It’s been more than a year since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States. At the time, it was hard to imagine what was to come and how—and for how long—our lives would be impacted. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on our normal routines, turning households into offices and schools, closing gyms and churches, and mandating a social isolation never before seen.
The repercussions have been far-reaching. In a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40% of adults in the United States reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On top of these mental health challenges, our physical health has been impacted. This goes beyond irregular sleep patterns and body aches from working at makeshift desks. The pandemic may also have an effect on menstruation.
In this article, I’ll explain how the menstrual cycle works, what can make it go awry, and how to get your period back on track.
The Menstrual Cycle: How It Works and Why It Breaks
The menstrual cycle is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a complex system consisting of the hypothalamus (a region of the brain), pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. This system produces hormones.
The over or under-production of hormones from one part of the axis triggers changes in hormone production from another gland.
For example, when the body is under stress, levels of corticotropin-releasing hormone and cortisol increase.
This inhibits the production of hormones by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. In turn, the production of estrogen and progesterone by the ovaries decreases, which can cause amenorrhea, or the lack of a period.
The Pandemic Could Be “Breaking” Your Cycle
Period abnormality is typically seen as a result of excessive exercise, malnutrition, eating disorders, or other forms of bodily stress. However, COVID-19 infection or anxiety related to the pandemic can cause enough stress to trigger these same hormonal changes, resulting in skipping one or more periods.
Changes in estrogen and progesterone production may also lead to irregular or “dysfunctional” bleeding patterns, when a person may have prolonged periods or bleeding between periods.
In addition to added stress, many people have gained weight during the pandemic.
Whether this is related to stress eating or the inability to keep up with one’s usual exercise routines, weight gain can lead to anovulation, or not ovulating. This often results in irregular periods. Excess estrogen stored in fatty tissue can also cause unusually heavy or prolonged periods.
Lastly, the pandemic changed our normal routines.
Sleeping and eating patterns may be irregular, and the separation between work-life and home-life has been blurred for many. General “chaos” in life like this can result in some people not taking their birth control pill at the usual time. While there is some degree of flexibility with the pill, repeated episodes of skipping or delaying the pill can result in irregular bleeding.
How to Get Your Menstrual Cycle Back on Track
If your period seems out of whack and you think the pandemic is to blame, you can take steps to help it return to whatever is normal for you. As cliche as it may seem, it all starts with self-care.
Begin by re-establishing a routine: wake up around the same time each day, plan healthy meals, take medications at set times, and try to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Also, set aside time for exercise every day. This could be intense cardio, meditative yoga, a walk, or whatever will feel good to you and help you focus solely on yourself for a period of time.
Even with a regular routinez, try to remember that, pandemic or not, life can be unpredictable. Just as you should have grace for others having a bad day, give yourself a pass some days.
When to See a Doctor
A temporary change in your period is likely nothing to worry about. However, it’s smart to check with your doctor, particularly if:
- You’ve gone more than three months without a period and you are not pregnant (use a home test to check).
- You have frequent periods (less than 21 days apart).
- You have long periods (lasting more than 10 days).
- You have extremely heavy periods.
How K Health Can Help
Does your period seem to have a mind of its own since the pandemic began? You can use the K Health app to compare your symptoms to millions of others, and also text with a clinician 24/7 to learn how to get in back on track. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data, and is an easy way to access affordable primary and urgent care.