HomeHealthStudies Show Pandemic Stress Affected Women's Menstrual Cycles

Studies Show Pandemic Stress Affected Women’s Menstrual Cycles

During the pandemic, many women experienced immense stress as they took on a disproportionate share of child care and housework and dropped out of the labor force in large numbers. A new study suggests that the additional stress may have changed women’s menstrual cycles in various ways. Women who reported high levels of stress also reported early or delayed periods. Some had a heavier menstrual flow or increased spotting between cycles. Others said their periods lasted longer or shorter during the pandemic stress than usual.

Martina Anto-Ocrah, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, considers the results “alarming” because of the effects an irregular cycle can have on fertility and mental health. “This extends beyond menstruation; it’s about women’s well-being,” she said.

Results of the Study:

The study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, relied on self-reported data from 354 women between 18 and 45. Women were asked in early May 2021 to answer questions about their pandemic-related stress and report any menstrual cycle changes between March 2020 and May 2021.

More than half surveyed reported changes in their menstrual cycle length, period duration, menstrual flow, and spotting. Furthermore, 12% of that number reported a change in all four areas. The researchers found a significant association between high levels of pandemic-related stress and changes in the menstrual cycle. Younger women and women with previously diagnosed mental health conditions were more vulnerable to feeling high stress and experiencing menstrual cycle changes.

The study authors noted the data were collected from a racially diverse and geographically representative sample. Before the pandemic, the women were not on birth control, menopausal or postmenopausal. The study did not include trans or non-binary people who also have periods.

What Pandemic Stress Does to Your Menstrual Cycles

Stress can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle in several ways. The stress hormone cortisol can affect the body’s production of estrogen and progesterone, which are reproductive hormones that influence the menstrual cycle. Stress-related factors, such as poor nutrition, weight gain, weight loss, and poor sleep, also can play a role.

A prolonged irregular menstrual cycle sometimes can be a sign of more worrying changes in the body, said Amy Wagner, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Suppose someone is in a chronically stressful situation. She said that higher cortisol levels could affect periods and increase the risk of inflammation, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, high blood pressure, or other chronic diseases.

In general, one or two abnormal cycles aren’t something to worry about, but she encourages patients to talk to their doctors and to continue tracking their periods to be sure no concerning patterns emerge. In addition to stress, she said that changes in one’s menstrual cycle could signal thyroid disease, hormonal changes, cancer, pregnancy, or an infection.


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