Do I Have a Normal Cycle? Five Signs of Hormonal Health for Women
Ever wonder if your monthly cycle is "normal"?
Did you know that the menstrual cycle is considered a vital sign of health for women?
That’s right; your monthly cycle is like a “check engine” light for your reproductive and hormonal health. If your cycle diverges from a healthy pattern, it’s a warning sign that something is likely out of whack with your hormones or internal organs.
Although tracking your menstrual health is as helpful as checking your other vital signs, most women have no idea what a normal cycle looks like. Because most of us only discuss our menstrual cycles with close friends and family, our definition of “normal” is usually based on the experiences of our mothers, sisters, and friends.
However, thanks to medical research, objective standards of menstrual cycle health do exist. This article will help you evaluate your cycle health based on benchmarks that are currently accepted by the medical community.
What does a healthy cycle look like?
Because every woman’s body is different, there is no such thing as a perfect cycle. However, after observing tens of thousands of women around the world, medical researchers have identified the key hallmarks of a healthy cycle.1 Knowing these standards will help you determine whether your cycle falls within the range of normal.
While these benchmarks are very helpful in determining hormonal health, I strongly recommend charting at least two full cycles before you draw any conclusions. Most women who begin charting are at least partially surprised by their cycle observations—it’s amazing how different our assumptions can be from reality! Plus, should you need to schedule a visit to your doctor, your charts will be an excellent source of data for both of you.
If you’d like to make charting part of your daily routine, you can download free charts and instructions here!
Note: These ranges apply to women in their peak reproductive years who are not using hormonal birth control. Healthy cycles can look different for girls who recently started cycling and for women approaching menopause.
Benchmarks of a healthy menstrual cycle:
1. Your cycle is 24-36 days long.
If all four phases of your cycle fall within the healthy range, your cycle will be no shorter than 24 days and no longer than 36 days. The length of your cycle is the number of days between periods, counting the first day of your period until the day before your next period starts.
Very short cycles are potentially the result of hormonal imbalance and likely do not have a sufficient luteal phase (see below).
Very long cycles likely have an extended pre-ovulatory phase, which could be an indication of hormonal imbalance. Long cycles may also result from stress, illness, or another lifestyle change.
Because these external factors can help explain having a long cycle every once in awhile, it’s always a good idea to add basic notes to your chart to help remind you what else was happening in your life. These notes can help you piece together what might have contributed to an abnormally long cycle.
2. Your period is between 3-7 days long with at least one day of medium or heavy bleeding.
Throughout every cycle, progesterone and estrogen work to build and maintain your uterine lining (also known as the endometrium). This process is an essential part of your reproductive health, as the uterine lining is responsible for nourishing an egg through the first 10-12 weeks of pregnancy. If conception does not take place in a given cycle, the lining ultimately sheds at the time of menstruation.
For this reason, paying attention to your menstrual blood (which is the shedding uterine lining) allows you to observe the hormonal activity of the previous cycle. For instance, are you seeing a normal amount of blood? Did you have sufficient estrogen levels to build up a healthy endometrium?
A healthy period is between 3-7 days of normal bleeding (not spotting). You’ll also want to see at least one day of medium or heavy bleeding in that time. You can measure your bleeding with these metrics:
Heavy: Using about five or more regular pads or tampons per day and needing to change pad or tampon at night.
Medium: Using about 3-5 regular pads or tampons per day. Consistent flow.
Light: Using about 1-2 regular pads or tampons per day. Some regular flow.
Spotting: Using only a pantyliner. Irregular flow.
A note on premenstrual spotting: Premenstrual spotting is not included in your count of normal bleeding days. This can be an indication of insufficient progesterone levels to maintain your uterine lining (see more information below on luteal phase).
3. There is a clear pattern of approaching ovulation.
The female cycle works as a bit like a line of dominoes, with the final domino being ovulation. If ovulation occurs, it tells us that your body successfully accomplished every other part of the sequence—which is great news for your hormonal health! For this reason, ovulation is considered a vital sign of health for women.
Unless you have access to a monthly pelvic ultrasound, it’s impossible to say with 100% certainty that ovulation occurred. However, two external signs can increase your confidence that ovulation is taking place:
- Increasingly fertile cervical mucus over 5-7 days. As your body begins its preparations for ovulation, you’ll likely first observe a change from dryness to moisture when you’re wiping. Over the next few days, you’ll ideally start seeing increasing amounts of clear, slippery, stretchy, and abundant cervical mucus. This will culminate in Peak Day, which is the last day you observe fertile cervical mucus and the approximate time of ovulation.
- A positive LH test. LH testing is an inexpensive way to gain even more clarity around the time of ovulation. This at-home urine test allows you to identify when luteinizing hormone (LH) surges. This hormonal event triggers ovulation, and a positive test reading indicates that ovulation will occur within 24-36 hours.
If you’re serious about achieving or avoiding pregnancy, or if you have abnormal cycle patterns, I highly encourage working with a fertility awareness instructor as you begin charting your observations. Identifying your fertile window can be the trickiest part of fertility awareness method, and depending on your fertility goals, the stakes can be very high!
4. Your luteal phase is between 9-18 days long.
Your luteal phase begins the day after Peak Day (your last day of observing highly fertile cervical mucus and the approximate day of ovulation) and ends when your period begins.
During your luteal phase, high progesterone levels maintain your uterine lining, which is designed to nourish a fetus through the first 10-12 weeks of pregnancy. If conception doesn’t occur and an egg does not implant in the endometrium, progesterone levels naturally fall and the uterine lining sheds. You observe this shedding externally as menstruation.
Thus, a luteal phase of 9-18 days indicates that your progesterone levels are sufficient to maintain the uterine lining long enough for an egg to successfully implant.
But even if you don’t want to get pregnant now or ever, it’s still very important we see a sufficient luteal phase and healthy progesterone levels. After all, progesterone is a major player in your reproductive health and affects your emotional and physical wellbeing.
To determine your luteal phase length, simply count the number of days between Peak Day and the start of your next period.
5. Any pain or discomfort you experience throughout your cycle is bearable.
This one is a bit subjective, but still very important.
Ask yourself, “Are any of the symptoms I experience as part of my monthly cycle holding me back from living the life I want?”
If the answer is yes, it’s probably time to talk to your doctor about what might be going wrong. Many of the causes of hormone imbalance and reproductive difficulties only worsen with time, so it’s vital you get to the root of what’s causing your menstrual woes.
Contrary to what many of us have heard from our friends, families, and even doctors, debilitating pain is NOT a normal part of living in a female body. If you’re experiencing physical or emotional symptoms that significantly impact your life or require extensive use of pain medication, this is likely a red flag signaling imbalance.
Fortunately, many of these symptoms can be treated with targeted changes to diet and lifestyle. Check with your healthcare provider to see what sort of treatment might be right for you.
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- All benchmarks of healthy cycles taken from the research completed by the Reproductive Health Research Institute and communicated through the FEMM framework. For more information, go to femmhealth.org.
I believe that you were fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and therefore, your body reveals divine truth. My calling is to help you step into the full, electric power of your female design to discover who God created you to be.
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