Stress & Anxiety | Written by: Keely

Stress And Periods: How Stress Affects Your Menstrual Cycle

Since the menstrual cycle shows that a woman’s hormones are working properly, having a regular menstrual cycle shows that the body is healthy. However, there are a number of conditions that can interfere with a woman’s ability to experience a regular menstrual cycle; a condition commonly known as amenorrhea. Factors like over exercising, medical conditions, sudden weight loss and even stress can contribute to a missed period or even several missed periods.

How Stress Affects Your Period

Stress interferes with the normal, timed and regular release of gonadotropin; a hypothalamic hormone. This generally affects the hypothalamus glands and in turn the menstrual cycle. However, people can cope with stress in different ways and this will have an influence on how severely the stress affects your menstrual cycle.

When the body is placed under constant or excessive stress, it will secrete the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline gives you more energy, for instance the final push to stay up till late to study. On the other hand, cortisol increases the brain function and stops or slows functions that the body considers as nonessential. Some of these functions include the digestive process and cellular growth.

Stress & Menstruation

Sudden or even prolonged stress can have great effects on the reproductive hormones. It usually interferes with how the ovaries function in making progesterone and estrogen. Besides making your periods late, stress may also have effects on one’s menstrual cycle in several other ways.

  • Late periods: This happens when the eggs grow and the ovaries make estrogen but it takes longer time for one to ovulate. In such instances, the first part of the menstrual cycle shall be much longer and the menstrual cycle shall be late (known as oligomenorrhea). You’ll bleed for about 12-14 days after ovulating as a result of the effects of stress levels on the reproductive hormones.
  • Missed periods: This happens when the ovaries make less estrogen. As such, the uterus lining does not grow at all. As a result, you won’t have a period in that cycle (known as hypothalamic amenorrhea) because you won’t have the uterine lining for shedding. This is an extreme result of effects of stress.
  • Irregular periods: In such instances, the eggs will grow and you will make enough estrogen levels but you do not ovulate. In such instances, the uterus lining uterus will eventually break down and eventually shed off. The bleeding might come very early or even late, and you might bleed on/off for some time. The extent of bleeding usually depends on the extent to which the uterine lining has been stimulated by the estrogen.

stress missed period

Effects of Stress on Reproductive Hormones

In response to changes in the patterns of the GnRH secretion, the pituitary gland secretes less reproductive hormones; luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (also known as FSH). These 2 pituitary hormones are important for the ovaries to work normally so that you experience a normal and regular menstrual cycle.

When LH and FSH levels are low, the ovaries might not make adequate estrogen for growing the uterus lining or even ovulate. In turn, this causes changes in your menstrual cycle.

How Stress Usually Affects the Hypothalamus

Your body usually responds to any stress by secreting the stress hormones, including the cortisol hormone from the adrenal glands. This hormone appears to get involved in the effects of stress on the hypothalamus glands. One of the main ways the human body adapts to conserve itself when put under intense stress is stopping or delaying the reproductive function. By doing so, a woman is unlikely to get pregnant during times of intense stress; be it war, famine or even the modern day stresses.

Cortisol signals the hypothalamus to slow the body’s non-vital functions like reproduction, while adrenaline, another stress hormone, prepares one to survive stress. One study in the Fertility and Sterility journal in 1997 found that women with the stress-related amenorrhea usually had increased cortisol level while those with a normal menstrual cycle did not.

Cortisol’s Effect

When the body produces excess cortisol, sections of the brain identify the reproductive functions like the menstrual cycles as being unnecessary during the stressed response. Cortisol usually signals the human brain to stop the release of reproductive hormones progesterone and estrogen. Both of these reproductive hormones are necessary in stimulating the menstrual cycle. Without these hormones, the menstrual cycle can’t occur.

Stress does not necessarily result in total cessation of the menstrual cycle. Depending on a woman’s hormone cycles and the stress levels, stress may have a number of effects that range from onset of bleeding before the periods and less bleeding than normal to shorter periods. These occurrences do not allow your body to thoroughly carry out all its functions.

In case the stress is significant enough so as to affect menstruation, it is likely that it will also hinder other body functions. Therefore, it is important to keep your stress levels low to help your body return to the normal functioning.

Managing Stress

If stress is the main cause of your irregular or late periods, then managing and reducing it might get your menstrual cycles back to their normal state. You should examine the sources of your stress and then take steps to eliminate or control them. If you can’t change the source of your stress, you should learn how to cope with them to reduce the effects on the hypothalamus.

Any stress management techniques might make a big difference, provided that you learn and also practice it well on regular basis until your period becomes regular. Just tap into techniques like meditation, imagery or passive muscle relaxation.

Relaxation techniques have been scientifically proven to be capable of changing the physiologic response of the body to stress. If relaxation techniques fail to make your cycles regular, you should consult your doctor.

Consequences of Abnormal Cycles

  • No periods (also known as hypothalamic amenorrhea): If your cycle is late as a result of having low estrogen levels for more than 6 months, your bones might begin thinning. This will put you at a risk for osteoporosis.
  • Late or irregular cycles: The uterus lining might grow abnormally and in turn put you at a risk for developing uterus cancer. This happens in case your periods are continuously late for 3 cycles or you’re bleeding on/off for three or more cycles.

In you experience heavy bleeding or it lasts over 10 days, it could be a sign of abnormal uterine lining.

When to Consult The Doctor

Any level of stress might cause the menstrual cycles to be irregular or late. The effects as well as how long it will last depends on the stress level and how you can cope with it. Ensure that you speak with your physician or do the home pregnancy test in case there’s any chance that you could be pregnant.

If you aren’t pregnant, you should keep good records of your menstrual cycles and any related symptom for three months. If your menstrual cycle continues to be abnormal, see your physician for preliminary evaluation that could just be a simple body examination or hormonal testing, if the need arises.

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