Menstrual Cycles and the Pandemic What have we learned in the past year?

What have we learned in the past year?

By Halley Claire Bass for the Menstrual Health Hub

Period Art by Vulvani

For many of us who bleed, menstruation is a vital health sign of nature’s rhythm. However, for others, the modern day preoccupation with productivity, technology, and material success has disconnected people from their body, preventing them from paying attention to the meanings behind the body’s natural cycle.

Enter COVID-19. The alarm was sounded.

There is nothing like a global pandemic to trigger a wake up call about our own personal health and the health of the planet.

In 2020, COVID-19’s impact shook the world. For many of us who menstruate, we also felt that shock inside our bodies.

In working with my female clients along those lines, I began noticing that many of them — as well as some of my colleagues and friends — were experiencing or complaining about elongated cycles, heavier cramps, and/or higher levels of PMS. While it was often unclear the specific reasons for these body changes, it seemed apparent that they were an effect of a pandemic lockdown.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Despite the various pandemic responses throughout the world, many menstruators were still able to check in with a gynecologist or a medical professional or had access to a local pharmacy for menstrual supplies and doctor-prescribed remedies. However, for a lot of menstruators across the world, access to menstrual products and health care was already difficult. With the pandemic causing additional problems, access became even more limited. Learn more about what COVID-19 has meant for menstrual health.

As a white, jewish CIS woman who grew up comfortably in the United States and now lives in Berlin, Germany, I wondered how exactly the pandemic affected people on an individual level, both with regards to the impact on their menstrual cycle and menstruation and issues regarding access due to lockdown. I read that lockdown measures had created a major challenge for the accessibility of pads and other period hygiene products.

I wanted to learn what experts had discovered this past year, and understand more about how organizations and how the women they serve were responding to these increased challenges, and what possible new opportunities were coming out of the pandemic to help menstruating women* meet the obstacles created by COVID-19.

To find the answers, I turned to leaders in the field of menstrual health from across the globe.

My first interview was with Maria Carmen Punzi, a Netherlands-based menstrual health researcher and activist who is behind the Instagram account @periodswithmariacarmen. When I asked what symptoms her followers and folks in the period community were sharing throughout the pandemic, she replied:

“Some have had longer cycles or non-existing periods. And the research shows that stress has had a massive impact on ovulation. The impact of the stress, not being able to see loved ones, and not getting enough exercise can be leading factors in these symptoms. Other symptoms have included heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB) and cramps.”

In my second interview, MacGregor Lennarz, founder of the Kenya-based Facebook messaging app Lily Health, also speculated that many of the Lily Health app users were dealing with stress and menstrual issues as a result of lifestyle changes caused by the virus. Lily Health serves its target audience in Kenya with different sexual and reproductive health information.

Screenshots of Lily Health websites: to the left, https://lily.health; to the right, kenya.lily-health.co

Although Lily Health is a chat service geared to questions about fertility, Lennarz and his whole team noticed that once the pandemic started, there was an estimated 30–50 % increase in the number of questions about irregular menstrual cycles. They suspected that this phenomenon was a result of the stress caused by the pandemic and by measures to curb the pandemic.

While increased uncertainty can lead to stress, which can impact the body’s hormones, and thus the menstrual cycle, Maria Carmen believes that “the menstrual cycle can be a grounding journey.”

She maintains that menstrual health awareness starts with turning inward, and asking the body what it needs. “No health expert will know more about what your body is telling you than yourself,” she explains. “Patience, self-knowledge, self-compassion, and tracking consistently are what it takes. And the journey is lifelong.”

Maria Carmen Punzi talking about what she knows best: menstrual health. @Maria Carmen Punzi

Maria Carmen further asserts that “the slowing down of the whole world due to COVID-19 has actually encouraged women to wonder ‘what do I do with and for myself?

According to Maria Carmen, since much work is now being done from home, for those working women whose access to healthcare and products has not been curtailed, they may now have more time for self-care. For some, they have the opportunity to take their time during their bleeding days, take naps when they need more rest, not rush around or travel so much, and not have to be in the public sphere all the time.

Before COVID-19,” says Carmen, “We were all on such a hamster wheel. It’s likely this cycle of pushing, pushing, pushing and being really exhausted was a deterrent to fostering our ability to nurture ourselves.”

That this pandemic has given some individuals the ability to practice additional self-case around their menstrual cycle is a definite benefit.

However, this benefit is accessible to only some.

This is particularly true in communities that have limited or inadequate access to clinics or other resources. Dilip Kumar, co-founder and CEO of Sukhibhava, an NGO based out of Bangalore, India, shared what his organization has been doing to meet the needs of rural communities in India.

Dilip speaking at menstrual health at a training in India. The Better India

He indicated that some very apparent needs came up after lockdown from the women Sukhibhava serves.

Women could not get out of the home to get information they would otherwise seek. There were a high number of UTIs, unwanted pregnancies, irregular periods, and increased rashes, because of lack of mobility and hygiene products. And most women could not seek resolution for these challenges, because the doctors were also facing mobility restrictions.”

Sukhibhava quickly responded to the pandemic crisis by creating a virtual program called Hello Saheli, which is available in three languages. At no cost, any woman with a phone can make or receive a call on a basic mobile phone and access information on a variety of women’s health issues. Hello Saheli is especially effective for many women in rural India who do not have smartphones, and in many cases even need training on how to use a basic phone.

Hello Saheli from Sukhibhava

In addition, Kumar shared that other organizations have taken to the ground to help support the female health challenges caused by the pandemic. In particular, he cited PadSquad, an organization that raised money to distribute menstrual hygiene products across Mumbai, especially during the first 3 or 4 months of the lockdown when product availability was scarce.

Kumar also shared that despite all the challenges, the pandemic has had some positive impacts. He believes that people have accepted technology into their lives more readily than they would have otherwise done without the pandemic.

According to Kumar, his organization initially struggled to train women in rural India how to use a phone. However, the challenges of the pandemic pushed them to prioritize their health issues and figure out solutions using mobile phones. Now, thousands of women are calling in asking for help regarding their reproductive health, and many are even sitting at home running help lines to train/inform other women. In areas where health care access is limited and there is a stigma around menstrual health, it’s amazing to see that the pandemic has created a push for technology to further become a tool of education and empowerment.

This pandemic has been a time of stress and uncertainty for everyone, for both menstruators and non-menstruators. However, I think it’s clear from my discussion with menstrual experts that the pandemic has also caused extra, specific challenges for people that menstruate. It’s been a major cause of period irregularities and other related uncomfortable health challenges.

It doesn’t matter where you live, increased nationwide shutdowns, economic uncertainty, and fear of the virus itself have led to increased levels of stress and ultimately missed periods, elongated cycles, and severe cramps.

However, the scene is not all bleak. There have been some positive outcomes as a result of the pandemic. For those of us who have the privilege to live in comfortable socioeconomic conditions, we’ve had the opportunity to slow down our everyday lives and examine the importance of our personal health. And for all of us, we’ve learned that it is not uncommon to experience changes in our cycle during stressful times and that it’s really important to find ways to relieve that stress.

Maria Carmen Punzi sums it up succinctly in saying,

“The pandemic has opened up the opportunity to challenge the status quo and ask ourselves if maybe there is a better way, or a new opportunity to stop running from the problem and seek a useful solution. Whether the problem is menstrual related, environmental, socio-economic or anything else, it’s a difficult journey to confront ourselves in this way. But this is the work we are here to do as a human race.”

To learn more about the intersection of periods and pandemics, check out this Google Doc with pooled resources and articles.

Like what you read? Read more from the MH Hub or find Halley on Instagram!

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