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Women’s menstrual cycles impacted by pandemic lockdowns, research suggests

Women’s menstrual cycle length and symptoms were impacted by lifestyle changes during the first COVID-19 lockdown, a new study suggests.

Pandemic lockdown
Scientists investigated menstrual cycle characteristics of women before and during lockdown (Generic image)

Scientists at Nottingham Trent University investigated menstrual cycle characteristics of more than 550 women before and during lockdown.

In 2020 the pandemic resulted in significant disruption to daily life for people across the world, with significant changes to work, social, dietary and exercise patterns.

The researchers found that half (50%) of women reported a change in cycle length during lockdown and more than two-thirds (71%) experienced a change in bleeding patterns.

The menstrual cycle can be altered by a wide range of factors and the researchers say it is important that females and clinicians understand these changes and whether there might be any possible effects on women’s health at an individual level. .

Participants reported a median increase in their cycle length of five days and a median decrease of three days once lockdown began and a third of women (34%) said they saw an increase in at least one symptom related to their typical cycle.

The researchers sought to identify the main contributing factors brought about by changes in diet, exercise and stress.

Participants reported an increased alcohol intake, consumption of cooked and baked goods and unhealthy foods.

The researchers found changes in menstrual cycle length – both an increase and decrease – were significantly associated with eating white and processed meats and an increase in dairy consumption was associated with cycle length increase.

Most menstrual cycle-associated symptoms that showed evidence of change from the onset of the pandemic into the lockdown were psychosocial in nature.

More than half of all participants reported a change in mood (54%) irritability (60%) emotional feeling (67%) worry (61%) feeling distracted (57%) lack of concentration (57%) motivation (62%) and focus (56%).

Despite numerous changes in symptoms of the menstrual cycle, a lack of focus was the only one significantly associated with a change in cycle length, where it was found to have increased in almost two-thirds (61%) of women.

Surprisingly, stress – known to elicit changes in the menstrual cycle – was not associated with a greater likelihood of a change in cycle length, the researchers reported, despite more than half of participants reporting high stress in relation to worry about their families’ health.

The study suggests that this finding could be due to the fact that a large proportion of women were exercising females, exercise and balanced nutrition are recommended actions to offset stress.

Despite this, researchers say that longer-term stress could still have a negative impact on fertility and reproductive health.

The team found some differences in symptoms between women of differing activity levels.  Generally, active women showed a change in cycle length to be associated with a lack of focus, whilst for elite active level women, lower back pain and a lack of motivation were linked to cycle length change.

“While more research needs to be done in relation to potential factors driving changes, our initial findings provide a small but useful insight into the impact of lifestyle changes on women’s menstrual cycle patterns and symptoms during the first pandemic lockdown,” said lead researcher Dr Jessica Piasecki, an expert in exercise physiology in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.

She said: “With the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19 and peaks and troughs on the number of cases, there are concerns that continued cycle changes over time could become a serious consequence perhaps contributing to longer term reproductive issues, but further research is needed.

“Links between lockdown and mental health mean it’s unsurprising that the most substantial changes were in psychosocial symptoms and again our work highlights the potential for long-term stress to influence female fertility and other health.

“Future research should continue to investigate any long-lasting changes, as well as providing education and support for females undergoing any life stressors that may implicate their menstrual cycle or its symptoms.”

The study – which also involved University College London, Loughborough University, the University of Lincoln and sports science organisation Orreco Ltd – is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was awarded The Times and The Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2023 and ranked second best university in the UK in the Uni Compare Top 100 rankings (2021/2022). It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with nearly 39,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.

    Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data). It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.

    NTU is ranked 4th most sustainable university in the world and 1st in the UK for sustainability-themed Education and Research in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Women’s menstrual cycles impacted by pandemic lockdowns, research suggests

Published on 5 December 2022
  • Subject area: Sciences including sport sciences
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Science and Technology

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