What Does a “Long Cycle” Mean?

hormonal health period problems Mar 29, 2022

As women, our bodies can be complicated and confusing. Even more so are our menstrual cycles. Our menstrual cycle is the first day our period starts to the first day our next period starts. This is different than your menstrual phase, or period, where you actually bleed. A typical cycle is 27-29 days. We also see cycle lengths from 21 to 35 days and this is still normal. Hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, stress, and other factors can throw off our monthly cycles. As a result, we can experience cycles that are too short or too long. Having long cycles is called “oligomenorrhea.”

The female menstrual cycle is a delicate process that includes four different phases, all of which serve an important purpose:

Menstrual Phase

Day one of your period marks the start of the menstrual phase and it lasts until bleeding stops. Progesterone levels dive at the start of this phase and your uterine lining sheds, hence, the blood.

Follicular Phase

The follicular phase begins when bleeding stops and lasts 7-10 days. Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) is released, which stimulates your ovarian follicles to mature.  

Ovulatory Phase

The ovulatory phase only lasts 2-3 days. Unsurprisingly, this is when ovulation happens! In the follicular phase, FSH has been stimulating your ovaries to mature follicles which releases estrogen. Eventually that estrogen spikes which causes a hormone called Luteinizing Hormone (LH) to be released from the pituitary gland in your brain. This causes only one of the many follicles that were being stimulated to be released from your ovary to become the chosen egg that could become a future baby. This is the process of ovulation.

Luteal Phase 

The luteal phase is the final phase, lasting 10-16 days, or until menstruation starts again. FSH and LH drop, while progesterone increases. While estrogen rules the follicular phase with the stimulation from FSH, progesterone is the star of the luteal phase. It is actually made from the egg that was ovulated, as it turns into what is called a corpus luteum. The progesterone stays high unless the egg is not fertilized, at which point it will drop and that will start your menstrual bleeding once again.

 

Why Do We Care If Our Cycles Are Long?

If this month-long process, from the start of menstruation through the end of the luteal phase, lasts more than 36 days, you’re probably experiencing a long cycle. When your cycle lasts longer than normal, ovulation may be delayed. This could impact you becoming pregnant if you are trying to conceive. It could also result in an accidental pregnancy if you aren’t sure when your egg is actually being released.

For example: If your cycle lasts 36 days, chances are you will ovulate around day 22, instead of day 14, which is when most doctors or period tracking apps assume you will be ovulating. Most period resources are based on a typical 28 day cycle.

Not all women have a 28 day cycle and it is completely normal to have a 21-35 day cycle. However, when a cycle becomes longer than that it is important to start paying attention.

 

Why do long cycles happen?

Once bleeding stops and the follicular phase begins, your hormones, including FSH, LH, and estradiol, dance together. If this ratio is off it can delay an LH surge. As a result, ovulation is delayed, too. 

As we shared previously, during this phase, FSH stimulates the follicles in your ovaries to grow. Estrogen is released, which continues to increase until a surge of estrogen is achieved. This surge triggers the release of LH. LH is primarily responsible for allowing the dominant follicle to break free from the ovary, which is what we call “ovulation.”

As previously mentioned, the female body is a complex creation. If this delicate trio of hormones is slightly imbalanced, the whole dance can be thrown off. When a step or two is missed, ovulation is postponed or absent altogether, resulting in longer cycles.

Certain imbalances, such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a common condition in females, can create higher than normal levels of LH in relation to FSH. When this ratio is present, the change from low to high LH doesn’t happen. Ovulation doesn’t happen, or it can be delayed, resulting in a longer cycle. This is why so many women with PCOS experience oligomenorrhea or irregular cycles.

 

“I experience long cycles, now what?”

If you experience long cycles, your fate isn’t sealed. Through testing and natural medicine you can regulate your cycles, and ultimately, ovulation. This is especially important to pursue before you’re ready to conceive, as it can take several months to re-balance.

When working with patients who experience oligomenorrhea, it’s important to do hormonal testing. I recommend testing FSH, LH, and estradiol levels on cycle day 3-5. These results will show if your hormones are dancing well together, or not. If your LH is 2-3x higher than your FSH that could be an indication that you have an issue as I described above. It doesn’t mean you have PCOS, but it means your HPO (hypothalamic-pituitary-ovary) axis is experiencing imbalance.

I also recommend running free and total testosterone, SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin), DHEA-S, prolactin, and progesterone to get a good sense of all of your hormonal levels. Progesterone should be ran 7-8 days after suspected ovulation, halfway between the luteal phase.

My goal is to empower and encourage you to understand what is happening in your own body. Our cycle impacts so much from our ability to conceive, ability to avoid pregnancy, our mood, energy, sex drive, and so much more.

To start tracking to see if you have longer cycles, I recommend downloading the Kindara period tracking app. It’s my favorite app and I love that they have a basal body thermometer to help you track as well. I will share more on this in a future post.

For now, sending you and your cycle love and healing!

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