Pandemic-related stress linked with changes in women’s menstrual cycles

PITTSBURGH — Pandemic-related stress can trigger a change in menstrual cycles, a new study reveals. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh say they’ve discovered that women having a stressful time during COVID are twice as likely to experience changes in their periods compared to those experiencing low levels of stress.

More than half of the study participants reported changes in menstrual cycle length, period duration, menstrual flow, or increased spotting. All of the irregularities could have economic and health consequences, scientists add.

The research team was alarmed to find around one in eight participants (12%) experienced changes in all four categories. Lead author Professor Martina Anto-Ocrah from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine was inspired to conduct the study after chats about changes in her friends’ menstrual cycles.

“Early in the pandemic, it would come up anecdotally in conversations with girlfriends and other women that ‘things have been kind of wacky with my period since the pandemic,’” says lead author Martina Anto-Ocrah, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.T. (A.S.C.P.), an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Pitt School of Medicine, in a media release.

“Stress can manifest in women’s bodies as changes in menstrual function, and we know that the pandemic has been an incredibly stressful time for many people.”

1 in 10 women were severely stressed by the pandemic

She developed a two-part survey including a COVID-19 stress scale and self-reported menstrual cycle changes between March 2020 and May 2021. To reach a diverse population representative of the U.S. for the survey, the researchers used a market research company to recruit a group that was geographically and racially representative.

The sample was restricted to people between 18 and 45 years-old who identified as a woman and were not using hormonal birth control. Of the 354 women who completed the two sections of the survey, 10.5 percent reported experiencing high levels of stress.

Those with high COVID-19 stress were more likely to report menstrual changes in cycle length, period duration, and spotting than their low-stress peers, according to the findings published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.

“During the pandemic, women’s roles were redefined, and, as a society, we took steps back in terms of gender equity,” says Anto-Ocrah. “Women often shouldered the brunt of childcare and household tasks, and they found changes to daily activities and the risk of COVID-19 infection more stressful than men.”

“The menstrual cycle is an indicator of women’s overall wellbeing,” the researcher continues. “Disruption to the menstrual cycle and fluctuating hormones can impact fertility, mental health, cardiovascular disease and other outcomes. Ultimately, these factors can also play into relationship dynamics, potentially compounding strain on relationships.”

There is a financial toll of having more frequent or heavier periods because of the added cost of women’s hygiene products.

“We know that the pandemic has had negative economic impacts for a lot of people,” Anto-Ocrah concludes. “If changes to your flow during a time of economic distress increase period-related costs – or the ‘tampon tax’ – economically, it’s a double whammy.”

She would like the study to inspire more research into the stress of COVID-19 and women’s health on a global scale, including the long-term impact on fertility, menopause transition and mental health.

South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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