Cycle got wonky during the pandemic? Here’s why

My Hormonology

Cycle got wonky during the pandemic? Here’s why

BY GABRIELLE LICHTERMAN

 

  • Key findings: Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, women across the globe have reported changes in their menstrual cycle, numerous studies reveal. The likely reason: Chronic stress, which can disrupt how your body regulates your cycle.

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AUGUST 10, 2021—Have you experienced unexpected changes in your menstrual cycle during 2020 and 2021, such as longer or shorter cycles, irregular bleeding patterns and skipped periods?

If so, you’re not the only one. Studies show that many women around the world have reported that their menstrual cycles have been altered in some way during this time.

For example…

  • In Wuhan, China, where most of the earliest known cases of COVID-19 were found, 25% of women surveyed experienced heavier or lighter menstrual bleeding and 19% had a longer than typical menstrual cycle.1
  • In one survey of female health workers conducted in Turkey, 28.7% reported changes in their menstrual cycle and another survey of Turkish women found that 27.6% experienced irregularities in 2020 compared to 12.1% in previous years.2,3
  • In a study from Ireland, 46% of women surveyed reported a change in their menstrual cycle since early 2020, 53% noticed worsening premenstrual symptoms and 30% experienced the onset of menstrual cramps that they didn’t have before 2020.4

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Scientists say the blame for most of these menstrual issues rests squarely on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The pandemic/period connection

Stress has been spiking ever since the unfamiliar and scary coronavirus began raging through every continent. And as hospital beds continue to fill, news stations devote hours to pandemic programming and governments take action to try to mitMy Hormonologyigate the fallout with shutdowns, face masks and social distancing, stress has continued to stay high for many people.

For some, the stress has been even greater. Research from the University of Victoria in Canada reveals that some of the hardest hit have been those prone to worry, since they’re more sensitive to the anxiety-provoking dangers of COVID-19, and extroverts who’ve found it difficult to be isolated, separated from friends, family and colleagues.5

If you or someone you know contracted COVID-19 and developed severe symptoms, long-haul syndrome, a lingering loss of taste or smell or other problems, your stress would understandably ratchet up higher, too.

Then, of course, there’s the stress related to dealing with changes in life caused by a global pandemic: Your income or worklife may have been affected, you may have had difficulty accessing healthcare, you could have suddenly had to homeschool children or take care of children full-time or you had another challenge that caused your stress level to shoot up and stay elevated.

The problem with sky-high stress that continues for days, weeks or months is that it interrupts many of your body’s delicate processes. Your system gets overloaded by stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can lead to headaches, fatigue, insomnia and lower immunity.

Well, in addition to all those problems, chronic stress is also known to throw off your menstrual cycle and bleeding pattern. That’s because an overabundance of cortisol can interfere with a key cycle-regulating area of the brain, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which then prompts a cascade of changes that block ovulation. Once that happens, your body no longer follows the predictable patterns you’re used to expecting month after month. In fact, one study found a direct link between how much stress and anxiety women experience and the likelihood of menstrual disruptions.6

Stress also triggers other challenges in your body, such as inflammation and muscle tension. This can lead to the onset of new menstrual cramps or worse cramps than you usually experience as well as more intense premenstrual symptoms, such as body aches, down moods and irritability.

What can you do?

Happily, there is some good news to report: Researchers following women’s menstrual cycle patterns over these past two years have discovered that when stress goes down, cycles and periods return to normal.

This means that you could get back to your typical cycle by finding ways to slam the brakes on stress. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Turn off the TV: Regularly take a break from the news to decompress and avoid retraumatizing yourself.
  • Head outside: Research shows that women who spend time in nature, such as walking, gardening or simply sitting quietly, cope better with pandemic stress thanks to the calming, restorative effect greenery has on us.7,8
  • Download an app: You can use free therapy apps, such as Intellicare Hub (Android, iOS), that have been study-proven to decrease anxiety and depression by teaching you coping mechanisms.9
  • Create art: Whether you enjoy painting, drawing, making music or writing, any kind creative outlet reduces the production of cortisol and ushers in relaxation, shows Drexel University research.10

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When to talk with your healthcare provider

It’s important to remind yourself that abnormal can be the new normal while under stress so you don’t stress yourself out even more by worrying about these changes.

However, if you notice menstrual cycle-related symptoms that could be problematic—such as excessive menstrual bleeding (you’re going through one pad every hour, for example), intense pain or pain accompanied by fever—please call or video chat your healthcare provider and let her or him know.

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SOURCES:
(1) Kezhen Li, et al., “Analysis of sex hormones and menstruation in COVID-19 women of child-bearing age”, Reproductive Biomedicine Online, 42 (2021): 260-267
(2) 
Taha Takmaz, et al., “The impact of COVID-19-related mental health issues on menstrual cycle characteristics of female healthcare providers”, Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research, published online June 16, 2021
(3) Bahar Yuksel, Faruk Ozgor, “Effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on female sexual behavior”, International Journal of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, 150 (2020):98-102
(4) Niamh Phelan, Lucy Ann Behan, Lisa Owens, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women’s Reproductive Health”, Frontiers in Endocrinology, published online March 22, 2021
(5) Sam Liu, et al., “Personality and perceived stress during COVID-19 pandemic: Testing the mediating role of perceived threat and efficacy”, Personality and Individual Differences, 168 (2021): 110351
(6)Omer Demir, Hidayet Sal, Cihan Comba, “Triangle of COVID, anxiety and menstrual cycle”, The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research, published online May 6, 2021
(7) Joshua W. Morse, et al., “COVID-19 and human-nature relationships: Vermonters’ activities in nature and associated nonmaterial values during the pandemic”, PLOS ONE, 15 (2020): e0243697
(8) Masashi Soga, et al., “A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic”, Ecological Applications, published online November 17, 2020
(9) Andrea K. Graham, et al., “Coached Mobile App Platform for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety Among Primary Care Patients: A Randomized Clinical Trial”, JAMA Psychiatry, 77 (2020): 906-914
(10) Girija Kaimal,Kendra Ray, Juan Muniz, “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making”, Art Therapy, published online May 23, 2016

 

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