Periods. They're painful and messy, and unpredictable. But while you might not be looking forward to getting your periods every month, realising you're late for no apparent reason is probably a worse feeling. Turns out, the stress caused by a deadly pandemic can do that to your body.
As the world struggles to come to terms with the deadly coronavirus outbreak, our mental health has gone for a toss. Along with that, your menstrual cycles may also have been affected - you're locked indoors for days at a stretch, your sleep patterns have been adversely affected, you're probably not eating healthy and your physical activities have been reduced to a minimum.
With most countries declaring a complete lockdown to curb the pandemic, women around the world are complaining about a new issue - irregular periods and more-painful-than-usual menstrual cramps.
While you may be going about your life, as usual, you're probably missing what the constant, underlying stress is doing to your body. It manifests itself in various ways in different individuals - in some, it could be in the form of a headache and in others, it could completely disrupt the menstrual cycle.
Dr. Madhurima Kumar, who has worked as an Obstetrics and Gynecology house staff at MR Bangur Hospital in Kolkata, opined that in order for women to have regular periods, they must lead healthy lives with fixed routines. However, the fact that the Covid-19 lockdown has disrupted our daily routine could be why some women are reporting irregular cycles.
"Stress affects the amount of cortisol produced by our body. Cortisol is also known as a stress hormone and it is one of the main regulators of our entire hormonal axis. So if we are stressed, more cortisol is being produced which in turn suppresses our normal reproductive hormones," explained Dr. Kumar.
National Health Service (NHS) explains that human bodies aren't really accustomed to dealing with stress for a prolonged period of time and thus begins reacting to it. And biologically speaking, the human body doesn't really care for the source of stress; its response would be the same irrespective of what's causing you to feel that way.
Women, on average, have a 28 days cycle. It may, nevertheless, differ from person to person. For some, periods come knocking right on time at the end of the cycle while for others, periods may get postponed by a few days or come earlier than expected each month. But as NHS explains, an abnormal amount of stress can cause a further delay in periods or no periods at all!
Dr. Shweta Goswami, a senior gynaecologist, believes that stress, along with an irregular lifestyle, is the main culprit here. "Stress is bound to cause hormonal imbalance and even PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) in women. If you had been borderline PCOS all along, this stress induced by the pandemic might push you over to the other side," warned Dr. Goswami.
She said that the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, and the fact that no one really knows when this might end, has resulted in widespread panic. Also since most women are now locked indoors, they're probably not leading the healthiest of lives - their sleep patterns and diets may also have been affected. Such unusual situations could exacerbate preexisting hormonal imbalances in women. For instance, if a woman had been diagnosed with mild PCOS, it might get aggravated during this time.
"Stress can increase insulin imbalance in the body which leads to the secretion of the leptin hormone. For women who would earlier get their periods in 30 days, their cycles might now be delayed by 7-8 days or even more. This is called Oligomenorrhea," said Dr. Goswami.
Dr. Goswami also warned that this could get worse if the crisis deepens in the future. If hormonal imbalances persist in women, it could affect hair growth, weight and even induce acne. It may even lead to impaired fertility in the long run. "We've seen cases where women under extreme stress or duress have stopped having periods altogether. Although we've not reached that stage yet, we just might if things continue the way they are now," she said.
A study has also shown that the stress can also affect the length of the menstrual cycle, by taking into account the menstrual cycles of nurses. Given that healthcare workers around the globe are working 24*7 to treat Covid-19 patients, this is particularly poignant.
The research has found links between stress caused by extreme and traumatic situations and amenorrhea, which refers to the absence of menstruation altogether. Links have also been found between such stress and anovulation in nurses and healthcare workers. Anovulation refers to the lack of ovulation during the menstrual cycle and could lead to infertility. This, the study says, could also be a result of irregular work hours and routine.
As if that weren't enough, women should also gear up for more painful periods, thanks to the lockdown.
Dr. Baijeek Sain, who's interning in the Gynaecology department at Calcutta National Medical College and Hospital, has an explanation for why that may happen. "Stress alters cortisol and the hypothalamic-pituitary axis controlling the gonadal hormones, which could further aggravate menstrual cramp and even cause heavy bleeding when you do get periods," said Dr. Sain. He also suggested that taking light medication after consulting a gynaecologist could help if one is suffering from severe menstrual cramps.
Both Dr. Sain and Dr. Goswami agree that a change in lifestyle could help alleviate such issues. "Sleep cycle and the normal circadian rhythm is very much essential for the body to regulate its cortisol activity," said Dr. Sain. He also said that a healthy diet and avoiding food rich it fat could help keep a tab on hormone activity in the body.
For those with severe hormonal imbalance and stress-induced PCOS, partaking in yoga and exercises, especially abdominal exercises could be beneficial, said Dr. Goswami. She also emphasized that one key factor in reducing stress levels is coming to terms with the fact that the current situation, where all of India is locked down, is not in anyone's hands and working on oneself is really the best way to deal with it.
For those of you who haven't experienced the aforementioned symptoms yet, you're probably blessed with a more cooperative uterus. But that doesn't mean you're not at risk for developing complications in the long run.
To be honest, there is little one can do to reduce stress or stay calm during such tense circumstances, with the threat of a pandemic hanging above our heads like a time bomb. Yet, having a fixed routine for the day, exercising, eating healthy and just trying to take it easy may just trick your bodies into believing things are normal, thereby reducing stress levels as much as possible.