Background: The identification of subtle menstrual cycle disturbances requires daily hormone assessments. In contrast, the identification of severe menstrual disturbances, such as amenorrhea and oligomenorrhea, can be established by clinical observation. The primary purpose of this study was to determine the frequency of subtle menstrual disturbances, defined as luteal phase defects (LPD) or anovulation, in exercising women, with menstrual cycles of 26-35 days, who engage in a variety of sports, both recreational and competitive. Secondly, the prevalence of oligomenorrhea and amenorrhea was also determined via measurement of daily urinary ovarian steroids rather than self report alone.
Methods: Menstrual status was documented by daily measurements of estrone and pregnanediol glucuronide and luteinizing hormone across two to three consecutive cycles and subsequently categorized as ovulatory (Ovul), LPD, anovulatory (Anov), oligomenorrheic (Oligo) and amenorrheic (Amen) in sedentary (Sed) and exercising (Ex) women.
Results: Sed (n = 20) and Ex women (n = 67) were of similar (P > 0.05) age (26.3 +/- 0.8 years), weight (59.3 +/- 1.8 kg), body mass index (22.0 +/- 0.6 kg/m2), age of menarche (12.8 +/- 0.3 years) and gynecological maturity (13.4 +/- 0.9 years). The Sed group exercised less (P < 0.001) (96.7 +/- 39.1 versus 457.1 +/- 30.5 min/week) and had a lower peak oxygen uptake (34.4 +/- 1.4 versus 44.3 +/- 0.6 ml/kg/min) than the Ex group. Among the menstrual cycles studied in the Sed group, the prevalence of subtle menstrual disturbances was only 4.2% (2/48); 95.8% (46/48) of the observed menstrual cycles were ovulatory. This finding stands in stark contrast to that observed in the Ex group where only 50% (60/120) of the observed menstrual cycles were ovulatory and as many as 50% (60/120) were abnormal. Of the abnormal cycles in the Ex group, 29.2% (35/120) were classified as LPD (short, inadequate or both) and 20.8% (25/120) were classified as Anov. Among the cycles of Ex women with severe menstrual disturbances, 3.5% (3/86) of the cycles were Oligo and 33.7% (29/86) were Amen. No cycles of Sed women (0/20) displayed either Oligo or Amen.
Conclusions: This study suggests that approximately half of exercising women experience subtle menstrual disturbances, i.e. LPD and anovulation, and that one third of exercising women may be amenorrheic. Estimates of the prevalence of subtle menstrual disturbances in exercising women determined by the presence or absence of short or long cycles does not identify these disturbances. In light of known clinical consequences of menstrual disturbances, these findings underscore the lack of reliability of normal menstrual intervals and self report to infer menstrual status.