Winter is, for most people, a time for celebrations, holidays and having fun in the snow. But, sometimes, cold weather can negatively affect our mood and even our health. This applies especially to women as the winter season can cause changes in the menstrual cycle and affect various aspects of intimate health.
And, when it comes to conditions concerning women’s intimate parts, it seems a taboo always follows them. This winter, we’re breaking taboos and revealing how women feel during menstruation, how much they know about the pelvic floor, and how cold weather affects their well-being.
A survey conducted on 5,083 women aged 18-45 across the UK, USA, France, Spain and Italy provides an insight into what kind of changes women experience during winter and how many of them notice, or even talk about, intimate health issues.
The winter season can affect the menstrual cycle, and 30% of respondents confirm this by saying their menstruation is more painful. For 17%, the cycle is more irregular; for 14%, it lasts longer, while for 9%, it lasts shorter.
Menstruation comes with a variety of symptoms, and the survey shows that 59% of respondents suffer from bloating and gas. As much as 45% feel migraines and 40% feel anxiety. 35% deal with diarrhoea and nausea, and 33% with discomfort in the bladder or rectum. 23% feel susceptible skin. This information implies that many women go through a rough time during menstruation which affects their daily activities.
INTIMINA’s medical expert, gynaecologist Dr. Susannah Unsworth, explains why some of the symptoms may occur:
“As is shown in the survey, menstruation can cause a number of symptoms and many women will experience different issues. One of the biggest symptoms is pain. Pain is generally a consequence of the muscle of the womb contracting to help shed the lining of the womb, which results in a period. This process is partly due to an increase in compounds known as prostaglandins. These compounds cause inflammatory changes which can trigger pain around the womb itself, but may also cause symptoms in organs that are close by, such as the bladder and bowel. This can lead to symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating and urinary frequency.”
“Other symptoms can often be triggered by the changing levels in hormone associated with the menstrual cycle. Migraine is a good example of this, and many women experience migraine that has a cyclical pattern related to their periods. The pre-menstrual syndromes are also linked to these changing hormone levels, often worse in the build-up to the period, with some women suffering extreme mood changes during this time,” says Dr. Unsworth.
Regarding the effects winter has on the menstrual cycle, Dr. Unsworth explains:
“There is interesting data looking at how the seasons can affect the menstrual cycle. The survey showed how a number of women feel that menstruation is more painful, and cycle lengths change, during the winter months. There are different suggestions as to how this occurs. One theory is that the cold weather leads to constriction of blood vessels which can increase pain. Other theories include the fact that in the winter we are less active and spend more time indoors, and this can lead to reduced mood and a worsening perception of pain.
However, a study published in 2010 (1) suggests that the biggest factor is to do with sunlight. Reduced exposure to sunlight impacts hormone production. This can cause reduced levels of FSH production leading to less regular ovulation and increased cycle length. It can also impact the thyroid hormone production, which reduces metabolism and, in turn, also affects cycle length. It may also be as a consequence of reduced vitamin D production influencing the response to hormones.”
Whatever a person experiences in terms of menstrual cycle changes, it is always recommended to talk about them. When asked about sharing and talking openly about difficult menstruation symptoms, 11% of respondents say they haven’t discussed the mentioned symptoms with anyone. 55% have had conversations about them with friends, 45% with a partner and 43% with parents. 39% have discussed the symptoms with their doctor.
As for the cold weather effects, 45% of respondents say these symptoms worsen during winter.
Before menstruation starts, there is another challenging period known as the PMS. In these days or weeks before the monthly bleeding, many women feel changes in their sleeping pattern, 65% to be exact. They mostly have trouble falling asleep (54%), or they frequently wake (51%). 37% suffer from insomnia because of the PMS, and 24% have trouble waking up.
Period sex has always been one of the biggest taboos, even though it provides certain benefits; it can shorten menstruation and ease menstrual cramps because orgasms work as natural painkillers. And let’s not forget that thanks to menstrual cups such as the Ziggy Cup, period sex doesn’t have to be messy. 12% of INTIMINA’s respondents say they are more willing to have period sex in the winter season, while 17% are less willing. 21% are neither willing nor not willing, and 41% are not inclined to have period sex at any time.
Intimate health issues are not only about menstruation. Women face many intimate problems and conditions, and weakened pelvic floor muscles are the most common. But, as it is yet another taboo, most women don’t know much about these critical muscles which hold the uterus, the bladder and the intestines and can cause serious health problems when not attended to properly.
When asked if they have ever experienced weakened pelvic floor muscles, 35% said yes, 38% said no, and 27% said they didn’t know. The fact is that 58% of women experience stress incontinence, meaning they release a little bit of urine when they laugh, cough, sneeze or lift something heavy. But most are unaware that this is a symptom of pelvic floor dysfunction and that pelvic floor muscles can be kept strong with the right exercises.
The survey shows that 49% have experienced the release of urine when laughing, sneezing or lifting something heavy, and 46% claim they did not. 5% don’t know if they did.
Weak pelvic floor muscles can cause various health problems and sometimes lead to painful sex, which happened to 43% of INTIMINA’s survey respondents.
“Sadly, I feel that knowledge around pelvic floor health is generally low. Although many women have heard about pelvic floor exercises, few fully understand the pelvic floor and the impact it can have on a number of symptoms. I feel women are often led to believe that leakage of urine when laughing and sneezing is normal, and it becomes acceptable, particularly with many branded products on the market to help ‘hide’ symptoms, rather than trying to treat them. One particular issue is following childbirth, when very few women get the opportunity to speak to a specialist pelvic floor physiotherapist. In my opinion this is a key time when women should be taught how to look after their pelvic floor,” says Dr. Susannah Unsworth and adds:
“However, improvements can be made at any time. I would encourage any woman who is experiencing any form of urinary leaking to seek advice about pelvic floor exercises, as they can make a dramatic difference to these symptoms and also reduce the likelihood of future problems such as prolapse. Not to mention the benefits it can have on your sex life!”
Whatever issues with health women face, they must know they can and should talk about them with friends, family and, most importantly – a doctor. Medical experts can explain the symptoms and educate patients about the treatment options. If the pelvic floor weakening causes the dysfunction, it would be best to see a gynaecologist or a pelvic floor physical therapist who can create an exercise plan for each person individually and teach them how to do Kegels properly, if that is what they need.
Censuswide conducted the INTIMINA survey with 5083 women aged 18-45 across the UK, USA, France, Spain and Italy in October 2022.
- Danilenko KV, Sergeeva OY, Verevkin EG. Menstrual cycles are influenced by sunshine. Gynecol Endocrinol. 2011 Sep;27(9):711-6. doi: 10.3109/09513590.2010.521266. Epub 2010 Oct 12. PMID: 20937003.