Up to 90% of women will suffer from irregular periods at some point in their lives before reaching menopause. In fact, many find that they experience irregular menstrual cycles, including long or extended menstrual cycles, anywhere from 3 - 10 years before menopause, though they can occur at any time. Although long periods are often caused by the fluctuating hormone levels of perimenopause, there are many different reasons why a woman might experience them.
How Long Is a Menstrual Cycle?
The average menstrual cycle lasts between 21 and 35 days, with three to five days of bleeding. However, “regular” is a subjective term, and what is normal for one woman is often abnormal for another. If your periods stop occurring at roughly the same interval each month, discontinue lasting for about the same amount of time, or are marked by abnormal bleeding, you are experiencing an irregular period.
There are numerous categories of irregular periods, but when it comes to long menstrual cycles, there are two particular issues women could be experiencing:
Amenorrhea. A long menstrual cycle could refer to an extended period of time between bouts of bleeding. Amenorrhea is the absence of periods for more than 60 days. It usually occurs during pregnancy and breastfeeding, but it can also occur at other times in a woman's life.
Menorrhagia. This is the occurrence of an abnormally long or heavy period. It may be associated with unusually painful periods, referred to as dysmenorrhea.
What Causes Long Menstrual Cycles?
The most common and probable cause of any type of irregular period is hormone imbalance, especially in pre- and perimenopausal women. However, irregular periods can also be caused by the following, to name a few:
- Poor nutrition
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Uterine abnormalities
- Cervical cancer
Though the occurrence of more serious causes like cancer is rare, talking to your doctor about long menstrual cycles will eliminate any questions or concerns.
How to Treat Long Menstrual Cycles
If long periods or cycles are being caused by hormonal fluctuations, read below for some healthy suggestions to restore balance.
Though not everyone finds them effective, many women have great success with phytoestrogenic supplements, such as black cohosh or red clover. These provide the body with plant-based estrogen, allowing for gradual and natural balance.
Meanwhile, women looking to prevent complications should look into soy-based foods (like tofu or soymilk) and iron-rich foods (like lentils, liver, or spinach) to help provide the body with the necessary minerals and protein to compensate for heavy menstrual bleeding.
Medications and surgery
Medications, such as birth control or hormone replacement therapy (HRT), can be helpful for regulating periods, though they often involve a higher risk and expense. When abnormally long menstrual periods are caused by fibroids, cysts, or endometriosis, surgery may be necessary. Talk to your doctor to see if the cause behind your long menstrual cycles merit these options in the case that simpler methods do not suffice.
Irregular periods can be frustrating and inconvenient, but with the right attitude and proper treatment, they could soon be a thing of the past. Click on one of the links below to learn more about the various treatments for irregular periods.
- Hutchinson, Susan M.D. "The Stages of a Woman's Life: Menstruation, Pregnancy, Nursing, Perimenopause, Menopause". November 2007.
- Love, Susan M.D. Menopause and Hormone Book. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.
- BMJ Group. "Menopause: What is it?" Patient Leaflet. 2007