Menstruation, Menopause and HIV
Normal menstruation is characterized by cyclic changes in the levels of hormones produced by the pituitary gland (luteinizing hormone [LH] and follicle stimulating hormone [FSH]) and by the ovaries (estrogen and progesterone). (See "HIV and Hormones" in the Summer 2004 issue of BETA.)
Menstrual irregularities are common in both HIV positive and HIV negative women. Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation. Primary amenorrhea refers to a woman older than 16 years who has never menstruated, while secondary amenorrhea is the absence of menses for three to six months or longer in a woman who previously menstruated.
Menorrhagia refers to the loss of more than 80 mL of blood during each cycle of regular length, whereas dysfunctional uterine bleeding (DUB) is defined as loss of more than 80 mL of blood during irregular cycles; both menorrhagia and DUB may result in anemia, or reduced number of red blood cells. Dysmenorrhea refers to pain during menses, which may be a crampy discomfort with no underlying gynecologic condition, or may stem from endometriosis (growth of endometrium, or uterine lining tissue, outside of the uterus) or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Many conditions can cause abnormal menstrual bleeding. Uterine fibroids may cause heavy or prolonged periods. Genital tract infections may cause abnormal bleeding, usually accompanied by other signs of infection, such as pain, vaginal discharge, or fever. Cancer in the genital tract (cervical cancer, endometrial cancer) may also cause bleeding. Other medical conditions, including thyroid abnormalities and low platelet counts, can interfere with regular menstrual cycles. Extreme weight loss or being underweight can cause acquired gonadotropin releasing hormone deficiency, eliminating the stimulus for LH and FSH release and resulting in amenorrhea. Hormonal dysfunction that disrupts ovulation can also lead to abnormal bleeding, which may be more common in HIV positive women, although studies are inconclusive.
Use of drugs (including methadone) may interfere with hormonal regulation and cause abnormal bleeding. Some medications commonly used by HIV positive women, such as contraceptives and megestrol acetate (Megace), may also interfere with normal menstruation. Antiretroviral agents may also contribute to abnormal bleeding; for example, one case series reported heavy menstrual bleeding associated with full-dose ritonavir (Norvir) in a small sample of young women.
In a study of the effect of HIV infection on menstrual cycle length, published in the May 2000 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, Sioban Harlow, Ph.D., and colleagues collected data from 802 HIV positive and 273 HIV negative women. The women completed monthly menstrual calendars and answered questions regarding antiretroviral therapy and recreational drug use. The researchers examined relationships between viral load and CD4 cell count and menstrual cycle length. Overall, HIV infection did not increase the likelihood of having a cycle longer than 40 days (i.e., a longer interval between periods). However, HIV positive women with more advanced immunosuppression (CD4 counts less than 200 cells/mm3) were more likely to have long cycles. The researchers concluded that HIV serostatus had little effect on menstrual cycle length, and that other factors -- for example, advanced disease, age, race, malnutrition, wasting, and substance use -- were more important.
In an earlier study, Keith Chirgwin, M.D., and colleagues evaluated 248 HIV positive and 82 demographically similar HIV negative women, and found that women with HIV were more likely to experience amenorrhea for more than three months and had intervals greater than six weeks between menstrual cycles. However, menstrual irregularities were not found to be significantly associated with HIV disease status in this study.
Tedd Ellerbrock, M.D., and colleagues interviewed 197 HIV positive and 189 HIV negative women to assess the effect of HIV on menstruation. The researchers collected data retrospectively to identify trends in menstrual cycles over the previous year. The study found no major differences between the two groups, and no relationship between degree of immuno-suppression and menstrual irregularities. However, the design of this study was not ideal, as it required that women recall characteristics of their menstrual cycles for the entire year prior to the interview.
Wasting syndrome associated with HIV is known to affect the menstrual cycle, as also occurs in HIV negative women -- such as athletes and malnourished women -- who lose a significant percentage of body fat or lean body mass. For example, a small study by Steven Grinspoon, M.D., and colleagues found that among 31 HIV positive women with varying degrees of wasting, 20% overall had experienced amenorrhea. Among the women with amenorrhea, muscle mass was significantly lower, as was the total level of estradiol (a form of estrogen). The study revealed a higher rate of amenorrhea in women with less than 90% of ideal body weight.
A diagnosis of menopause can be made in women over the age of 45 years who have stopped menstruating for at least one year. Menopause is a clinical diagnosis; no diagnostic tests are necessary. However, in younger women who stop menstruating and are not pregnant, hormone testing for premature ovarian failure should be performed.
Women beginning the menopausal transition (perimenopause) may have irregular cycles with either light or heavy bleeding. They may also experience hot flashes, a heat sensation that starts on the upper face or chest and can spread throughout the entire body. Hot flashes at night may be particularly troublesome if they disturb sleep. Another common symptom of menopause resulting from decreased estrogen production is vaginal thinning and dryness, which increase in prevalence as women age. Thinning of the vaginal wall may cause pain during sexual intercourse.
Other menopausal symptoms include breast pain or tenderness -- more common during the early menopausal transition than in late menopause -- and mood changes, such as depression. Other mood-related symptoms may include nervousness, irritability, and frequent mood fluctuations. Some women experience forgetfulness and impaired concentration. Long-term physiological changes associated with menopause include a higher risk of osteoporosis (bone thinning) and cardiovascular disease.
One large study examined the relationship between HIV disease and onset of menopause. Ellie Schoenbaum, M.D., and colleagues examined the effects of HIV infection, HAART, street drug use, and immune status on age of onset of menopause. Their study group included 571 women, half of whom were HIV positive. Half the women in both the HIV positive and HIV negative groups used recreational drugs, and 90% were current or former smokers. About half were African-American, 40% were Latina, and 10% were white. In this population with high rates of drug use, the average age of menopause onset was 46 years in the HIV positive group and 47 years in the HIV negative group.
The likelihood of early menopause rose with increasing degree of immuno-suppression. In women with CD4 counts less than 200 cells/mm3, the mean age of onset of menopause was 42.5 years. Women with low levels of physical activity were also at risk for earlier onset of menopause. This study showed no association between low body mass index (BMI) or cigarette smoking and early onset of menopause, contrary to some other epidemiological studies. There was also no association observed in this study between HAART use and earlier onset of menopause.
Clearly, more research into the effect of HIV on onset of menopause is necessary. The HIV Menopause Clinic -- the first of its kind in the U.S. -- was founded by Susan Cu-Uvin, M.D., director of the Miriam Hospital's Immunology Center in Providence, Rhode Island. The clinic is currently collecting observational data as a first step toward large-scale research on menopause in HIV positive women.
In addition, numerous studies are underway to determine the effects of HIV infection and antiretroviral therapy on the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. These effects may be compounded in HIV positive menopausal women on HAART.
A study by Julia Arnsten, M.D., and colleagues with the U.S. Menopause Study, published in the April 1, 2006, issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, analyzed data from 263 HIV positive and 232 HIV negative women; the median age was 44, most were pre-menopausal, and roughly three-quarters were on HAART. Overall, the HIV positive women had lower bone mineral density (BMD) in their hips and lumbar spines: 27% of the HIV positive women had low BMD, versus 19% of the HIV negative participants.
Not long ago, it was widely believed that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) -- replacing estrogen, with or without the addition of progesterone -- could safely alleviate menopausal symptoms while at the same time helping women avoid the detrimental long-term effects of reduced estrogen levels.
In recent years, however, data from large longitudinal studies have shown that the risks of HRT outweigh the benefits for many women. The Women's Health Initiative (WHI) is a group of studies designed to investigate long-term HRT. One study evaluated combined estrogen/progestin (synthetic progesterone) therapy versus placebo in more than 160,000 menopausal women, with an average follow-up period of more than five years.
In 2002, the estrogen/progestin arm of the study was discontinued after it was shown that women receiving long-term combination HRT had an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease (stroke), deep vein thrombosis (blood clots), and breast cancer. The study did, however, reveal some beneficial effects associated with HRT: decreased rates of bone fractures and colon cancer. The estrogen-only arm of the study (which included women who had received hysterectomies and therefore were not at risk for uterine cancer) was later stopped after data showed that estrogen replacement did not reduce the risk of heart attack and slightly raised the risk of stroke.
Alternatives to HRT for hot flashes include using a selective seratonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant, most commonly venlafaxine (Effexor). Some women use soy products or herbal remedies such as black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) or evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) -- which contain estrogen-like compounds known as phytoestrogens -- to alleviate hot flashes, bloating, and mood swings. Dr. Cu-Uvin notes that there is conflicting evidence from clinical trials about the effectiveness of herbal therapies, but for her patients who wish to try soy products, she recommends 40-80 mg of isoflavones taken daily for up to six months. (It is essential, however, for an HIV positive woman to consult with her own health-care provider before beginning a supplement regimen, as some herbal and dietary supplements can interact with antiretroviral medications and other drugs.)
One solution for vaginal dryness and thinning is the use of topical estrogen creams or lubricants during sexual intercourse. There is also an estrogen-releasing silicone ring (Estring) that can be inserted in the vagina and worn for three months at a time to alleviate the symptoms of vaginal atrophy. Local administration of estrogen is not associated with the same risks as systemic HRT.
Similarly, there are many ways to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The first step is lifestyle modification, including exercising, eating a low-fat diet, and quitting smoking. Statins -- drugs such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor) -- reduce LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and can help lower the risk of heart disease. Other strategies include diabetes management and, for some people (and under their doctor's orders), taking a daily aspirin.
As with many aspects of HIV care, management of menopausal symptoms and complications should be tailored to the individual patient. Dr. Cu-Uvin notes that many of her patients have refused even short-term HRT due to their fear of complications, but estrogen replacement remains a viable option for some women, and the absolute risk of complications such as heart attacks and strokes remains small.
Until more is known, HIV positive women are advised to receive the recommended regular health check-ups for their age group (see sidebar). Women should also discuss bothersome menstrual irregularities or menopause symptoms with their health-care providers and together explore individualized management strategies.
Anne Monroe, M.D., is a resident in Internal Medicine at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. She has a longstanding interest in HIV clinical trials and women's health.
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This article was provided by San Francisco AIDS Foundation. It is a part of the publication Bulletin of Experimental Treatments for AIDS. Visit San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.