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Historically, women’s relationship with their hormones has been difficult.

Hormones can wreak havoc for many women, on their mood, appetite, weight and sex drive, but with women’s hormones a low priority in medical research, many women feel misinformed about their bodies.

But things are changing. More than 100 million women around the world are now using free menstruation tracking apps, helping them plan and respond to hormonal changes. In the same way you’d check the weather in the morning or keep track of how many steps you’ve done on your Fitbit, women using information about their cycle can adjust their lives for the better.

This growing use of apps is also creating an enormous pool of data about women’s health. The problem to date has been that this data is closed off in individual accounts, meaning opportunities to improve women’s health through analysis of this data on a bigger scale are being missed.

But in 2020, as more and more women use this information to shape their lives for the better, we predict data sharing around the menstrual cycle will become more open, meaning more medical professionals and researchers will be able to use this data to develop new approaches to improve women's health.

Animated figure holding a smartphone, next to a microscope

Plugging the gender gap

It is no secret that medical research continues to suffer from a gender bias. This means that there have been significantly fewer studies done on women in comparison to men. It is a persistent problem that affects how research is conducted and what kinds of medical research receive the most funding. The role of hormones in our daily lives in particular is still greatly misunderstood, despite affecting both men as well as women.

Historically, the medical community has been extremely slow in acknowledging the significant impact hormones have on the female body. It wasn’t until 2013 that premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe condition that affects five per cent of women, became an official diagnosis.

But with a rise in menstrual cycle apps that indicates the femtech market could be worth $50 billion by 2025, there’s a growing pool of data that is giving women new insights into how hormones impact their daily lives and wellbeing.

Apps such as Natural Cycles, Clue, Moody Month and Flo, give women the ability to track their cycle, documenting any changes or patterns that emerge, including understanding how their birth control pill will impact their cycle and fertility. Alongside the rise of these apps have been concerns around privacy and accuracy. Yet, this growing trend demonstrates a desire to open up the conversation about how data and tech can be used to improve women’s health.

Data sharing for good

Being able to track in real-time how hormonal changes correlate with mood, wellbeing and behaviour could allow women to finally understand their bodies and use this information to tailor their lives in ways that work for the individual, making people feel happier and healthier.

This could mean allowing women to take period leave during a particularly painful period, which is already offered at certain companies in Japan. Or it could mean using the data to exercise more productively, as professional athletes have begun to do, when they use information about their menstrual cycle to shape their training and avoid injury.

By collecting data on the date of the next period or on ovulation, these apps have created a vast data source that could help medical professionals and researchers to track and understand more about hormonal changes in people from puberty, through childbirth and the menopause.

The period-tracking app Clue already collaborates with scientific researchers from universities including Stanford, Columbia and Oxford. They have even launched a research innovation programme. The data provided by Clue is allowing researchers to look into what might be considered ‘normal’ pain or mood patterns, revealing more about menstrual and symptom patterns that could allow medical professionals to spot disease and illness risk earlier such as endometriosis.

How will this affect people’s lives?

Woman with phone

Giving women the tools to monitor and flag any changes in their health means that conversations with their doctors can be significantly more informed. A woman going through menopause, for example, may be able to spot early signs of mood changes which could be related to a surge or decline in oestrogen.

If companies and researchers can overcome the technical, ethical, and privacy-related hurdles around these growing datasets, it could give researchers one of the biggest health data sets ever to analyse, filling in the gender research gap. Eventually this could result in better care options for women, as well as better support for women who find that hormone changes can exacerbate mental health issues.

For too long, stigma has pushed menstruation and hormones to the bottom of the pile when it comes to understanding women’s physical and mental health. In 2020, millions more women will use technology and data to shape their lives for the better by managing their own health and having more empowering conversations with medical professionals. Thanks to more open data sharing, researchers will take advantage of this massive pool of data to track and understand more about hormonal changes in women from puberty, through childbirth and the menopause. At last, the gender gap may start to close.

*We use the term ‘women’ throughout this blog, which includes women/trans men/non-binary people who experience/have experienced menstruation.

Caroline Back is Nesta's Social Media Officer; Wallis Grant is Nesta's Communications Manager for the Future News Fund.