High levels of stress and disturbed sleep experienced by women during the pandemic contributed to disrupted menstrual cycles, a new study has found.
Scientists also say women suffered worse anxiety, depression, premenstrual symptoms and a reduced sex drive as a result of the events of the past 18 months.
The research team led by Dr Lisa Owens in Dublin surveyed over 1,300 women last April in order to uncover the impact of the pandemic on reproductive health. The survey looked into standard measures of depression, anxiety, and sleep quality, alongside their menstrual cycles. In the survey, menstrual disturbances included irregular, missed, painful, or heavy, and premenstrual symptoms.
Over half of the women surveyed reported an overall change in their menstrual cycles since the beginning of the pandemic. While 64 per cent said they experienced worse premenstrual symptoms and just over half reported a reduced sex drive.
The study also revealed double the rates of severe depression, anxiety and poor sleep in menstruating women in comparison to pre-pandemic times. Researchers say that these disruptions were linked to increased levels of mental distress and poor sleep.
Dr Michelle Maher, one of the study’s authors, said: “Our findings highlight a real need to provide appropriate medical care and mental health support to women affected by menstrual disturbance, given the unprecedented psychological burden associated with the pandemic.”
The female-led study contributed to the overall understanding of the reproductive health system and the researchers hope it can guide future practices and help shape health policies.
Experts now think affected women need medical and psychological support due to the effects the pandemic has had on female reproductive health. The events of the last two years have also significantly impacted our collective mental health, and led to notable changes to daily lifestyles, eating and exercising habits.
Stress can impact menstrual cycles by affecting hormone levels, as well as causing fluctuations in body weight or disturbed sleep patterns. These stressors are associated with different side effects, say researchers.
Stress hormones can directly inhibit sex hormones, while sleep disturbance is linked it infertility, and an increase in belly fat is also related to menstrual dysfunction.
The team of experts also plan to conduct these surveys at six-month intervals to examine the progress and to identify any longer-term effects on female reproductive and mental health. In addition to the surveys, more objective measurements of blood pressure, weight, sex hormone levels and ovulation will be collected from the women participating.
Dr Maher said women who are worried about their periods should seek medical advice.
She added: "We would encourage women experiencing any reproductive disturbances such as irregular, missed periods, painful or heavy periods, PMS or reduced sex drive, as well as mental health disturbances - including symptoms of low mood, anxiety, stress and poor sleep - to see their GP for advice."
Dr Maher added: "We are planning to provide support for women affected by menstrual cycle abnormalities by developing psychological support workshops at our centre."
The research was presented at the Society for Endocrinology annual conference in Edinburgh.
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