Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been anecdotal reports of women experiencing irregular menstrual cycle symptoms. The onset of irregular menstrual cycle symptoms has been known to be associated with high levels of stress. Research shows that perceived levels of stress have been significantly higher since the COVID-19 pandemic, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Menstrual cycle irregularities are indicative of reproductive functioning, which is especially important for women who desire to have children. In a new study, Noelle Ozimek and colleagues aimed to empirically investigate self-reported changes in women’s menstrual cycles before and during the COVID-19 pandemic to determine if women’s menstrual cycles are more irregular during the pandemic than before. Their findings have been published in the Journal of Women’s Health.
For their research, Ozimek and colleagues collected self-report data from 210 reproductively capable women (ages 18-45) who live in the United States. These participants were not taking any contraceptives, had no reproductive disorders, were not pregnant or breastfeeding within 12 months of taking the survey, and reported no history of gynecological surgery.
Participants responded to 23 survey items (distributed via Qualtrics, Provo, UT, USA) including 10 items from the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). Participants filled out demographic information, their menstrual cycle history, menstrual cycle length, prevalence of spotting (intermittent bleeding) in between cycles, and perceived levels of stress.
Based on the data collected, the researchers found that levels of perceived stress have been significantly higher during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to before the pandemic. More than half of the participants reported at least one change in their menstrual cycles since the pandemic. Specifically, 50% of the participants reported a change in their menstrual cycle schedule, meaning starting or ending their cycle sooner or later than expected and 34% of participants reported changes in their premenstrual cycle symptoms.
The data showed that participants who report higher levels of perceived stress also report a change in their menses length and menstrual flow (light of heavy bleeding). Menses refers to the phase of the cycle in which the female experiences vaginal bleeding.
This research provides evidence of menstrual cycle irregularities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and suggests women’s menstrual cycles have been more irregular since the outbreak of the virus. Ozimek and colleagues found that employment status was not related to levels of perceived stress. Furthermore, all participants reported about the same levels of perceived stress (high levels of perceived stress), which suggests the COVID-19 pandemic is a shared stressor.
Other research shows that women who reported working highly stressful jobs reported both shorter and longer duration of menses whereas women with depression report longer duration of menses. Ozimek and colleagues did not assess women’s mental health status; however, women who suffer from depression or other mental health concerns may have reported higher levels of perceived stress.
There are other factors to consider regarding the onset of menstrual cycle irregularities such as insomnia. Higher rates of insomnia (rates have been higher since than COVID-19 pandemic) may contribute to menstrual cycles irregularities due to disrupted circadian rhythms, which have been known to impact women’s reproductive health.
In this study, participants retrospectively reported their perceived levels of stress and menstrual cycle information, making the findings subject to recall bias. Despite some limitations, this study shows that the COVID-19 pandemic may be a direct contributor to the onset of irregular menstrual cycle symptoms.
The study, “Impact of Stress on Menstrual Cyclicity During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic: A Survey Study“, was authored by Noelle Ozimek, Karen Velez, Hannah Anvari, Lauren Butler, Kara N. Goldman, and Nicole C. Woitowich.