When we talk about stress and how it affects your menstrual cycle, it’s best to first define what stress is. Even though you might have felt stressed many times in your life and can pinpoint the feeling, you might still be unsure of why and how stress is triggered and what it really is.
Stress is part of our ancient survival mechanism, which in the modern world is actually quite outdated. In a nutshell, stress is our body-mind's reaction to a threat - for example, in ancient times this threat would have been something such as a bear hiding in the bushes that you saw while picking berries and that is ready to attack. So, in order to save your life, your brain would have sent a signal to your body saying that it’s time to either fight or flight.
When the fight or flight response is activated, it means that your body will do everything to help you and starts to release stress hormones. As a result, your heart rate gets faster, breathing becomes more shallow and all non-essential functions such as digestive and reproductive systems take the backseat. These reactions help you run away faster or fight the bear to save your life.
But what does a bear in the bushes have to do with modern life and your stress? Let alone your menstrual cycle?
When you react to something that seems stressful, such as a deadline, traffic jam or even a worry in your mind, your brain or your body don’t see the difference between these modern day stressors and the ancient real life threats. And when you come across a stressful situation or thought, your mind-body will start to create the same kind of response as described above.
But why is that an issue? Because so many people these days live a very busy life. We are all so accustomed to it that we subconsciously start to believe that if we don’t stress, we don’t work hard enough. Constant stress means a constant fight or flight mode and constant production of cortisol. When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to conditions such as adrenal fatigue and chronic inflammation.
When you react to something that seems stressful, such as a deadline, traffic jam or even a worry in your mind, your brain or your body don’t see the difference between these modern day stressors and the ancient real life threats.
Stress and menstrual cycle
Stress can affect your menstrual cycle in many ways such as preventing ovulation but in this article, I’m only covering a couple of the effects.
To understand why stress affects your menstrual cycle, it’s good to know that the number one purpose of your monthly cycle is to prepare your body for a possible pregnancy, even if you’re not currently thinking about having a baby. But when you’re stressed, your body needs to focus on saving your life (because as mentioned above, your body-mind will think that you are in danger) and in that case, a possible pregnancy needs to take a back seat and your menstrual cycle is therefore affected.
High cortisol leads to lower progesterone
Your menstrual cycle is powered by hormones and it’s good to understand the role of two main hormones - estrogen and progesterone. The first one is dominant during the follicular phase of your cycle - after your period and prior to ovulation and the latter one is dominant during the luteal phase - after your ovulation and before your period.
The two main hormones, progesterone and estrogen keep each other in check. And when your progesterone levels drop because your body prioritises cortisol production, it means that estrogen can become dominant which can manifest as a variety of symptoms such as PMS.
The interesting thing is that progesterone is a precursor to cortisol. This means that these two hormones are made from the same building blocks and when you are stressed, your body will always prioritise cortisol production over progesterone. But why does it matter?
The two main hormones, progesterone and estrogen keep each other in check. And when your progesterone levels drop because your body prioritises cortisol production, it means that estrogen becomes dominant which can manifest as a variety of symptoms such as PMS.
Progesterone has also calming and nurturing qualities, it can reduce inflammation and it has anti-anxiety effects. But if the production of progesterone is put on the backseat because of stress and cortisol production, it means that you might not get to enjoy all the amazing benefits of progesterone.
Stress can cause inflammation which in turn can make your period painful
Inflammation is your body’s response to a threat like a virus, cancer or stress. So, if you’re a healthy person with little stress in your life and eat a very clean diet, inflammation is a good thing because it helps your body to fight against threats and heal. However, if you deal with stress in your life on a daily basis, your body needs to produce inflammation to fight this stress and in the long run, this circle can become harmful.
This article states that acute stressors can enhance the immune system but chronic stressors can be harmful. Things such as diet and exercise have a huge impact on the inflammation levels but, as you already know, stress is also a really big factor. When we have chronic or long-term stress in our lives our immune system produces inflammation that is usually used to heal the body. But when there’s nothing to heal, the inflammation can become harmful to the body and cause chronic diseases and other issues.
But what does inflammation have to do with your menstrual cycle and periods?
PMS and period pain are often caused by inflammation as stated in this article. This is very much recognised in the Western medical industry as well, but it is alarming that it’s usually treated just with anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen and doctors don’t necessarily look at the causes behind it.
Managing stress in your everyday life
There’s not just one thing that you can do that will magically decrease stress in your life - it’s all about a holistic approach. Here are some of my best tips for managing stress in your life.
Yoga - Reducing stress in the body-mind and creating a healthy menstrual cycle
Meditation - Learn to rewire your brain and tune into yourself
Breathing exercises - Tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce stress in your everyday life
Moderate regular exercise - Boost your endorphins
Anti-inflammatory diet - Why does food matter so much?
Time off - reducing busyness - It’s time to take a look at where you put your time
I will be writing articles about all these and then link them all here. Stay tuned by subscribing to my email list by getting your free cycle syncing guide!