What’s the big deal? Menstrual syncing, why even talk about it? I recently had a patient in my rooms that came to see me with infertility. She is a woman who has irregular periods.
As part of the history taking I asked her about her history of menstrual cycles. All her life she was having irregular periods. The only time she had regular monthly cycles was when she moved in with a girlfriend for a year. Her girlfriend had very regular periods.
When she moved out, her periods became irregular again.
I reflected upon this for 30 seconds or so. A light bulb went off inside my doctor head. “I think you should move back in with your girlfriend’. I was half joking, half serious.
Later that same day I was chatting with a scientist at the fertility unit. She was telling me that she had very irregular cycles and had struggled to conceive.
She had read on the Internet about menstrual synchrony – women’s periods syncing. This inspired her to then look at women at her workplace who had regular periods.
She made a pact with one woman who had regular periods at work to rub forearms and skin with her couple of times during the day at certain parts of the menstrual cycle. She then found her period became regular and she conceived two children in this way.
Between her two children, her periods were irregular. She had stopped rubbing forearms.
Having heard these two stories on the same day, I wondered whether I should prescribe ‘skin kissing’ as a part of managing irregular cycles and infertility. It is also occurred to me that the opposite could hold true.
Could a woman’s menstrual cycles become irregular if cohabiting or in close contact with a woman who has irregular cycles.
I quickly went back to my office, called my patient and said ‘how about it?”
At the time of writing this article, she was in the process of ‘skin kissing”.
I thought to myself how wonderful if this would work? No drugs needed!
Menstrual syncing or synchrony. I personally have observed this myself. In 2011, I lived with two other female doctors. When we first moved in together, our periods were at different times of the month.
After a couple of months, our periods were in sync; they would come at the same time. It was an interesting time of the month!
We had all moved to the UK to work as doctors and stress was definitely present in that house the first few months.
The menstrual cycle is an interesting thing. It is not fixed and fluctuates and changes between women. Only 15% of women have regular 28-day cycles. 85% of women have menstrual cycles that can vary from 21 to 35 days.
So What Things Affect Menstrual Cycle? A Variety Of Things.
- Stress – so common yet overlooked by women and their doctors.
- Nutrition – over nutrition and under nutrition. Eating disorders are very common too.
- Exercise – many women can overdo the gym. Working out 7 days a week for 2 hrs each session is bound to switch things off.
- Travel – changing time zones can confuse things.
- Illness – acute and chronic
- Medical conditions such as PCOS.
A lady by the name of Martha McClintock published a paper in a reputable medical Journal called Nature in 1971. She observed that girls living in college dorms tended to menstruate at the same time.
One issue with her study was that she relied on these college girls to recall their period start dates. We all know that this introduces a type of bias into a study. Nevertheless, it was an interesting observation.
In 1998 a follow-up study was performed. It claimed that pheromones were responsible for this menstrual synching. In this study, smelling armpit secretions could either lengthen or shorten your menstrual cycles depending on what part of her cycle the ‘donor’ was in.
Over the years there have been a few studies looking at this subject with no definite conclusion. Most studies refute menstrual synchrony as a definite entity.
So what is a pheromone? Simply, mysterious chemical signals released, that affect the behaviour of another individual of the same species. People have even tried to capture it in bottles.
A few questions I have about them.
– Perhaps some of us are more sensitive to other women’s pheromones than others?
– Does one woman’s pheromones play tug-o-war with another woman’s pheromones?
– Will the mystery ever be solved? There are some things I’d love for us to keep mysterious and this is one of them.
As a doctor, I know that good evidence is hard to find. Not because the intentions of the researchers are necessarily poor, it’s mainly because studying humans is fraught with difficulties and challenges.
As Timothy Ferris put it in his book: The 4-Hour Body, ‘Science starts with educated (read: wild ass) guesses. Then it’s all trial and error. Sometimes you predict correctly from the outset.
More often you make mistakes and stumble across unexpected findings, which lead to new questions. If you want to sit on the sidelines and play full-time skeptic, suspending action until a scientific consensus is reached, that’s your choice.
Just realize science is, alas, often as political as a dinner party with die hard Democrats and Republicans. Consensus comes late at best. Be proactively skeptical not defensively skeptical.’
Thankfully as a doctor, I have some patients who also think a little like Timothy Ferris. Science does not definitively tell us how menstrual cycles may synch, nor do all the studies conclude that this is a real entity.
However, anecdotal and personal evidence is enough for me to want to look deeper into this.
What are your thoughts on menstrual synching? I’d love to read your thoughts and experiences.
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Dr Natasha Andreadis – Fertility Specialist, Gynecologist