Anyone else have a love/hate relationship with their period? Every month it’s “yay not pregnant!” followed by an onslaught of torturous cramps, mood swings, and bloating. If you’re one of those people who somehow don’t suffer from painful periods, then please DM me all your secrets, because the struggle is real. There are a lot of varying factors that can affect your menstrual cycle, such as medications, weight changes, sleeping patterns, and lucky us, we can now add the pandemic to that list. Yes, that’s right, as if periods weren’t already annoying enough, the pandemic may be making them worse. Added stress from the pandemic can be the reason you’re suddenly skipping a month, or why it feels like a grown man is sitting on your abdomen. In order to figure out what’s going on with our menstrual cycles, I spoke with three certified women’s health experts to find out exactly why and how quarantine has been f*cking with your flow.
The Menstruation Situation
First, a little health lesson: what is menstruation? Menstruation is normal vaginal bleeding that occurs during a monthly cycle. Every month, the uterus prepares for pregnancy and if no pregnancy happens, it then sheds its lining, often ruining your day and your favorite pair of underwear. Periods are accompanied by premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that affects emotions, physical health, and behavior leading up to and during certain days of the menstrual cycle—so fun, right? Now that we’ve got the basics down, let’s dive into how menstruation can get messed up.
Have you been experiencing particularly annoying or off periods lately? Turns out you’re not alone. Since the pandemic has begun, Dr. Jackie Walters (aka Dr. Jackie), author of The Queen V: Everything You Need To Know About Sex, Intimacy, and Down There Health Care, says that she’s seen a 10-15% increase in patients with irregular periods (missed periods, more frequent periods, heavier periods, etc.). While there’s no definitive answer as to why people are experiencing irregular periods, Dr. Jackie says, “There could be many theories such as sedentary lives, change in diet, and stress.” Trying to figure out if your period is considered abnormal? A typical menstrual cycle usually lasts 5-7 days and occurs roughly every 28 days. Your cycle is counted from the first day of your period to the first day of your next period, which can vary from woman to woman. Dr. Jackie says that, “Therefore an abnormal period would be anything that is much longer or shorter than that time length.” You can also tell if your period falls into the abnormal category if your cycles are closer than 21 days from start to start or further than 32 days apart.
The stress from living in quarantine has drastically changed most of our sleeping, eating, and exercise patterns, which can in turn have adverse effects on our menstrual cycles. Dr. Sherry A. Ross, women’s health expert and author of She-ology the She-quel and founder of She-ology Hormonal Supplements for women explains, “The way our bodies handle and manage periods and stress is a very complex hormonal balancing act. When this wiring is significantly disrupted (like during a global pandemic) the balance is upset and our bodies become out of sync and changes in our normal bodily functions become noticeable.” Dr. Sherry goes on to say that, “Given the unprecedented world changes happening with COVID-19 and social injustices, stress levels are beyond the usual amounts we can normally tolerate.” Our increased state of anxiety, while justified, can be significantly affecting our body, resulting in physical changes, like heavier flows, or having no periods at all.
Stress can wreak havoc on our menstrual cycles. Dr. Felice Gersh, an award-winning OB/GYN and founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, and author of PCOS SOS Fertility Fast Track tell us that, “Stress can predominantly cause irregularities of the cycle by interfering with ovulation, but can also increase menstrual cramps, heavy periods, and worsen PMS.” She continues, “Stress alters hormones and creates imbalances, and can increase cortisol.” When we’re stressed, we release cortisol, which can alter our reproductive hormones. These chemical imbalances can cause irregular cycles. Stress can make your period a day late, a week late, or even a month late. I’m all for surprises, but c’mon, how about a proposal, or a pizza, not my period. Dr. Jackie adds that, “Not only can stress lead to amenorrhea (no menstrual cycles), but it can also lead to dysmenorrhea or painful cycles.” She continues, “When we are in a higher state of stress, it can cause us to have a heightened perception of pain.” So that’s great.
Between the pandemic, protests, and the state of the world in general, it’s understandable that our stress levels are insanely elevated. This never-ending stream of stressful stories are screwing with our sanity and our cycles. This may be the very sentence that led to your S.O. sleeping on the couch for the week, but have you tried calming down? Seriously, the most important thing we can do is not to stress about being stressed, because that’s a sure-fire way to turn your menstrual cycle into a vicious cycle.
It’s time to break out all those stress-reducing coloring books, lavender bath bombs, essential oils, or whatever de-stresses you, and just chill the F out. Dr. Sherry says, “Pandemic stress can be the sole cause of these irregular periods and symptoms.” You have nowhere to be and nothing to do, and that’s okay. So many things are out of our control right now, but what is in our control is how we respond to things and how we take care of ourselves. Dr. Jackie recommends that we all “have an outlet to decrease stress levels,” and reminds us that, “Life is 10 percent of what happens to you, and 90 percent how you react to it.” We need to view these times as a wine glass half full type of situation, and cut ourselves some slack on the things that are beyond our control.
How To Fix Your Flow
Speaking of control, let’s talk about birth control. Birth control is great for preventing unwanted pregnancies and eliminating the element of surprise from your monthly gift. It also apparently really bothers the patriarchy, so that’s an added bonus. Many of us take birth control pills in efforts to ease the severity of our periods and to assist with regularity, but can it help with stress-related menstrual issues too? Dr. Jackie says yes. She explains, “If the birth control shortens the cycle or causes the flow to become lighter, this can decrease the severity of the symptomatology. The usage of birth control can also curb some of the symptoms related to menstruation such as overeating, bloating, mood changes, etc.”
To be clear, birth control pills are not exclusively an anti-stressor, but they can help alleviate some of your more concerning symptoms, which can help relax your body and mind, such as not stressing over when your period will finally decide to grace you with its presence. Dr. Sherry further elaborates saying that, “These hormonal options, such as the birth control pill or progesterone, are typically used to regulate and balance out your periods and stabilize hormonal stress-related chaos.” So in some ways your birth control is similar to a chill pill, but for your reproductive health.
Discovering a new routine can also be highly beneficial to your overall well-being and reproductive health. We’re five months into this pandemic with no end in sight, so it may be time to adapt and establish new routines. Dr. Gersh suggests to start by, “Taking stock of all aspects of your life—sleep, stress, nutrition, fitness, and relationships. Get a fixed routine, even if your work no longer requires it.” Begin with some baby steps like working out at home, trying meditation, and eating some green things (no, gummy bears don’t count). Dr. Gersh advises that, “When done right, diet and exercise can help to reestablish regular cycles, reduce cramps and PMS symptoms, and lessen blood loss.” Try it out and see how taking care of your physical and mental health translates into your menstruation and helps regulate your cycle and ease your symptoms. Dr. Sherry adds that, “Exercising 4-6 times a week for at least 30 minutes is the perfect activity for helping to control unexpected stress.” When it comes down to just 30 minutes of exercise versus a week plus of cramping, bleeding, and irritability, I’ll take the 30 minutes of exercise.
But how do you know when it’s time to consult your OB/GYN? Based on the recommendations from all three of our interviewed experts, you should make an appointment with your doctor if you have missed your period for two or more cycles (and know that you’re not pregnant), are having an increased amount of pain or discomfort, and/or if you are experiencing heavier bleeding. Keep in mind that you can also try setting up an appointment via Zoom or Telemedicine if you’re not comfortable visiting a doctor’s office right now because of COVID-19 concerns. Dr. Jackie also recommends keeping a “menstrual diary” to present to your doctor, detailing your regularity and symptoms in order to help establish the most effective treatment plan.
Believe me, when it comes to periods, I feel your pain, and the agony of feeling like your uterus is being punched repeatedly is the worst. But there is hope, and there are medical professionals out there that want to help you. To sum it all up, stop stressing and learn to go with the flow (literally), that’s it—period.
Images: Africa Studio / Shutterstock