According to researchers, the psychological burden of COVID-19 impacted 56% of participants – with significant changes to women’s reproductive health
The study, surveying over 1,300 women in April 2021, finds that pandemic-related stress and sleep disturbance impacts menstrual cycles.
Demonstrating how mental health has been impacted by significant changes to our daily lifestyle, eating and exercise habits, the study reveals how stress affects hormone levels, as well as causing sleep and body weight disturbances.
As the first study to demonstrate women’s continual experiences of reproductive health disturbances a year into the pandemic, associated with increased levels of psychological distress and poor sleep, the study establishes greater understanding of the extent of reproductive health disruption, assisting guidance for future health policy.
“64% of women reported a worsening in pre-menstrual symptoms”
Stress hormones can directly inhibit sex hormone release, whilst sleep disturbance is associated with infertility and increased belly fat is also associated with menstrual dysfunction. Furthermore, menstrual disturbances were found to include irregular, missed, painful or heavy periods and pre-menstrual symptoms.
To investigate the impact of the pandemic on reproductive health, Dr Michelle Maher, as part of a research team led by Dr Lisa Owens in Dublin, initiated a survey asking about women’s menstrual cycles, as well as standard measures of depression, anxiety and sleep quality.
The study found that 56% of respondents reported an overall change in their menstrual cycles since the beginning of the pandemic, with 64% reporting a worsening in pre-menstrual symptoms and 54% experiencing reduced sex drive.
Rates of severe depression, anxiety and poor sleep were double those from pre-pandemic levels for women of reproductive age. Menstrual cycle disturbances were associated with increased levels of mental distress and poor sleep amongst the women surveyed.
“Affected women will need additional medical and psychological support”
Dr Michelle Maher 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
“This study was conducted at a relatively early stage of the COVID-19 vaccination programme, so the length of the pandemic and effectiveness of the vaccine may influence future findings, further investigation with objective, measurable data is needed.”
Now planning to conduct these surveys at 6-month intervals, the team wish to determine progress and identify any longer-term effects on female reproductive and mental health. As well as the surveys, more objective measurements of blood pressure, weight, sex hormone levels and ovulation will be collected from the study participants.
Dr Maher further commented: “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.”
“We are planning to provide support for women affected by menstrual cycle abnormalities by developing psychological support workshops at our centre”, adds Dr Maher.
This study suggests that further studies will be necessary to establish the long-term effects of the pandemic on female reproductive health.
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