Women are more susceptible to some of the psychological effects linked to stressful experiences at specific stages in their monthly menstrual cycle, scientists from University College London reported in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

The authors believe common mental health problems that develop in women might be prevented if specific dates during the menstrual cycle are targeted. They say their study is the first to demonstrate a possible association between psychological vulnerability and a specific moment during the menstrual cycle – which in this case was ovulation.

Repetitive and unwanted thoughts are common symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders. These intrusive thoughts typically occur after a stressful experience; sometimes for a few days, and even weeks or longer.

Dr Sunjeev Kamboj and team set out to determine how vulnerable women are to a stressful event during different stages of their menstrual cycle. The study involved 41 females aged from 18 to 35 years. They all had regular menstrual cycles, and none of them were on the contraceptive pill.

Each participant was asked to watch a 14-minute “stressful” movie which contained death or injury. Saliva samples were taken immediately afterwards so that their hormone levels could be assessed. They were then asked to write down whether they had unwanted thoughts about the video over the next few days, when they had them, and how often.

Sunjeev Kamboj said:

“We found that women in the ‘early luteal’ phase, which falls roughly 16 to 20 days after the start of their period, had more than three times as many intrusive thoughts as those who watched the video in other phases of their menstrual cycle. This indicates that there is actually a fairly narrow window within the menstrual cycle when women may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing distressing symptoms after a stressful event.”

The researchers say that their findings may influence how health care professionals deal with mental health problems in females, especially those who have suffered trauma.

Dr Kamboj said:

“Asking women who have experienced a traumatic event about the time since their last period might help identify those at greatest risk of developing recurring symptoms similar to those seen in psychological disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This work might have identified a useful line of enquiry for doctors, helping them to identify potentially vulnerable women who could be offered preventative therapies.

However, this is only a first step. Although we found large effects in healthy women after they experienced a relatively mild stressful event, we now need to see if the same pattern is found in women who have experienced a real traumatic event. We also need further research to investigate how using the contraceptive pill affects this whole process.”

Studies have linked phases of the menstrual cycle to several mental and physical issues, including:

Written by Christian Nordqvist