It’s safe to say the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot, from the way we date to the way we travel abroad. But, one thing we weren’t expecting to change, is our period.
In fact, more and more women (and those assigned female at birth) have opened up about the way the pandemic has affected their menstrual cycle, with some noticing irregular periods while others say theirs have stopped altogether.
So, is there really a link between the pandemic and our period, and should we be worried about it? We spoke to Dr Samantha Wild, Women’s Health Lead at Bupa Health Clinics, to find out.
Why has the pandemic affected periods?
The short answer is, stress. Yep, as well as affecting your quality of sleep, your sex life and your appetite, stress can also affect your period. And, let’s be real, what’s more stressful than living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic?
“There’s no question that the last year has been stressful for us all,” says Dr Wild, “It’s completely understandable to feel anxious, stressed, or worried about the pandemic, and these feelings may have affected your period.”
But how does stress actually impact periods?
When your body is under stress, it goes into fight or flight mode, sending all of its energy to deal with it. This blocks our reproductive hormones from communicating with our ovaries, and, while stress comes and goes, prolonged stress (eg. a two year pandemic) forces our bodies to adapt.
Put simply, when our body is dealing with all that stress, multitasking simply isn’t a priority, so our periods are put on the back burner.
“Your menstrual cycle is controlled by the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. A change in these hormones can wreak havoc with your emotions, leaving you feeling anxious, irritated, stressed, or depressed,” explains Dr Wild, “Stress can impact your menstrual cycle in several ways, including making them shorter or longer, stopping them altogether or becoming more painful.”
Dr Wild continues: “During a particularly stressful time, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which helps your body prepare to fight or flee from a threat. If you’ve felt stressed for a long period of time, for example during the pandemic, this persistent level of stress may have left you suspended in fight-or-flight mode. An increase in your body’s cortisol levels means you’re at a higher risk of a missed or irregular period.”
What should you do if you’ve noticed a change in your period?
“If you’ve noticed a change in your monthly cycle (for example abnormal bleeding or heavier periods) it’s important to speak to your doctor, even if you think it’s because of stress during the pandemic,” says Dr Wild.
“Any abnormal bleeding should be checked out by your doctor, particularly if the bleeding occurs during or after sex. If you usually have a regular cycle, a change in your cycle (such as suddenly having two periods in a month) could indicate an infection or other conditions such as polyps, and cervical and endometrial cancer (cancer of the womb) will need to be considered and excluded.”
If all of the above have been ruled out by your GP, Dr Wild explains that tracking your cycle can be helpful in understanding your personal menstrual cycle. As Dr Wild puts it, “Knowing your menstrual cycle helps you to get to know what’s normal for your body (and what isn’t), for example noting any heavier bleeding. It will help you to quickly spot any unusual discharge, abnormal bleeding or any unusual symptoms, and to flag these changes with your doctor.”
Dr Wild also adds that if stress is affecting your periods, there are plenty of ways to help combat this naturally, including getting enough sleep, regular exercise and maintaining your weight.
Are changes to periods something to be worried about?
As Dr Wild explains, “your cycle can change over time,” and although irregular periods aren’t always a sign of a problem, it’s best to speak to your doctor about a change in your cycle.
“There might not be anything wrong,” she says, “but it’s a good idea to get checked out to see what the cause might be, especially as we’ve all been under a considerable amount of stress recently.”
So, what’s the bottom line on pandemic periods?
While it’s certainly possible that our periods have been affected by the pandemic – and in particular because of stress – Dr Wild emphasises the importance of getting checked out by your GP to be sure.
“No issue or worry is too embarrassing,” she says, “and if it helps to make you feel more comfortable, you can ask for a female GP at your appointment. Although it may feel embarrassing, remember that doctors and nurses see bodies of all shapes and sizes every single day – their main concern is making sure you’re healthy.”
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