How does stress affect the menstrual cycle?

Many women know intuitively that stress has an impact on their period. But what is stress and how does stress affect the menstrual cycle?

We usually associate stress with particular situations, such as losing a loved one, an intense break up or an overwhelming work schedule. But stress can come in many other less obvious forms:

  • Positive life events e.g. relocating, changing jobs, moving house, having a baby
  • Exercise e.g. exercising too often or too intensely
  • Diet e.g. not consuming enough energy or nutrients
  • Self talk e.g. a loud inner critic, feeling unworthy or inadequate
  • Environmental stressors e.g. chemicals in food, cleaning products, toiletries

All of these things add up to create your stress load. In this fast paced world we live in it can be a lot! Whether they realise it or not, most women today are living with a high stress load. This is one leading factor in many of the menstrual cycle issues we are seeing. Stress can contribute to painful periods, excessively heavy bleeding, irregular or missed periods and unexplained infertility. It may also be implicated in other conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis.

How does stress affect the menstrual cycle?

When we are in a stressful situation, we release stress hormones to help us deal with the task at hand. The most well known stress hormones are cortisol and adrenaline which increase blood sugar and blood pressure giving us that “pumped up” feeling. Every morning a spike of cortisol wakes us up then levels should gradually decrease until the evening so that we can get a good nights’ sleep.

However, when we are under stress we can end up with chronically high levels of cortisol. How does stress affect the menstrual cycle? Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer, authors of the book Wild Power, call the menstrual cycle our “stress sensitive system”. Menstrual issues are like the canary in the coal mine to let us know that something is out of balance within the body. Before we realise it consciously, our bodies are keeping the score.

Stress and your hormones

Our hormonal system is one big interconnected web of chemical messengers. A chronic increase in stress hormone production sets off a hormonal domino effect in the body via the HPO (hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian) axis. When stress hormone levels are high, the sex hormones which control our menstrual cycle can also be affected. This can lead to changes in the length of your cycle and can also contribute to period pain, PMS symptoms and infertility (Reference).

Dr Claudia Welch, author of Balance your Hormones, Balance your Life calls our sex hormones the “yin hormones” and stress hormones the “yang hormones”. Yin hormones are nourishing, calming and promote wellbeing, healing and fertility. Yang hormones are heating and promote activity and survival. When your body perceives stress, survival is the number one priority and having babies comes way down the list. For this reason it puts producing stress hormones ahead of sex hormones and stress can affect the menstrual cycle.

Can stress cause your period to be late?

Stress can cause your period to be late by delaying ovulation. If cortisol levels are high and this disrupts the normal sex hormone production, ovulation will not occur. Often, the body will have a “second attempt” at ovulation a few days later. The luteal phase (the time between ovulation and your period) is consistent for each women between 10 and 14 days. So if ovulation is delayed due to stress, your period will also be delayed.

Can you have a missed period from stress?

In the same way that stress can cause a delayed period, it can also cause you to miss a period altogether. It really depends on your body and how it perceived and handles stress. Most of the time, a missed period is nothing to worry about. With short term stress, menstruation should return as usual the following month when the stressor has passed.

However, when stress continues over a long period of time and menstruation is stopped for 6 months or more, this is known as Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. Many women who experience Hypothalamic Amenorrhea engage in chronic dieting or high intensity exercise. It can also happen in women who are under chronic stress from any of the things on the list above.

Stress and pre-menstrual symptoms

The pre-menstrual phase can be the most difficult part of the menstrual cycle for many women. It’s often when we feel at our most vulnerable emotionally and may be experiencing fatigue and other physical symptoms. When we are under stress these physical and emotional changes can be ramped up, in some cases leading to severe PMS.

As we move towards menstruation, there is this natural call to retreat within ourselves. We tend to become less outward focused, more introverted and less motivated for work or intense physical activities. If we are under stress and we can’t align with this natural shift in pace or if we allow the shoulds and shouldn’ts of the mind to come before the wisdom of the body, we can get into trouble.

The body can fight back with all the weapons it has at it’s disposal – period cramps, mood swings, intense fatigue and exhaustion just to name a few. Often these symptoms are a message that it is all just too much and that is perfectly ok. The last thing we want to do is judge or criticise our bodies for being this way. This only adds to the stress load and can worsen the response.

What to do if stress is affecting your menstrual cycle

The first thing to do is to take a moment to P A U S E.

Grab a journal or use the notes app in your phone to keep track of your stress levels and stressors on a daily basis. When do you feel agitated, rushed, overwhelmed, exhausted or inadequate? Are there particular situations, places or people that are contributing to your stress? Could your current lifestyle be increasing your stress levels? Take your time and get very clear on the big picture of your life.

Once you have identified the the stress which could be affecting your menstrual cycle, it’s time to make a plan. Are there any stressors which can be eliminated from your life? For the ones that can’t, is there a change in approach or perspective which could reduce the stress this thing causes you? Are there any lifestyle changes which could make your life more easeful and nourishing?

Finally, it’s important to have tools to support you in “emptying your stress cup”. This is unique to you but here are a few of my suggestions:

All of these activities can help you to get out of over thinking busy mode and into your body. They help to soothe your nerves and bring your nervous system into a relaxed state. Your body knows how to heal and restore balance when it is given the space.

Over to you…

If you would like to work with me 1-2-1 to balance your hormones and improve your health, contact me to set up a free discovery call. I am a nutritionist, yoga teacher and women’s wellness coach. We will create a plan tailored to your individual needs and vision for your health. I will then be there for support, guidance and accountability as you work towards your goals!

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