In our second blog in the series looking at Orreco’s involvement in research around the menstrual cycle and the female athlete, we speak to PhD student Agatha Gibbons who is studying at Waikato University in New Zealand. Originally from Fiji, Agatha is studying cultural considerations around the menstrual cycle in the Oceania region.
Going into her second year of research, Agatha’s PhD is being supported by a collaboration between High Performance Sport New Zealand and Orreco.
To start us off, Agatha explains why this area of research appeals to her.
“I was educated at primary and high school in Fiji. I was born and raised there but ten years ago I was offered a volleyball scholarship to go to the US. When I transitioned going from high school in Fiji to university in America, the lifestyle was so different and that was really hard.
“However, when I started at the university, our volleyball coaches would talk about the importance of menstruation openly. We had a female coach and she was great. It was a military school and she had to make sure we were all healthy, but for me it was kind of awkward and in Fijian culture it’s a taboo topic and you don’t talk about the menstrual cycle openly, it’s not a discussion you usually have and it’s a topic that’s never taught at school.
“After I was done playing volleyball and started my Masters, we had to do research and I chose the female athlete triad but I wanted to base it on Pacific athletes and that’s when I found out there isn’t much information on Pacific female athletes and menstruation, so I pursued the opportunity.”
Agatha goes on to expand around how the research into cultural considerations will be carried out.
“We’re doing two methods, one is a survey which has been sent out to female athletes across the Pacific region (we have 185 participants so far), asking about how many periods they’ve had in the past six months and whether they have regular periods. The second method is interviews with focus groups, focussing on Pacific athletes living in New Zealand and Fiji. So far in my research I’ve completed interviews with athletes in Fiji and am still completing the ones in New Zealand.”
One of the aims of Orreco’s Female Athlete team is to normalise the conversation around the menstrual cycle, with Agatha sharing this goal and hopes her research will help to address the taboo nature of periods and the menstrual cycle in the Pacific region.
“At first it was hard asking if the female athletes were happy to do an interview with me and I could tell some of them were resistant to talk about this area but it’s important to break the silence and help with the development of female athletes.
“The menstrual cycle is not discussed at a young age or in school, neither is any aspect of female health so I think it’s important to dot his type of research so the findings can be taken back to sporting organisations, and evidence can be given around putting something into the curriculum or the education system from a young age.”
Agatha explains how culture has such a big impact on the ability to treat female athletes equally and speaks from personal experience:
“I was surprised to hear about the athletes’ experiences, and what stood out is back in the day, menstruation was something that people celebrated. When a girl started her period and entered womanhood it was a good thing. But perhaps because of Westernisation, this topic became very taboo. Now it is looked at as a dirty thing or a sickness and girls will say ‘I’ve got my sickness’ when they were talking about their period.
“I really want to educate athletes around the importance of the cycle as well as the female athlete triad and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (REDS), and reinforce how connected nutrition is to menstrual health. I learnt the hard way about the importance of diet and nutrition after I got an injury.
“People don’t realise the link between nutrition, menstrual cycle and injury risk and they don’t connect this with performance. I was lucky enough to have this education as an athlete myself and I want to pass the education and awareness on.”
Speaking around the importance of Agatha’s research, Orreco’s Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Charlie Pedlar said: “Agatha’s work is exciting because historically the scientific community are guilty of focussing heavily on western cultures and systems, which reduces the global applicability of our work.
“By studying athletes from the Pacific Islands, we’re learning how to account for cultural differences and, in the future, ensure that our work reaches well beyond the athletes from westernised countries. It’s a challenge because the human race is so culturally diverse, but Agatha’s work represents a significant step forward.”