The only thing worse than being stuck at home for months at a time is being stuck at home for months at a time and in my case, still dealing with mind-numbing cramps every 28 days or so. Okay, so perhaps I’m being just a tad dramatic–I’m also still healthy and safe–but period stress is nothing to play with. My mood already takes a hit under normal circumstances but current times have me convinced that Mother Nature isn’t feeling too hot either. So what gives?
Normal is Relative
First, reject the notion that any period is “normal.” Realistically speaking, “normal” is relative since those who menstruate are accustomed to their own unique set of habits. According to Dr. Alyssa Dweck, MD, a “Top Doctor” according to New York Magazine and Westchester Magazine, and the ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), the average cycle length for an adolescent is “every 21-45 days (counted from day 1 of one cycle to day 1 of the next), 7 days of less duration, and 3-6 pads or tampons per day.” For older people, “cycles are typically 21-35 days, 8 days or less of flow and flow that doesn’t exceed 1 tampon/pad every hour for a few hours continuously.”
Ultimately, if the timeline you’re used to abruptly changes and then persists, that deserves a visit to the gynecologist. Other disruptive symptoms according to Dweck are ones that “interfere with day to day activities or even relationships.” For example, they could include the usual suspects—irregular bleeding, lengthy or heavy bleeding, horrible cramps, bloating, or PMS. There are also common symptoms that can be easily remedied with at-home solutions (more on this in a sec), such as bloating, fatigue, water-weight gain, period cramps, backache, muscle aches, and headache.
Stress is Powerful (Especially During a Pandemic)
To that same point, don’t underestimate the impact of physical and mental stress which are intricately intertwined. “Typically, severe stress can cause menstrual irregularities including losing the menses temporarily,” says Dweck. “Significant stress can include moments like moving to college for the first time, a sudden loss or death in the family, rapid weight loss from eating disorder or excessive exercise, travel out of the time zone and yes, even a pandemic with all of the stress and lifestyle changes that have gone along with this time period.”
Stress is powerful enough to delay or prevent ovulation temporarily, which alters the overall cycle. Anecdotally, Dweck has seen many patients in recent months who experienced a change in menstrual habits during the pandemic specifically. Additionally, Dweck says “some have postulated that nature may be preventing ovulation to prevent pregnancy during times of severe stress.”
“Some have skipped cycles, others have bleeding in between cycles, and some note a change in the cycle flow and duration. In part, these changes might be due to diet and exercise and other lifestyle changes after quarantine or during living at home with parents; other changes may very well be due to the emotional stress naturally noted during this uncertain time,” she says. “Of course, in all cases, we ruled out pregnancy, thyroid abnormal, and structural issues as potential causes but as all testing is reassuring and negative, stress is a presumed etiology, at least in part.”
Relief Includes Preparation
Staying ahead of the game is key when it comes to managing both stress and the ways it can impact your menstrual cycle. Because physical and mental stress is sometimes connected, it’s helpful to identify solutions that target either or both. Personally, I keep a heating pad, plenty of water, my most comfortable PJs, and comforting movies on deck. (I also swear by period panties so I never have to make a drugstore run for pads and tampons.)
“Think about how meditation and mindfulness can actually alter pulse and blood pressure. Paced breathing exercises are used to bring heart rate and blood pressure down and may help with anxiety and phobias. Finally, certain medications taken to manage stress can interfere with ovulation and the cycle as well,” says Dweck.
An OTC medication like Midol (as opposed to using multiple ones) can serve as both an immediate and long-term aid to relieve several physical period symptoms including bloating, fatigue, water-weight gain, and pain. Exercise can also be helpful and paying closer attention to your diet is a game-changer. Unfortunately, we tend to crave the very foods that exacerbate our most annoying symptoms.
“Many of us crave salt, sugar, and caffeine and ditch the fruits and veggies during the premenstrual time. Excess salt causes bloating and water retention. Sugar and caffeine may provide a quick boost and then a sudden crash in energy. Finally, progesterone, the hormone that is elevated just prior to menstruation, has effects on the intestines and can cause constipation and bloating and general misery,” says Dweck. Long story short: fight the salty/sweet cravings and try your best to stick with a healthier plan no matter how stressed you’re feeling.
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