When it comes to stress and the menstrual cycle, I find it can either go one of two ways. We don’t realise stress is affecting the menstrual cycle or we simply write other issues off as stress. With such a lack of accessible information and doctors failing to see signs, it is incredibly easy to doubt ourselves. Stress has always had a big impact on my own cycle and my PCOS went undiagnosed for years. So, how is stress and the menstrual cycle linked?
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any changes in your environment. We often associate stress with physical changes or acts that overwhelm us, undoubtably a hard day at work is the first example that springs to mind. In addition to this, stress can also be emotional, social or cultural.
The stress hormone
Cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, works with certain parts of your brain to control things like mood, motivation, and fear. You’ve probably heard the phrase “fight-or-flight”, think of it as the body’s alarm system. It goes into this process as a way of protecting you. Hormones are an extremely complicated system. It’s an incredibly delicate balance; you want your body to cycle through its functions without difficulty and hormones play a key part in that.
How is stress and the menstrual cycle linked?
When your body is on high alert, cortisol alters (or in some cases shuts down altogether) functions that “get in the way”. This might include, you guessed it, the reproductive system.
Again, a complex hormonal balance is what regulates periods. Whilst maybe playing a role, the main stars are oestrogen and progesterone; oestrogen focuses on thickening the uterine lining whilst progesterone is responsible for maintaining it. If an egg isn’t fertilised, progesterone levels will drop. The lining breaks down and this is what causes a period.
The body’s reaction to stress affects hormone balance and several other processes in the body. For example, stress can interfere with the part of the brain that controls hormones that regulate the cycle.
How do I know if it’s stress or something more?
Stress is one of the most common causes of irregular periods. But how can you tell the difference between stress and something more serious? My advice to you is to try become aware of your body’s reaction to stress. When I’m stressed, my digestive system plays up. I get gassy, anxious, and get tired really quickly. I’m also prone to headaches and a stress-induced breakout. Try to learn the difference between your body’s usual reactions to stress
I would also say try to doubt yourself less! So many of us know when something isn’t quite right and goes beyond normal stress. However, symptoms like: pain during sex or bowel movements, cramping and bleeding outside of the period, bloating are examples of signs that could require speaking to a doctor.
Ultimately, try to work on reading your body’s signs and never be afraid to address them.