Stress is a natural part of life and impacts us almost on a daily basis. Whilst a small amount of stress can actually be good for us (believe it or not), chronic stress and burn out can end up negatively impacting almost all of our body’s processes—including our menstrual cycles.
In this article we’re going to cover exactly what stress is, the science behind it, how it can impact our periods and some top tips for managing stress and mitigating its impacts.
- What is stress?
- What is a normal period?
- Can stress affect your period?
- How to know if stress is affecting your cycle
- How to manage stress
What is stress?
Stress is defined as a state of worry caused by a difficult situation. It’s always been a part of human life and is actually a fundamental element for our survival.
The bodily changes you feel when you’re stressed are akin to what your ancestors felt when they were running away from life-threatening predators. Except, nowadays, predators take on the shapes of boardrooms, bosses and bills.
Stress is classed as a state of ‘disharmony’, disrupting the carefully coordinated balance that your body is consistently fine-tuning. Usually, your body’s reaction to stress is temporary and it’s able to revert to its previous state.
However, it’s increasingly common to be exposed to prolonged periods of stress or several different, unresolved stressors, which cannot be adapted to—resulting in chronic stress. This can feel never-ending and all-encompassing, impacting both our mental and physical health. This is the type of stress linked to depression , fertility issues and other health problems.
The science behind stress
The body’s reaction to stress is coordinated by something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (we know it’s a mouthful… let’s just go with the HPA axis).
The hypothalamus (a part of the brain) helps encourage the production of hormones like cortisol and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) (2). These kickstart the body’s stress response and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which diverts the brain’s attention away from other processes, like coordinating your reproductive system.
When we are chronically stressed, our cortisol and CRH levels remain constantly high. This can put us in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’, leading to the body being unable to adequately support other bodily functions.
What is a ‘normal’ period?
To understand how stress may affect your menstrual cycle, it’s important to understand the basics. A ‘normal cycle’ can last anywhere from 21 to 35 days, depending on the individual.
A one-off longer or shorter cycle is still considered normal, but if yours are consistently irregular, it’s worth getting checked out as they could be caused by an underlying health condition, such as PCOS.
Can stress affect your period?
Stress can affect your period in many different ways. This is because your menstrual cycle and your body’s response to stress are both coordinated by the same part of the brain—the hypothalamus.
When you’re stressed, your hypothalamus moves its energy away from the HPG axis so that it can focus on the HPA axis, AKA your stress response system.
It’s through this mechanism that cortisol and CRH are able to affect gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) levels. GnRH controls the production and regulation of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH), two hormones incredibly important for the regulation of the menstrual cycle, the triggering of ovulation and the production of oestrogen and progesterone. As all of these hormones are involved in the regulation of your menstrual cycle, it’s easy to see why stress can have a profound effect on your period, should any of them be disrupted.
Not only does stress affect the menstrual cycle, it also influences sexual desire and arousal. One study found that women experiencing high levels of stress showed lower levels of sexual desire, linked to elevated cortisol levels.
Can stress delay your period?
Elevated cortisol levels as a result of stress can effectively delay ovulation by blocking the release of LH, Without a surge in LH, you won’t ovulate.
This can interfere with progesterone production, making your cycles longer and potentially heavier. Conversely, high levels of stress are also associated with shorter cycles.
Can stress stop your period?
In situations of chronic stress, ovulation can be prevented for long periods of time (known as chronic anovulation), stopping your period altogether.
This can be due to psychological stress but also periods of intense, excessive exercise or eating disorders. Missing periods due to stress is called functional hypothalamic amenorrhoea.
Can stress cause heavy periods?
Stress can cause heavy periods due to the effect cortisol has on the hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle. If GnRH levels drop because of stress, there is a knock-on effect on LH and FSH levels.
This chain reaction can then lead to an imbalance between oestrogen and progesterone, which can cause excessive growth of the uterine lining, resulting in heavier periods.
How do I know if stress is the cause of my menstrual cycle changes?
Without the analysis of a medical professional or hormone test, it’s not possible to know for certain that stress is the cause of your menstrual cycle changes. Lifestyle factors often work in tandem, and changes to your cycle may be because of a handful of interacting factors.
That being said, there are steps you can take to get a better idea of whether stress could be behind your period irregularities:
- Chart your periods:
How irregular are they? Are they painful? Do your PMS symptoms differ based on the type of stress you’re under? This is such a good tool to get to know your body and periods. It will also make it easier to recount your history if you need to see a healthcare professional.
- Make a note of when you feel stressed:
How does this correlate with your periods and PMS symptoms? Are there any obvious links you can decipher between them? Make sure you log any events that could be considered stressful, even if they didn’t feel that way at the time. It can be hard to recognise some forms of stress in the moment, but that doesn’t mean they don’t leave a lasting impact.
- Look out for other signs of stress:
Such as feeling burnt out and fatigued, having difficulty relaxing or sleeping, experiencing digestive problems or constantly worrying about the future. Make sure you log these too.
- Take our Online Health Assessment:
Analysing your biometrics, medical history, periods and lifestyle factors, our assessment uses a proprietary algorithm to calculate your risk profile and help determine the cause of your symptoms.
By looking at the pattern between your menstrual cycle and stress levels, you should be able to spot if there’s any obvious link. Even if they aren’t linked, just being able to rule out stress as the cause of your period troubles is helpful—you’ll then at least know to direct your attention elsewhere.
How can we manage stress?
Although experiencing stress might not feel great in the moment, it does serve an important purpose and actually, in small doses, it’s a powerful motivator, helping us to work harder and achieve our goals.
Although our modern day stressors might not be as dangerous as the threats facing our ancestors, they do still present their own problems. They’re often much harder to escape from and more complex to deal with.
Everyone deals with and experiences stress differently. This can be down to the situation, your life experience and the support network you have, among other things.
There really is no one correct way to deal with stress and we all respond differently to coping methods. These can often be very personal and it can take time to figure out what works for you.
For some people, talking about their feelings with friends and family helps. For others, putting how they are feeling into words can feel like added pressure. There are some great tips for dealing with stress on the NHS website. Don’t be afraid to try a few different ones to find what works best for you.
If you’re worried about how stress is impacting your reproductive health, you can always book a call with one of our Fertility Counsellors, for professional mental health support.
All of our counsellors are trained psychotherapists accredited with the BACP (British Association of Counsellors & Psychotherapists) and BICA (British Infertility Counselling Association).
In a nutshell
From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s quite logical that high levels of stress could affect your body’s reproductive process. Just think about it… how inconvenient would it be to get pregnant whilst on the run from the big bad wolf?
It’s for this reason stress can make your periods longer or shorter, make them stop altogether or even make your PMS worse. Stress can also affect periods in subsequent months, changing their duration and even how painful they may be.
If you are under stress consistently, it may be difficult to pinpoint that this is what’s causing your irregular cycles. The best way to establish what is going on with your cycles is to look at your hormone health – you can do this using our tailored at-home Hormone and Fertility Test. By looking at hormones such as testosterone and thyroid-stimulating hormone, we can eliminate other things which can affect your cycle, such as PCOS or abnormal thyroid function.
- Stress is a physiological reaction to the busy and sometimes difficult to deal with elements of our everyday lives. A little bit of stress can be good, but a lot of constant stress is not so good.
- Your body responds to stress by producing hormones called cortisol and corticotropin-releasing hormone. These can affect several processes throughout your body, including your menstrual cycle.
- By blocking the key hormones which control your menstrual cycle, your body’s response to stress can make your cycles longer or shorter and/or more painful. It can even make them stop altogether.
- Everyone deals with stress in different ways, but if you are worried about how stress may be affecting your periods, we have included some tips to help you figure it out.
- If you feel stress is negatively impacting your everyday life or are worried about its impact on your reproductive health, you can book a session with one of our Fertility Counsellors.
- Good Thinking UK. Types of Stress [Online]. [Accessed 23 June 2021]. Available from: https://www.good-thinking.uk/types-stress/.
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