Stress? Who’s stressed? Certainly not you, or me, or anyone right now on Earth in 2020. All kidding aside, we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with the concept and probably know firsthand how chronic stress can wreak PURE HAVOC on your body and mind. And that includes your menstrual cycle. In fact, research has shown that stress can exacerbate PMS symptoms and pain during your period and may also shorten your cycle or cause missed or delayed periods altogether.
You’ve maybe noticed how your cycle can fluctuate here and there when you’ve got a lot going on, but if you’re starting to see major irregularities, it’s time to take action and talk to your doc.
Stress can affect all aspects of your life, including your sleep quality, diet and activity level, and this has a trickle-down effect on your period. “Lack of activity and changes in appetite are increased with stress and can result in worsening PMS symptoms,” says Dr. Lindsay Appel, an attending physician in Obstetrics & Gynecology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.
But as stress is such a constant part of daily life (especially now), how does one successfully manage it? It’s about paying attention—and then going back to the basics.
This is how stress affects your cycle.
Stress can throw off your whole schedule.
Stress can be super useful in certain situations. The natural, biological response (you may know it as fight-or-flight) is all well and good if you’re trying to outrun an angry bear, but your body can’t tell the difference between when you’re under actual duress versus when you’re staring at your miles-long to-do list, paralyzed about where to start. In either situation, stress activates—and interferes with—the part of your brain that controls the hormones responsible for regulating your menstrual cycle.
“The hypothalamus-pituitary axis [HPA axis] is the communication system in the brain that helps regulate the menstrual cycle. During times of stress, this communication process can be disrupted, resulting in irregular or absent periods,” notes Dr. Appel.
When the HPA axis ramps up, cortisol (aka the stress hormone) and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) increase in response. These two hormones can suppress a reproductive hormone known as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), because why would you want to ovulate when you’re running away from a bear? This may cause your cycle to get off track, meaning you could menstruate earlier than normal or your period could be a few (or more) days late.
If you track your cycle, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon when you have a big exam or an important work project coming up, when you’ve been exercising too intensely (something the body may also see as stress), or if you’ve been traveling.
But here’s the kicker: if you’re under chronic stress, day in and day out, these hormones may take more drastic action over the long-term. Chronic stress can throw off your cycle so much that it may be absent all together, for a month or longer, a condition known as amenorrhea.
*Note that any changes in a normal menstrual cycle (which is anywhere from 21-35 days) should be discussed with your physician, especially if it persists for more than two to three months, notes Dr. Appel.
Stress can affect ovulation.
Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. “If the decrease in GnRH is chronic or long term, it results in amenorrhea; if the decrease in GnRH is intermittent or episodic, then it leads to what is called oligo-ovulation—where ovulation does not occur on a regular basis,” notes Dr. Sharad Paul, a skin cancer surgeon, family physician, writer and skincare expert based in New Zealand. Basically, you could be stressed out but still menstruating each month—while not ovulating regularly, or even at all. This is clearly not ideal if you’re trying to conceive, as lack of ovulation has a direct effect on your fertility.
The good news? With effective stress management, researchers note that you can restore your GnRH production and in turn resume ovulation again. More on that below.
Stress can worsen PMS.
Everyday duties can already seem harder when you’re dealing with your period, and if you’re stressed out on top of that, it can really wreak havoc on your hormones. But don’t discredit yourself by saying you’re “just hormonal.” Even if your stress is only emotional, it’s having a physiological effect on your cycle. “Many studies done on young doctors, nurses and health professionals during times when they felt stressed showed that stress definitely does cause menstrual irregularities,” says Dr. Paul.
Another study found that even perceived stress can cause an increase in the severity of PMS symptoms. And yet another study discovered that stress can cause painful periods (dysmenorrhea), especially in women who already suffer from painful periods, stressed or not.
How to tell your period you’re not stressed
We’re not about to tell you that you have to fit in an hour of exercise each day and eat only raw foods and get 12 hours of sleep, but there are small changes you can make right now to reduce your daily stress levels.
Set some boundaries.
Take a good, hard look at your workload. Are you answering emails when you should be sleeping? Are you constantly thinking about deadlines and tasks that need to be finished? It might be time to set up some hard boundaries for yourself, such as not checking your email after 7pm or only logging a few work hours on the weekend and keeping at least one whole day free of must-dos.
Get more sleep.
Getting regular shuteye can work wonders on reducing cortisol levels. If you’re not hitting the recommended seven to nine hours, aim to increase your nightly goals by just 30 minutes (to start). Once you’ve graduated from, say, six hours to six and a half, work your way up to seven—and then even eight (whoooaaa).
Skip the stimulants.
Sugar and caffeine are easy go-tos when we’re feeling fatigued, but their energizing effects wear off pretty quickly. Instead, reach for hormone-nourishing fats and mineral-rich options, like nuts, seeds, avocado and coconut, and dates and berries for when you do need that sweet kick.
Move a little.
Constantly choosing between fitting in that workout and doing, IDK, a million other things that seem more pressing? Pick one item from your to-do list that you can do on the floor while stretching and holding a few planks. That mini feel-good movement might be the jolt you need to help you carve out time for a longer session later. Then, aim for 30 minutes of physical activity a day, but don’t stress out if you’re not hitting that mark!