Has Lockdown Changed Your Periods?

Are your periods normally regular, but then over the last few months during lockdown you have found them become less regular?  A few of my friends have mentioned this, perplexed as to why their cycle has suddenly changed.

Changes in your body’s level of the hormones (estrogen and  progesterone) can disrupt the normal pattern of your period (hence why young girls going through puberty and women approaching the menopause often have irregular periods).  There are also lots of other things that can affect your cycle however, and some of these relate to our environment / lifestyle, so for me, it’s not that shocking that the change to our lives and emotions that lockdown bought about might have affected how regular our periods are.

Some common causes of irregular periods include:

  • Having an IUD fitted
  • Changing birth control method or using certain medications
  • Too much exercise
  • PCOS
  • Pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding
  • Stress
  • Dramatic weight gain or weight loss
  • Overactive thyroid
  • Underactive thyroid
  • Thickening of the uterine lining

Some of these reasons are medical and obviously require seeing a doctor to get the correct treatment.  Equally if you find your birth control has started to negatively affect your cycle it’s always worth speaking to the nurse or doctor about this as there might be a better alternative for you.  But some of these changes, specifically over exercising, dramatic weight changes and stress are lifestyle related.

For instance some women find they have changes in their periods because they exercise too much.  They may need to make workouts less intense, or exercise less often to combat this.

If stress is the problem, learning how to manage stress levels or remove the stressful situations from your life can help.

Extreme changes in your weight can affect your periods with weight gain making it harder for your body to ovulate whilst extreme, sudden weight loss can also lead to infrequent or irregular periods.  It’s important to stress here that losing weight sensibly or gaining a few pounds is not likely to have a dramatic effect to your periods (hence using the word extreme!).

Beyond these well accepted reasons that our cycles can change there are other factors that have been recognised as affecting our cycle, syncing with other women we spend a lot of time with, changes to our alcohol intake / patterns, changes to our diet, inconsistent work schedules (working late / changes in pattern) and changes to our sleep pattern (getting less sleep, going to bed later for example).

When you think about how our lives have changed in lockdown it isn’t overly surprising that some of us have found our cycles a little disrupted – our normal routines have gone out the window.  And with that you may have found your periods have change slightly as a result.

Because when you think about lockdown so many of the factors mentioned above will possibly have come into play for you.

Yes, gyms have been shut, but with many people either working from home or being on furlough / unable to go to work lots of people have had more time to exercise an so changes and potential dramatic increases to training will have been seen by many.  Conversely some people (me included) will have found their activity levels dramatically drop (even with training every day) and that change itself could also affect your period regularity.

I don’t know many people who haven’t reported feeling stress and anxiety about the pandemic at some point, whether your worries centered around Covid itself or the economy or both I think we’ve all felt a greater degree of stress.

Many people will have seen a dietary change- some for the better, some maybe not.  We are eating at home more but being indoors all day means we are more tempted by the fridge more often, therefore changes in diet and potential weight gain will not have been uncommon for many people in recent months.

Many people will also have increased their alcohol intake in lockdown, a mixture of it being cheaper to drink at home, having more time to drink etc. means that alcohol intake patterns will have changed (and increased) for some.

For the majority of people their working environment has changed, working from home, changes to hours and due to the challenges many businesses have faced many people are finding they are needing to work longer hours.  Suddenly not bein able to work is equally a sudden dramatic change to routine.

If you live with other females, you have possibly spent more time with them over lockdown so may have found your cycle sync with them.

And finally sleep.  We should theoretically have been able to sleep more – take away commuting, or work or social plans out of the house and early nights / lie ins should have been possible.  In reality, I found, and most people I’ve spoken to have said similar, sleep has been disrupted.  I’ve struggled to get to sleep until the early hours most nights and woken up frequently, which I put down to a mixture of worry and stress and also not being as active during the day meaning I find it harder to get ready to sleep.  This has meant I’ve probably had a lower quality of sleep in lockdown!

So when you think about it, given the amount of changes to our lifestyle that could potentially affect how regular our periods are that we have found ourselves facing in recent months, it’s not shocking at all that many women have found their once regular cycle has maybe become less regular.

Is this something to worry about?  Probably not, I track my cycle on the Fitbit app an have found that although I’ve had some changes, those changes appear to have settled me into a ‘new regular’ cycle.  I anticipate that as things continue to change as lockdown lifts I might see some more changes as my routine changes (and stress levels will probably continue to remain quite high) but again I will keep an eye on those via tracking and I expect they will settle.

But I’d always encourage you to speak to a doctor if you are concerned.  If the changes to your cycle are affecting your life, you continue to remain very irregular or anything seems out of the ordinary it’s always best to get yourself checked out.

If you have any of these symptoms it is generally advised you consult a doctor:

  • You miss three or more periods a year.
  • You get your period more often than every 21 days.
  • You get your period less often than every 35 days.
  • You are bleeding more heavily than usual during your period.
  • You bleed for more than 7 days (I know this is not unusual for many women but if you have a sudden change in period length it is worth getting it checked out)
  • You have more pain than usual during a period

All in all being aware of your cycle and changes to it is always a positive thing, as knowing your own body is the best way of being able to spot early on if something is wrong and understanding changes you might face can be helpful in that understanding of yourself.

How to reduce period flow

I saw a tweet this week that’s gone a bit viral about Ibuprofen reducing menstrual flow.

The reason this has created such a buzz isn’t the fact itself (which is never heard of) but that something so simple and apparently accepted by many health professionals to be the case, isn’t known by more women.

General consensus is that this is because we just don’t talk that openly about our periods.

We’ll chat diets, relationships, workouts but don’t often bring our periods up in conversation, even with close friends let alone in every day conversations. So simple things that could make life easier for a large number of women just don’t get shared.

If you’ve not heard about the tweet in question here’s a couple of articles to fill you in.

INSIDER ARTICLE

COSMO ARTICLE

I’ve said it numerous times before but I’ll say it again – the more openly everyone talks about their bodies and health, both physical and mental, the easier it is for people to realise they aren’t alone or odd, that it’s ok to ask for help, that maybe something isn’t normal.

I’m Talking About Periods Again I’m Afraid

We pretty much accept that our hair, skin, bowel movements, mood, mental health, headaches, sex life and more can be affected by our periods.  It isn’t just our period itself that affect us however, how we feel can be massively affected by all the various stages of the menstrual cycle, and as our cycles are continuous we essentially go through a never ending series of physical and emotional changes for a large part of our adult life.

Whilst we all know this we often tend to try and eat and train in pretty much the same way throughout all stages of our cycle and expect the same level of performance from ourselves.  Now I’m not suggesting that we should adjust what we do on a daily basis, none of us have time to do that; but an awareness of how your own cycle affects your mood and body will allow you to approach your nutrition and training with more awareness that sometimes those feelings of being fat or weak are not what they seem.

Most cycles last between 24 and 38 days (my cycle is roughly 25 days) and the cycle starts as your period begins.  Effectively your cycle has two stages 1) preparing for an egg to be released from the ovary and the re-building of the lining of the uterus and 2) preparing the uterus and body to either accept a fertilised egg or start a new cycle if you are not pregnant.

Stages of your cycle (these overlap so it’s not always clear cut)

Menstruation 

Shedding the uterine lining.  This lasts on average 5-8 days but with dramatic variation.  During this time oestrogen and progesterone levels are low and you may find your tolerance to pain increases and also that muscle recovery times improve.  Due to feeling like your womb is being tortured you may find it mentally tough to generate the motivation to workout, however whilst gentle exercise is often recommended there is no reason you cannot carry on your normal training if you can motivate yourself to do so and you may find your body actually reacts well to it.  This is the time when you crave comfort foods so it may be beneficial to give yourself some leeway with your diet and eat more to make yourself feel better (chocolate in moderation won’t hurt) although eating iron rich foods may also be beneficial to how you feel.

I teach classes so have no choice but to continue to exercise pretty much as normal in this period.  It doesn’t always feel great at the time but does tend to make me feel better afterwards so I also make the effort to train as often as normal during my period, albeit I try to go a bit easier on myself depending on how heavy my flow is that day.  Equally I now purposefully let myself have chocolate every day whilst I’m on.  I’ve realised that I’m going to crave chocolate more this week so I’m better off telling myself in advance I will have some as that way I’m less likely to binge and eat 5kg of  Dairy Milk in half an hour.

Follicular phase

Lasting between 10 and 22 days this is the time between the first day of your period and ovulation.  Oestrogen levels rise as your body prepare for egg release.  During this time the uterine lining is also rebuilt following your period (the Proliferative phase). In this stage there is evidence that women are at greater risk from musculoskeletal injuries but may also find their strength increases due to the increase in oestrogen meaning you may find you are able to lift more during this phase of your cycle.  Therefore this is a good time to focus on your lifting and enjoy it.  This stage ends with Ovulation.

Whilst some women will feel good about training in this phase because you can feel pretty strong this isn’t always the case.  For me the week after my period is often my worst week for training and nutrition.  I put this down to a less documented stage of some women’s cycle (not everyone will experience this) – Post Menstrual Tension.  Pre Menstrual Tension is widely accepted but some women often find they experience similar symptoms (moodiness, feeling flat, feeling teary, feeling useless and clumsy) in the days immediately after their period as well.  This can make training and eating well difficult during this period as you feel much the same as just before / during your period.  This is possibly due to a surge of Oestrogen and there is some suggestions that a Magnesium supplement may help ease this.  Much like during your period there is no reason to not train but motivation may be something you struggle with so go easy on yourself.

I actually struggle to train more during this week than when I’m on my period.  I think I accept that I will feel crap during my period so I’m more accommodating of my own feelings whereas the emotions the week after always catch me unaware (and someone has to actually remind me that this is that week of the month where I always freak out about being fat and unfit – like, every month without fail, it’s probably getting boring for them now but I always need that reminder that it’s my hormones and my world is not actually falling apart, and because I’m a moody cow this week I will also always tell them they are wrong even thought they aren’t).  I rarely feel like training this week, not because I have any physical symptoms just because I’m a bit of an emotional wreck, however not training is the worst thing I can do as I beat myself up for being lazy.  I therefore have to force myself to go do something just to not fall to pieces, because quite frankly if I do during this period I know I can stay in a slump that goes straight into PMS.

Ovulation

The release of an egg (mid cycle).  Oestrogen peaks just before ovulation and then drops (this tends to be 13 to 15 days before your next period).  As oestrogen peaks you may find this is the best time to work on a PB, however good form is vital as you are still at greater risk of injury.

Luteal phase

The time between ovulation and your period (lasts around 9 to 16 days), this is where the body prepares for pregnancy and Progesterone is produced, peaks and then drops.  The Secretory Phase also means the uterine lining produces chemicals that will support a pregnancy or, if there is no pregnancy, break down and shed.  It is this shedding that can cause the cramping feeling as the muscles contract to allow the shedding (this is where exercise or movement can help).

During this time you will potentially (probably) experience PMS.  Mood changes, breast tenderness, bloating, headaches and so on.  This gets stronger the closer to your period you get.  For many this is the ‘I could kill everybody’ phase.  Try not to actually kill anyone of course because that is frowned upon.  Here you might want to move your training away from performance based sessions and do things you enjoy and which improve your mood.  A rise in body temperature may mean you feel a drop in endurance levels so being aware you might not hit max lifts or feel as good training is worth being mindful of.  Water retention can make you feel heavier and sluggish so weighing yourself or measuring your progress in this time window may be counterproductive to your mindset.

Whilst the above is a basic outline of the different stages of a cycle all women know that your cycle is a very individual things and not only are our cycles of various lengths we are all also affected differently by the various stages with some feeling the impact more acutely than others, not only that but our own cycles can change over time.

Something which helps me is tracking my cycle.  I use the Fitbit App (which I believe you can still use even without a Fitbit).  You can log when you are on your period along with the more common symptoms you may feel or notice.  As time goes on the app allows you to predict when your period will be allowing you a greater understanding of what stages of your cycle you are in, as well as allowing you to record and therefore potentially see a pattern in your mood and behaviour.  Once you are aware of the pattern of your own cycle it makes handling the changes easier and can help you feel like you are training and eating better rather than reacting to your hormones.

Quick disclaimer to finish – I am not a scientist – I literally just about passed my GCSE.  The above is based purely on my own experience and how I understand my cycle so I’m at no point saying this is gospel as there are definitely people out there with greater knowledge on this topic than me.