What causes long menstrual cycles?
The main cause of a long menstrual cycle is delayed ovulation. When I was trying to conceive my son, the first few cycles after stopping birth control were very long. I would see all the signs I was about to ovulate (such as fertile cervical mucus and positive ovulation tests) but I knew from my ovulation chart that I hadn’t as it remained flat. It was like my body was gearing up to ovulate but at the last moment it gave up. This could happen once or twice in one cycle causing my cycles to be really long which was very frustrating. My ovulation was delayed and my cycles were very long as a result. On one such cycle I didn’t ovulate until cycle day 72.
Are long cycles something to worry about?
Long cycles can be a worry but every woman is different and so are her cycles. More often than not, long cycles are more of an inconvenience when trying to conceive than a sign that something is wrong. There are ways to shorten your cycles but you would need to know the cause of your long cycles first. Charting your ovulation using your body temperature can help with this (see chart your ovulation section). Sometimes long cycles can mean you are not ovulating at all and although this can happen as a one off, it could be a regular occurrence which you would need to address (read all about anovulation section here).
You may experience long menstrual cycles as a result of a normal length follicular phase but a long luteal phase but a majority of the time the main reason is a longer than average follicular phase and therefore delayed ovulation. For more information on the different phases of the mentrual cycle, see the section on ‘the menstrual cycle explained‘
If your cycles are longer than 35 days, then they are on the long side but this isn’t necessary something to worry about. It can however be very frustrating if you are trying for a baby. What it does mean is that you have fewer chances to conceive in a 12 month period. There are steps you can take to shorten your cycle naturally and I will suggest a couple later in this section.
Causes of a delayed period.
To discuss the causes of a delayed period we should quickly go over again what happens between your last period and ovulation. Between the start of your period and ovulation, hormonal changes occur which include the increase of 3 hormones – FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), Estrogen and Luteinizing hormone. FSH rises from day one of your cycle and stimulates several follicles (immature eggs) to grow on your ovaries. At the same time estrogen levels increase which ensures that the lining of your uterus is thickening with nutrients and blood ready for a fertilised egg to implant. One of the maturing eggs becomes dominant and is ready for release from the ovaries and all it needs is a little push from another hormone called Luteinizing hormone (LH). LH is stimulated to increase to its threshold level once your estrogen levels reach a peak. This happens around 14 days before your next period is due. Once LH reaches its threshold level the egg is released. With all these complex hormonal changes that need to occur in syncronisation for ovulation to take place, it is easy to see how things can go wrong if one of these hormones is too low and does not reach its threshold level. Ovulation (the release of the mature egg) may not occur or may be delayed as a result leading to a delayed period. A delayed period as a result of late ovulation can be caused by a number of factors and I will go through some of the main reasons below.
Does stress delay your period?
Unfortunately stress can delay ovulation and therefore your period. If a woman is under high amounts of stress for a long period of time, she might even find her periods stop altogether. Daily stress at lower levels is common in modern life due to work, money and relationship issues which can lengthen your cycles by delaying ovulation. This is because when you are stressed you have high amounts of a hormone called cortisol in your system. This is known as the ‘stress hormone’ and it has lots of effects on your body. If you have high levels of cortisol in your system it can affect the amount of estrogen that your body produces which will affect when or if you ovulate. It is a clever evolutionary adaptation that prevents your body from going through the additional stress of a pregnancy when you are already stressed out with things that are occurring in your environment. This is really frustrating as most woman when they have been trying to conceive for a while find it quite stressful. If you are very stressed then you will likely have high levels of cortisol and ovulation will probably be delayed and your cycles irregular. When TTC this can exacerbate stress levels and things can worsen.
Personal experience with stress when TTC:
I was extremely stressed when trying to conceive my son. I had long cycles and after two miscarriages I felt like a failure. All I wanted was to be pregnant again and the pressure began to build. One cycle in particular I was so stressed I didn’t ovulate at all. I had all my fertile signs and a positive ovulation test but I got so worked up about not having sex at the right time that it must have been too much and instead I got my period. This was a big eye-opener to me and if I wanted to get pregnant then I needed to reduce my stress levels. This is when I decided to go to see a reflexologist and I started to do some light exercise to help me become a bit more relaxed. I also had a consult with a nutritionist and started to eat healthier. I you are are feeling the pressure while TTC it may help to write a list of things that relax you and try to do one of them every day. It could be anything from reading a few chapters of a favourite book to taking a bubble bath, walking the dog or going for dinner with friends. If you have some spare cash I definitely recommend seeing a reflexologist as well. Once a month is enough and it should only set you back £20-£30 depending on where you live. After seeing a reflexolgist myself I started to ovulate more regularly and after just 5 sessions I fell pregnant with my son.
Does travelling delay your period?
Travelling long distances and through different time zones can delay ovulation and therefore your period. It can throw your internal biological clock out of whack causing jet lag which can affect your hormone levels and in particular estrogen. It can prevent your ovaries from producing enough of this hormone which is needed in high levels to ovulate.
In addition, travelling can be exciting but also quite stressful if you do not like flying for example, or if you are nervous about your trip. This can also increase levels of cortisol (as described above) and can decrease estrogen levels, delay ovulation and therefore your period.
Does exercise delay your period?
Excessive exercise can delay ovulation and therefore your period. Exercising is obviously very good for you and along with a balanced diet it can help improve your fertility by balancing out hormones and decreasing stress levels. A balance is needed however.
If you are exercising for hours every day then this is going to cause a lot of stress on your body and if you are not eating enough calories to keep up with the energy you are burning then you will be in a energy deficit. If you are in a negative energy balance for a long period of time along with a low percentage of body fat, it is likely to influence your reproductive hormone levels. You could develop irregular and long cycles and even suffer from anovulation (where you stop ovulating) as a result so this should be addressed if TTC. If you have always exercised intensely however and have regular periods then this should not be an issue. If you have recently upped the amount of exercise you do and your periods have become irregular then you are probably overdoing it.
Does your weight affect your period?
Being underweight or overweight can have a big effect on your menstrual cycles. If you are underweight your body may not produce enough estrogen to ovulate or you could ovulate further along in your cycle causing longer cycles and a delayed period. If you are very underweight or have lost a lot of weight in a short space of time then your periods could stop altogether. If you have always had low body weight but normal cycles then there shouldn’t be a problem but if you find that your cycles are irregular and you are underweight then you should speak to your GP for some advice on how to put on some weight healthily. The worst thing you can do is to start binge eating fatty and sugary snack foods to put on weight as nutrition has a huge effect on your fertility too (see below).
If you are overweight and you have an excessive amount of fat then your body may produce too much estrogen. This can actually have a negative affect and stop your ovaries from releasing an egg. The lining of your uterus continues to thicken however, resulting in heavy, irregular, infrequent and longer lasting periods.
If you are thinking about trying to conceive and you know that you are either underweight or overweight then it is time to do something about it. Eating healthily and doing regular light exercise can help improve your fertility hugely by regulating your estrogen levels and reducing stress but you must find a balance. I believe I was a little bit underweight when I was trying to conceive my son and after speaking to a nutritionist he told me my diet was pretty poor. I will share what he said to me below. After putting on just a few pounds my cycles became a bit more regular than they were.
Does your diet affect your period?
Your diet can affect your period immensely. After speaking to a nutritionist, I was informed of a few things that really surprised me. I told him my average weekly diet which I thought was quite healthy but I was informed what I was eating could be negatively affecting my fertility. Below is the advice I was given to work towards a fertility diet.
Basic Fertility diet:
– Eat foods that are free of refined sugar i.e. sweets, chocolate, cakes, white sugar, white flour (found in white bread) and white rice. Eating lots of refined sugar can cause a spike in your blood sugar levels and then a sudden drop again. This can increase your cortisol and Adrenalin levels as the body becomes stressed and tries to return your blood sugar levels to normal again. This can lead to a hormone imbalance. We mentioned previously that cortisol can reduce estrogen levels which can delay ovulation.
– Eat plenty of vegetables of different colours – this is to ensure you get a vast amount of different vitamins and minerals which can aid in conception and implantation.
– Eat a Brazil nut every day – they contain high levels of selenium which is an antioxidant that is important in development of healthy follicles on your ovaries. It also helps to thicken the wall of the uterus giving a healthy lining for implantation to take place.
– Eat avocados – they contain lots of folic acid which helps improve fertility in both woman and men and is essential to help prevent neural tube defects in your baby. You should be taking folic acid supplements for a few months before trying for a baby as well (400 micro grams).
– Eat an egg a day – the yolk in particular contains lots of essential vitamins and fats.
– Do not eat lots of fruit or fruit smoothies as it is high in sugar and instead of eating apples, oranges and other larger fruits, concentrate on berries. Sugary foods can affect your estrogen levels and can have a negative effect on implantation.
– A high fibre diet can reduce estrogen levels which can delay ovulation.
– Eat full fat whole foods like yogurt, butter and eggs. Fats help regulate hormone levels.
– Eat oily fish (mackerel and salmon), seeds and nuts as they contain omega-3. A diet low in omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to irregular periods.
– Eat as much whole foods as possible including whole grains i.e. none processed foods.
– Eat lean meats.
– Avoid alcohol as it contains high levels of sugar which can spike your blood sugar (especially drinks like cider which are often sweetened).
– Avoid acidic foods as this can make your cervical mucus hostile for sperm – There is a great book called ‘honestly healthy’ which is focused on alkaline (none acidic) diets –
– Drink plenty of water
– Reduce your caffeine intake – switch to decaf tea and coffee and steer clear of fizzy drinks such as cola which contain both caffeine and high amounts of sugar.
Can birth control affect fertility?
When you decide to come off hormonal birth control i.e the pill, mini pill. hormonal coil or implant it can take a while for your cycles to get back to what they were before. Your hormone levels can take a few months to get back in sync so it is nothing to worry about if you do not have a period for a while. It is really frustrating however if you have decided you want to start trying for a baby and your cycles are delayed. The NHS recommends that if you do not have a period after 3-4 months of stopping birth control you should go to see your GP. There is no evidence that taking birth control medication over a long period of time effects your fertility negatively, however it is normal for your cycles to be a bit irregular for a few months after stopping it. Things usually settle down quickly and your cycles should return to what they were before you started taking it.
When you are on the contraceptive pill, you do not ovulate and some studies have suggested that being on the pill for a long time can actually help improve fertility by preserving better quality eggs for later use. Being on the pill long term can also help with symptoms of endometriosis which can lead to infertility and can actually help prevent ovarian and uterine cancers so has lots of benefits. It is possible to fall pregnant the first cycle being off the pill but it is suggested to wait for at least one cycle to let the artificial hormones leave your body. If you do fall pregnant in the first cycle it is nothing to be concerned about however.
How long after stopping birth control does it take to conceive?
This obviously depends on how quickly your body takes to start ovulating again. Most woman start ovulating normally again within the first few months or so and can start trying to conceive straightaway. There is no definitive answer to this question however. If you had normal cycles before you began using birth control then your cycles should go back to normal again and you should successfully get pregnant within 6-12 months if you have sex within your fertile window.
The hormone ‘prolactin’ can delay ovulation and your period.
I was on the pill for around 12 years before I decided to stop and start trying for a baby. My cycles 12 years earlier were pretty irregular so it was in the back of my mind that I would have irregular periods after stopping the pill. After 4 months with no sign of ovulation or a period and with countless negative pregnancy tests I went to my GP and I was sent for some initial blood tests. The results showed that my FSH and estrogen were on the low end of normal which was fine. It just meant that I was not gearing up to ovulation at that point. What did show up however was that I had high levels of the hormone prolactin.
This hormone is produced in high levels when a woman is breastfeeding and prevents her from ovulating which she is actively feeding a baby. This is because when your are breastfeeding you are using up a lot of your resources and your body cleverly prevents you from ovulating and getting pregnant at this time to prevent further stress on your body. I was obviously not breastfeeding at the time but my body was for some reason producing prolactin in high levels and these high levels of prolactin were preventing me from ovulating. I had the blood test redone a few weeks later and the levels had come down and eventually I ovulated after 5 months of stopping the contraceptive pill.
How does age affect fertility?
Fertility decreases steadily with age as our egg supply and quality of our eggs reduces over time. Once we hit our mid 30’s our chances of conceiving in any given month is half of what it was in our 20’s and by age 40 around 90 percent of a woman’s egg reserve is not viable. Our bodies hormonal balance which regulates our cycles can also be disrupted as we get older meaning we could have fewer cycles in a 12 months period due to delayed ovulation and therefore longer cycles. All of this means we have a decreased chance of becoming pregnant as we get older but it is still possible and your age should not put you off trying.
If you are over 35 however it is important to start taking control of your fertility sooner rather than later and the first step would be to start charting your ovulation and recording your fertile signs around the time that you ovulate. This way you can have sex at the right time and make the most of your fertile window each cycle. You will also be able to spot any potential issues with your cycles and speak to your GP sooner.