If you’ve ever travelled to another country, you’ll know the massive struggle that is jet lag.
There are sleepless nights, endless yawning and a whole lot of grogginess – it’s not fun.
But for many women, it’s not just their sleep schedule that gets a little out of whack while travelling overseas.
In fact sometimes, flying and travelling internationally can seriously mess with your menstrual cycle too.
We spoke to a gynaecologist to find out exactly why travel affects your period and how you may be able to prevent it.
Does international travel affect your period?
As international travel can interfere with everything from your sleep schedule to even digestion, it’s no surprise that it can have a flow-on effect on your menstrual cycle too.
According to obstetrician, fertility specialist and gynaecologist Dr Joseph Sgroi, travel can lead to irregularities in the menstrual cycle – either by delaying it or even bringing it on sooner.
“There’s actually been reported studies particularly of flight attendants who have irregular menstrual cycles because of regularly doing long haul flights,” Dr Sgroi explained.
But why does international travel affect your period?
According to Dr Sgroi, changes to our menstrual cycle while travelling all come down to our hormones shifting.
“Part of that has all got to do with the hormones and the interplay between how the hormones from the brain interact with the development of the lining of the womb and also ovulation.”
Put simply, when hormones in your body change – often from stressors like major changes to your schedule – your ovulation schedule can shift around, either delaying your period or potentially bringing it on early.
“For someone who’s travelling for a one-off trip between say here and America or to Europe they may find that they have a delay in when they would normally ovulate, and therefore that may delay their period,” Dr Sgroi explained.
“Equally so, it may bring on a period earlier.”
Why does travelling affect the menstrual cycle?
Although menstrual changes are more likely to occur if you’re travelling frequently, changes can occur even on shorter trips.
While for some women, their cycle will continue moving along as normal, others may experience an early or late period, a period that’s heavier or lighter than usual or even a period that doesn’t come at all.
But while you may assume that crossing different time zones is the main cause behind your period travel troubles – it’s not always the case.
As Dr Sgroi explained, in a normal menstrual cycle, a hormone called follicle stimulating hormone stimulates the growth of ovarian follicles in the ovaries.
Put simply, this hormone is basically acts like a fertiliser for the ovaries.
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When a woman is dealing with stress, however, that fertiliser to the ovaries decreases, meaning the follicles are less likely to develop as they normally would.
“If you’re about to board a plane and you’re going to do 48 hours in a plane with stopovers, putting your body under a huge amount of stress [combined] with lack of sleep and not eating that well, then the fertiliser going to the ovaries is going to diminish or decrease,” Dr Sgroi explained.
“As a result, the follicles are not going to develop as well over the course of those first 14 days [of the menstrual cycle] until you’re feeling well again, when you’re back into a good time zone, getting good sleep and eating well again.”
This decrease in follicle stimulating hormone can delay ovulation, hence the delayed or late period while travelling.
“It’s got nothing necessarily to do with the timezone you’re in, but more the disturbance in your patterns of sleep,” Dr Sgroi said.
Likewise, it’s not just international travel that can put your menstrual cycle out of whack.
Lifestyle changes, like switching from night shift to morning shift for instance, can also lead to some shifts in your cycle.
What if I’m on the pill?
Women taking the contraceptive pill have to take extra care will travelling to new time zones.
When you take the pill at the same time every day, you’re in control of when you’re going to have a period. But if that routine is disrupted, breakthrough bleeding can occur.
If you regularly take the pill around 6pm at night, for example, you may forget to take the pill if you are on a flight or travelling during that time period.
Missing a pill can result in two things.
“Number one, you can become pregnant,” Dr Sgroi said.
“Number two, you might also have a bleed as well.”
To avoid running into these problems, Dr Sgroi recommends finding the equivalent time in your holiday destination to the time you would normally take the pill at home.
“The most sensible thing to do is to take the pill at the same time as you would if you’re in Australia,” he said.
“Try to take the pill within the 24 hours that you would normally take it.”
On the other hand, if you’re not on the pill, there isn’t a whole lot you can do to prevent shifts in your menstrual cycle.
The best thing you can do for your body is try to maintain low levels of stress, eat well and try to get some sleep while travelling.