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PMS symptoms constitute a public health issue, U.Va. Health study finds

University experts and students are advocating for greater awareness of PMS and periods

<p>While the University provides free pads and tampons in various places across Grounds, including Newcomb Hall, many restrooms still lack accessible menstrual products.</p>

While the University provides free pads and tampons in various places across Grounds, including Newcomb Hall, many restrooms still lack accessible menstrual products.

Menstruation and premenstrual symptoms affect a large percentage of the University community. A U.Va. Health study from this month established that premenstrual symptoms are so common that they constitute a “key public health issue globally.” University experts and students are advocating for greater awareness of PMS and periods, with students taking action to make menstrual products and education more accessible on Grounds.

The researchers partnered with the Flo app — which helps menstruators track their menstrual cycle and related symptoms — to analyze 238,114 survey responses from women ages 18 to 55 in 140 countries. This data helped the researchers to better understand the type and frequency of premenstrual symptoms and how these symptoms affect the daily lives of those who menustrate.

Premenstrual syndrome is a combination of physical and emotional symptoms that many experience between ovulation and the menstrual period. Researchers suggest that PMS occurs as a result of significant drops in estrogen and progesterone hormone levels in the absence of pregnancy.

Jennifer Payne, senior author of the study and vice chair of research in the psychiatry department at the School of Medicine, explained that premenstrual symptoms affect a significant number of those who menstruate, with about one-third of the study’s participants reporting that PMS affected their daily activities each menstrual cycle.

“It's incredibly common,” Payne said. “And it's also incredibly common to have the symptoms’ impact functioning on a monthly basis, so it's really a significant health problem.”

The study found that food cravings, mood swings or anxiety and fatigue were the most common symptoms. Overall, physical symptoms increased with age, but the frequency of mood swings and anxiety remained similar across age groups.

Dr. Michelle Rindos, pediatric and adolescents specialist within obstetrics and gynecology at the U.Va. Midlife Health and Gynecologic Specialties Northridge clinic, said she would like to see women’s health care — including quality of life concerns such as PMS — at the forefront of public health.

“For half of our population, [PMS] is a public health issue, and it may just be a quality of life issue, but it can be quite serious and can definitely alter your activities of daily life,” Rindos said. “There's plenty of young girls that skip school and call out of work and are in bed. That's not the way that we want to be every month.”

Despite an estimated 300 million people menstruating at any given time, Lisa Speidel, assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality, said social stigma surrounding periods and period symptoms is still rampant in the University community and the country at large.

“We need to break the cycle,” Speidel said. “There's still a lot of shame around it. There's still a lot of hiding.”

One step that Speidel believes can be taken toward lessening the social stigma surrounding menstruation involves allowing absences for PMS symptoms, similar to absences allowed for sickness.

“I think there is a spectrum of symptoms, some of which can be really debilitating, like migraines,” Speidel said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I would accommodate students dealing with PMS like I would any other health issues that students may have.”

Another important action toward lessening the negative impact of PMS is to address period poverty — the barriers to accessing menstrual products, education and sanitation. A study from last year found that 14.2 percent of college-attending women in the U.S. had experienced period poverty during the past year.

University students are taking action and spreading awareness for these key period-related issues. The Period Poverty Committee — a subcommittee of Global Problems, Local Solutions at U.Va. — works to end period poverty. PERIOD at U.Va. also works on a variety of period-related issues, such as period poverty, through awareness campaigns and donation drives.

Jacqui Harari, president of PERIOD at U.Va. and third-year Commerce student, explained the mission of the organization as consisting of three parts — education, advocacy and service

“There's still a huge part of the population that really believes that [there is] a stigma and a huge part of the population that's like, really empathetic towards [PMS],” Harari said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, PERIOD advocated for access to menstrual products within quarantine and isolation housing on and off Grounds. Last year, the organization also set up donation boxes in 1515 for people to donate any unopened period products. 

Harari said the organization put together “goodie bags” filled with menstrual products and placed the bags in the restrooms of buildings around Grounds that did not provide free menstrual products.

Currently, the University provides free pads and tampons in various restrooms around Grounds. The Community Food Pantry and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center food pantry also provide free menstrual products for students.


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