Chronic Stress & Its Indirect Role in Irregular Periods
Bouts of stress from time to time can be expected in anyone's life, but an excessive amount can lead to a wide range of health problems, such as poor diet, lack of exercise and poor sleep habits. Those problems, in turn, cause secondary issues including irregular menstrual periods.
To understand how chronic stress can affect your menstrual cycle, even if the correlation is indirect, you need to first understand what it can do to your hormonal balance.
Stress is your body's fight-or-flight response to potential threats. At times of stress, your body releases a surge of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, to help you deal with a perceived dangerous situation. These stress hormones suppress a number of bodily functions deemed inessential in fight-or-flight situations, some of which relate to reproduction.
During and after stressful situations, your body's hormones may temporarily suppress and become imbalanced in response to increased cortisol and adrenaline. After the situation has passed, your cortisol levels decrease while the rest of your hormones rebalance, but when stress is prolonged and/or frequent, your body reacts negatively.
Irregular periods & dysmenorrhea
Chronic stress will result in your body having abnormally high levels of cortisol on a consistent basis. Elevated cortisol suppresses reproductive hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, and that can wreak havoc on your menstrual cycle and fertility. In addition, continuous stress will likely negatively influence your diet, daily exercise habits and sleep, and these factors, too, can all create problems in your menstrual cycle.
You may notice a lighter or heavier flow, or find that you're starting your period on a day you didn't expect, and that it lasts for a longer or shorter time than usual. Of course, none of these issues on its own is a cause for concern, but if you're losing the ability to predict your period or the problem otherwise persists, talk to your gynecologist, who can tell you whether stress might be a secondary cause and recommend a path forward.
At times of stress, your body releases a surge of hormones to help you deal with a perceived dangerous situation.
Chronic stress and its attendant issues, such as endometriosis, can also contribute to a painful menstrual condition called dysmenorrhea, characterized by severe cramps, diarrhea, nausea and headaches. Dysmenorrhea is a fairly common condition, as 16 to 91 percent of reproductive-age women experience symptoms. While stress can contribute to dysmenorrhea, it's usually due to other causes such as endometriosis. Even though it's common, see your gynecologist if severe cramping persists.
Other researchers have found that women with high stress may be twice as likely to experience painful menstrual periods. They also learned that women with higher levels of stress during the first half of their menstrual cycle are more likely to suffer dysmenorrhea than women who experience stress during the latter half of their cycles.
How to manage stress
Managing stress is a challenge, but identifying relief methods that work best for you is a place to start. Being equipped to cope with stress, or potentially eliminating sources of stress in your life, can lead to many long-term benefits.
To handle stress, consider practicing mindfulness, exercising regularly and talking about it.
Practicing mindfulness means living in the present and heightening your awareness of your surroundings. Mindfulness can prevent your mind from wandering to negative and stressful thoughts.
To practice mindfulness, direct your full focus to what you're doing right now without letting your thoughts wander to other topics. For example, if you're sitting outside in the sun, close your eyes and focus on the way the sun is making you feel warm and comfortable, instead of thinking about all the tasks you'll have to do when you step back inside your home or office.
Exercise is a natural stress reliever that stimulates the release of endorphins while reducing cortisol and regulating your other hormones. If you're not a big fan of exercise, ease into it by taking walks around your neighborhood or at your local park. When you've been exercising consistently, you'll start to notice how effective it is at reducing stress.
Talk about it
Some people avoid talking about what bothers them because they believe it would be burdensome or annoying for loved ones, or they hope stress will go away if they ignore it. Friends and family will always lend an ear, or a counselor or therapist can be consulted for help. Many times, talking to someone else, especially a licensed professional, about your problems can help you process your feelings and ultimately mitigate stress.
Fortunately, there are countless ways to effectively reduce stress, and trying the management techniques highlighted here should have the immediate effect of improving your diet, regulating your hormones and delivering a good night's sleep. And fixing all of those factors should minimize any problems you may be experiencing with your menstrual cycle.
If your periods remain irregular, and especially if they're painful, talk with your doctor so you can receive a professional evaluation.