a larger study initiated by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in US.

Once every year, the participants were asked how long it had been since their last menstrual cycle. The researchers also periodically measured their levels of different sex hormones, glucose and insulin (markers of diabetes risk) and blood pressure. They also collected information on girls' height, weight, and waist circumference. The researchers defined irregular menstrual cycles as lasting more than 42 days - that is, the girl's period begins more than 42 days after the first day of the last one - a criterion that's meant to catch the 2 percent of girls with the least regular periods.

It was found that between age 14 and 19 years, 269 of the girls reported regular periods at every annual visit. Another 74 of them had only one report of an irregular period, 19 girls had two reports, and eight said it had been at least 42 days since their last period at three or more visits.

The results showed that girls with the most reports of irregular periods were already heavier than others at age 14 years, and gained more weight and inches on their waist during the study. Also at age 14 years, girls with more irregular periods had higher levels of testosterone - a sex hormone associated with male characteristics.

Moreover, by age 25 years, those who hadn't reported an irregular period had an average body mass index, or BMI, of 26.8 - considered slightly overweight. In comparison, participants who had reported irregular periods at three or more appointments had an average BMI of 37.8, indicating severe obesity. Girls who reported one or two irregular periods had BMIs somewhere in the middle. Reports of irregular periods were also linked to higher levels of blood sugar and insulin at age 25 years.

The researchers were not sure what was happening with girls' menstrual cycles during the rest of each year. Also, the findings do not prove that irregular periods cause girls to gain weight or are responsible for the increases in glucose and insulin levels - rather, the irregularity could be a signal of some other problem. One possibility is that the ovaries might respond to changes in metabolism - such as increased insulin levels. That would suggest some of the diabetes-related risks came before problems with ovulation.

What the study results do show is that irregular menstrual cycles might be a warning that the body's metabolism isn't working as well as it should.

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