Have you ever wondered how does stress affect your period and menstrual cycle? As you may be aware hormones, periods and stress have a strong working relationship. In this article I explain how stress impacts your period, menstrual cycle and hormones, how these hormones work, the signs to look for and how you can support your stress response to have a better period and menstrual cycle. But first up, lets take a closer look at stress.
Stress has always been a part of human life and is a common experience for many people around the world. In New Zealand, studies show that more than one in four young people report feeling stressed most of the time, and this number has increased over the past decade. However, your stress response is not designed to act continuously, which is an issue in our modern world where daily stress is a constant. With constant deadlines, pressures, demands, sleep deprivation, toxin exposure, pollutants – and the list goes on, your stress response doesn’t get the chance to chill-out – it keeps protecting you; trying to keep you safe.
Stress can affect many aspects of our lives, including our physical health. One area where stress can have a significant impact is on the menstrual cycle. I’ll discuss this later, but next, I answer what happens to your body when you experience stress?
What Happens To Your Body When You Experience Stress?
Stress affects almost every part of the body, including the heart, gut, thyroid and immune system. While stress hormones are helpful when needed, elevated levels over the long term can lead to health conditions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, weight gain and decreased fertility. During stressful times, you might experience headaches, an elevated heart rate, faster breathing, tense muscles and more.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (let’s call it the HPA axis to help simplify things) coordinates your body’s stress response. When you experience stress, your HPA axis releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol so you can effectively handle the stressful situation. Our hypothalamus helps encourage the production of hormones like cortisol and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). These kickstart your body’s reaction and effectively divert your brain’s attention and energy away from things like digesting food or coordinating your reproductive system.
To understand how stress may affect your menstrual cycle, it’s important to understand menstrual cycle basics. I’ve written a comprehensive article on this and recommend you read it if you’re not familiar with them. However, I discuss the basics of the menstrual cycle below.
What Happens Hormonally During The Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is a complex process that involves the activation and interaction of various hormones in the body. This cycle is regulated by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries.
- A ‘normal menstrual cycle’ can last anywhere from 21 to 35 days, a one-off longer or shorter cycle is considered normal. However if your menstrual cycles are consistently irregular please see a qualified health practitioner.
- The hypothalamus-pituitary-ovarian (HPO) and HPA axes coordinate your body’s response to stress and regulates your menstrual cycle.
- Hormones secreted by the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the ovaries are the messengers that regulate your menstrual cycle.
- The hypothalamus produces a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates the pituitary gland to release the hormone follicle stimulating hormone (FSH).
- FSH helps your eggs to develop and causes oestrogen levels to rise.
- High oestrogen levels stimulates the release of the other pituitary hormone, luteinising hormone (LH). Leutinising hormone (LH), helps to mature eggs, provides the hormonal trigger to cause ovulation and the release of eggs from the ovary.
- If you ovulate, high progesterone and oestrogen levels stop FSH secretion. This is known as a negative feedback loop.
- FSH and LH in turn, control the hormones made by the ovaries – Oestrogen and Progesterone.
- Oestrogen plays an important role in helping your eggs grow and mature.
- Progesterone is only produced if you ovulate and prepares the uterus for either a potential pregnancy or menstruation.
Stress can disrupt this delicate balance and cause changes in the timing, duration, and intensity of menstrual bleeding.
How Does Stress Affect Your Period And Menstrual Cycle?
Stress can show up in your menstrual cycle as an early period, a long cycle or delayed periods, PMS, heavy periods, migraines, PCOS, acne, infertility, and more. In chronically stressful circumstances, ovulation stops entirely. This is known as chronic anovulation. This can be due to psychological stress but also periods of intense, excessive exercise or eating disorders. This is known as functional hypothalamic amenorrhoea.
1. How Stress Affects your period: Irregular Menstrual Cycles and An-ovulation
During stressful situations your body prioritises making more cortisol, which is the main stress hormone. It does this to help you handle the stressful situation. However, consistently high levels of cortisol can effectively delay ovulation by blocking the release of LH. This can cause longer menstrual cycles because of delayed ovulation or no ovulation. This in turn can interfere with progesterone production making your menstrual cycles longer and potentially heavier or irregular periods.
On the contrary, high levels of stress are also associated with shorter menstrual cycles.
2. How stress affects your period: Heavier or Lighter Bleeding
Stress can also affect the intensity of menstrual bleeding. Stress can cause the blood vessels in the uterus to constrict, reducing blood flow and causing lighter or shorter periods. Conversely, stress can also cause blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow and causing heavier or longer periods.
3. How stress affects your period: Hypothalamic Amenorrhoea
Hypothalamic amenorrhoea occurs when your hypothalamus doesn’t give the correct signals to produce the hormones you need to regulate your cycle. This causes irregular periods, delayed periods or no periods at all. Not eating enough or exercising too much can also cause hypothalamic amenorrhoea. This is because your body views these factors as stress.
Key Benefits of Managing Stress for Menstrual Health and Better Periods
If you experience any of the above symptoms you need to find a way to de-stress, to tell your body it is safe. This is easier said than done, I know. However, it is essential to reduce your cortisol levels to get your hormones and menstrual cycle on course. So what can you do?
Supporting your stress response is an essential aspect of maintaining menstrual health. Some benefits of stress management include:
- Regular menstrual cycles: By reducing the impact of stress on the body, women can maintain regular menstrual cycles, which is essential for reproductive health.
- Reduced PMS symptoms: Stress can exacerbate symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including mood swings, cramps, and bloating. Managing stress can reduce these symptoms.
- Improved fertility: Stress can disrupt ovulation and reduce fertility. By managing stress, women may be able to improve their chances of becoming pregnant.
How to reduce the affects of stress on your period and menstrual cycle?
LONG TERM: How can to manage stress during your menstrual cycle?
Where to start: what you can do now:
Work on helping your body feel safe and resolve any past trauma with therapies like counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, and neurolinguistic programming. Take a comprehensive audit of your whole life. Are there any areas that need to change? Can you reach out for support?
Short Term: How can to manage stress during your menstrual cycle?
- “You can’t pour from an empty cup” This one is especially important for the mamas. Prioritise you. Create some space in your day to fill your cup. This may look like waking quarter to half an hour earlier each morning to go for a short walk, write in your journal, or simply sit before the rush of the day begins. Spend 5 minutes listening to a podcast or dancing to a favourite playlist.
- Nourish Your Body With Wholesome Foods You need to eat enough so that your body feels safe to ovulate. Eat plenty of healthy fats, proteins and fresh vegetables. If your period is MIA, take an honest audit of your food consumption. Are you eating enough food to honour your body?
- Take Your Exercise Routine Down a Notch Yes, exercise is important to support your stress response, however if your exercise routine consists of only HIIT or long runs five days a week your body will not feel safe. Consider switching out some of your HIIT classes to a restorative yoga class instead. The difference and impact on your overall health will surprise you.
- Breathing Exercises: As much as you can. Whenever you can. Your breath is a tool you can utilise as a navigation point to check in with your feelings and your state of mind. Research has shown that conscious deep breathing can reduce your levels of cortisol and immediately improve your stress symptoms. This simple and often underestimated technique is available to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week and does not require any special preparation or equipment. Go on, give it a go.
Do you experience hypothalamic amenorrhoea, irregular menstrual cycles, heavier period? Could stress be affecting your menstrual cycle? Learn key strategies to reduce the affects of stress on your period and menstrual cycle.
For more detailed strategies on how to support your stress response, please read this post.
Where to next?
Stress can have a significant impact on menstrual health. By managing stress, you can support regular menstrual cycles, reduce PMS symptoms, and improve your fertility. It’s essential you take steps to manage stress and prioritise self-care for better overall health.
If you think stress could be affecting your period and you experience irregular menstrual cycles, heavy or painful periods , hypothalamic amenorrhoea I am here to help. As a qualified, experienced naturopath I understand that every person’s menstrual cycle and hormone picture is different and I can help with stress and hormones. That’s why I create personalised well-being plans tailored to your unique needs. I’ll work with you to identify the underlying drivers that trigger your symptoms and create a plan that works for you.