Revealed: The shocking effect of Cambridge lifestyle on menstruation

The first results from our Sexual Health Survey are in

We had over 1,000 responses to the Tab’s Sexual Health Survey 2017.

The results reveal a profound issue regarding menstruation at Cambridge. Over a third of students with uteruses reported missing periods whilst at university, with almost half of them attributing this to stress. The vast majority of people experiencing this issue did not seek medical assistance for it.

Of people with uteruses, 36% said that they had missed a period whilst being at Cambridge, with most of these people having done so not just once, but on more than one occasion.

Why?

The stand-out finding was 47% of people citing stress as a reason for irregular menstruation. An increase in the body’s levels of cortisol, colloquially known as ‘the stress hormone’, can interfere with the production of oestrogen and progesterone. This, in turn, can disrupt patterns of menstruation.

Others mentioned eating disorders, poor diets, intense exercise, being on testosterone and contraceptive factors. Period irregularity can occur when taking the Pill, using an implant or an IUD. This is not necessarily a cause for concern, as it’s an accepted side effect of certain forms of contraception. Many explained that they missed periods due to “the morning after pill”, as a “side effect of coming off the pill”, “birth control makes me irregular”, “skipped period week on the pill”, having “a Mirena coil so I don’t get periods.”

However, the finding that almost half of Cambridge students missing their period cite stress as the leading factor is extremely concerning. The responses to our survey demonstrated direct links between lifestyle changes upon coming to Cambridge and irregular menstruation.

One respondent noted, “since I began my degree, my cycle has been unpredictable. It was predictable before my degree.” Another said, “I’m used to missing periods on odd occasions when I haven’t eaten enough or done too much exercise but they seem to happen more frequently here.”

Exam term was identified, in several cases, as a time when people experienced especially acute menstrual issues: “My womb bears the brunt of Cambridge’s terrible atmosphere every exam term” and “I’ve been bleeding more than usual during exams, which I guess is also to do with stress? Much more irregular when in Cam[bridge].”

Medical assistance

Only 16% of respondents who had missed periods sought medical assistance.

Irregular menstruation should not be ignored, especially if it is persistent. The NHS advises seeing a GP if you miss three consecutive periods and have tested negative in pregnancy tests. Missing periods can increase your risk of ovarian cancer. Irregular periods might indicate that you are suffering from an endocrine disorder or PCOS (polycystic ovaries syndrome), a common condition in the UK, affecting roughly one in five women. PCOS causes problems relating to ovulation, which can have an adverse effect on fertility.

However, several of those who made an attempt to seek help reported negative experiences. One gave a testimony describing the process as “absolutely shite. Was literally given a pregnancy test ‘just to make sure’ and was sent on my merry way.”

Moving forward

Our findings are coming from a self-selective Google Form, which is obviously not a perfect method for collecting data – we appreciate that there will be a margin for error.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a serious issue with menstruation in Cambridge, which calls for further investigation. A problem of this scale and gravity cannot be ignored.

Sophie Buck, the CUSU Welfare and Rights Officer, has responded to our findings by highlighting how important it is “to raise discussion around missing periods, even for the benefit of solidarity alone.” She commented: “As someone who missed at least half of my periods during my time at University, primarily due to stress and eating habits, I’m not surprised by this data. The fact that it isn’t surprising is alarming it itself though, as periods can be an important health-check for students with uteruses who are expected to be menstruating.

CUSU has done work to address the stress that, among other factors, may cause periods to be missed. CUSU’s Mental Health Awareness Week campaign in particular did work to raise awareness of the support services available and the importance of self-care among other things. We hope these resources will assist students in managing their mental health.”

Audrey Sebatindira, the CUSU Women’s Officer has also described these findings as “highly disturbing”, adding that “there is clearly an issue here that needs to be looked into further.”

We have further results to come from the Tab’s Sexual Health Survey 2017, including findings on the subjects of protection and vaginal health. 

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