What is stress, really?
Stress occurs when we are under immense pressure – be it socially, professionally, emotionally, or some unholy combination of the three. While stress is talked about as an emotion, it can cause intense physical responses in people, from brain fog and sleep loss to loss of appetite, and sweating. It can even cause nausea, headaches, shaking, and irritability and the effects of experiencing a lot of stress can seep into long-term problems, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Stress can also have a huge impact on the core hormones governing the menstrual cycle.
How does stress affect your hormones?
Okay, so put in super basic terms, the reason we feel stress is pretty much that we need it to help us avoid life-threating situations – think of our ancestors running away from predatory animals. Trouble is, these days our stressors are, you know, the news cycle or an annoying coworker, but our bodies haven’t really learnt to tell the difference yet. That’s why when we’re stressed out we can sometimes feel a bit baffled at our intense emotional response – at least, I know I do.
The ‘stress hormone’ is cortisol. It doesn’t cause stress, but rather responds to it. Increased levels of cortisol are released in response to stressful or dangerous situations. Stress in small bursts can have a positive impact – again, helping us (or our ancestors) avoid danger, or motivating us to meet deadlines. Prolonged stress can have some pretty serious ramifications for our mental and physical health.
Cortisol is a naturally-occurring hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Even though it’s got a bad rep as being the stress hormone, we shouldn’t actually be too hard on it, because it also governs your mood, motivation levels, metabolism, and even fear. It helps manage your body’s use of fats, carbs, and protein, regulates blood pressure, helps soothe inflammation, and boosts your energy.
There are cortisol receptors in most areas of your body; different areas of your body use cortisol in different ways. An overproduction of cortisol can be caused by stressful situations, be it your boss putting you through the ringer at work, or your great-great-great-great-ad infinitum-grandma running away from a prehistoric predator. When this happens, your body goes in fight-or flight mode, and cortisol can shut down certain bodily functions.
Which brings us to…
Can stress stop your period?
When cortisol disrupts an area in the brain essential for the regulation of hormones, the hypothalamus, the signals it sends to the ovaries become scrambled. This can subsequently prevent ovulation from occurring as the ovaries haven’t received the hormones or ‘signals’ necessary to release an egg. If ovulation gets delayed or doesn’t occur, it can lengthen the menstrual cycle or even cause you to miss your next period altogether. Missed or stopped periods is also known as secondary amenorrhea.
Extreme stress can also affect the production of Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which Maisie Hill crowns the boss of the menstrual cycle. It is also released by the hypothalamus and received by the pituitary gland, in turn stimulating two other hormones that lead to ovulation.
If a menstrual cycle is anovulatory, it is possible to experience a delayed or missed period altogether. So, in short, yes, stress can stop your periods.
Stress can affect every area of your body, and your hormone production will be altered as a result. It might be alarming which your stress levels cause your menstrual cycle to change, but think of it as your body’s way of trying to protect you. It may feel like you’re sat at your desk or curled up on the sofa in a foetal position, but as far as your body is concerned, you’re running away from a bloody woolly mammoth and now is not the time to be getting pregnant, thank you very much! So cortisol and GnRH tag-team to stop your reproductive system from functioning as normal.
How to stop stress affecting your periods
Periods can stop for any number of reasons, not always explicitly ‘I am under a lot of stress’. However, there are many external factors that may or may not be related to stressors that can also impact your body’s ability to regulate your menstrual cycle properly. It’s usually not harmful to miss a period, but it’s always best to be on the safe side and see a doctor – not least or all because you shouldn’t have to be suffering in silence under that much stress. Especially see a doctor if you’ve missed several periods in a row.
So how can you stop letting stress get the better of you? Managing stress is a whale of a subject and one that cannot possibly be tackled in a single article. But it is important to mitigate stressors and learn ways to manage them so it doesn’t derail your life. As for it affecting your menstrual cycle and periods, there are many changes both big and small that you can make to your lifestyle to support your hormone production and mitigate stress. Think everything from CBD to learning how to eat to the seasons of your cycle and even getting enough vitamin D.
If your stress causes you to lose your appetite and you experience drastic weight loss as a result, you might find that your periods stop because you are underweight. If your body is not receiving enough calories, it may be unable to produce the hormones required for ovulation to occur. The same goes for over-exercising. You may not feel stress as an emotion, but you are putting your body under a lot of stress. Losing too much body fat through intense exercise can also stop you from ovulating. Are we sensing a pattern here? Yup, ovulation really is that important!
It’s really important to be aware of changes to your cycle so that you can identify problems early on; a great place to start getting to know your body and menstrual cycle better is by cycle-tracking.
Once your stress levels have gone down, your period will usually return to normal, but don’t fret if it takes a few months. Your cycle will take a while to adjust to the re-balance of your hormone levels and you shouldn’t expect to experience ‘normal’ ovulation immediately after you think your stressors have dissipated. Besides, we all know stress is never that simple, is it? *Sighs in capitalism*
Yes, stress can mess with your menstrual cycle…
But it’s not irreversible. Stress can affect your periods. It can cause an overproduction of cortisol and under-production of GnRH, affecting your body’s ability to ovulate which in turn can cause your cycle to be longer than normal or stop altogether. Stress can feel like it’s totally flipping your life upside down, but can be mitigated through slow and steady changes to your lifestyle to establish consistent routines and habits and self care routines that support your hormones. Not to be that b*tch, but mindfulness is probably a good place to start too. Go forth and chill tf out, ohne babes!