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Yes, stress really can impact your period

Yes, stress really can impact your period

It’s an understatement to say that world events have been a cause for concern lately. Many of us are feeling anxious about what the future holds, while trying to adjust to the immediate disruption to our daily lives. All that stress can take a major toll on our minds and bodies, and can even impact our reproductive health in unexpected ways.

A lot of us have experienced changes to our menstrual cycle during a stressful time. That said, it’s important to understand the greater impact an irregular cycle can have on your body and mind. Here’s why and how stress affects your cycle — and what you can do to fix it.

The science around stress and your cycle

You’ve probably experienced your period coming a little late, a little early, or otherwise acting wonky during a particularly stressful month. It’s no big deal, right? Except that the stress of having an unpredictable menstrual cycle can add to the other stress in your life, causing a feedback loop that’s ultimately not good for your body or your mind. Here’s why and how stress affects your cycle — and what you can do to fix it.

Becca Sarich, CNM, a certified nurse midwife and holistic pelvic care practitioner explains the powerful influence of stress on the body: “The menstrual cycle is regulated by a hormonal feedback loop that is intimately involved with our brain. Stress activates a pathway within the hypothalamic pituitary axis. When we experience stress, the body releases two hormones, cortisol and corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) to help regulate the stress response. When these hormones are in excessive amounts, they impact our sex hormones, thereby interfering with the delicate balance that is involved in regulating our menstrual cycles. I think of it like an orchestra. If one instrument is playing a different tune, the entire balance of the sound is thrown off.”

When that hormonal balance is disturbed, it can manifest in your cycle in different ways, including late or missed periods, delayed ovulation, and even in more painful cramps. One large study of Chinese women found that having a stressful month can cause more dysmenorrhea — more commonly referred to as painful periods — in the subsequent cycle. Another study shows that incarcerated women have high rates of amenorrhea (absence of a period) and menstrual irregularity, likely linked to the stresses of their lives before and during incarceration.

Stress throughout your cycle

But it’s not just the stress in your life that can affect your cycle, where you are in your menstrual cycle can actually influence how you respond to stress. A 2017 study in the journal Physiology and Behavior looked at currently menstruating and post-menopausal people and found that during the second half of your cycle (the luteal phase), there is a more intense stress response to social stress than when during the first half of the cycle (follicular phase). The same study also found that post-menopausal women have a lower stress response to social stressors than women who are currently cycling.

So, how do you know if stress is messing with your cycle — or if your killer cramps, delayed periods, or other symptoms are linked to something else? Sarich says, “It can be difficult to determine the origin of irregularities, so I always recommend seeking out a trusted women’s healthcare provider to help you determine the cause. When I counsel women, I ask them about the stress they are experiencing now, and in the preceding few months. It is usually when the stress gets to a higher threshold than what they are used to that I see it impact their cycles.”

Tips to reduce stress on your period

Of course, we all have some level of stress in our lives. It’s impossible not to, especially in situations outside of our individual control, like work problems or family issues, but you can take some actions, both before and during your period, to improve your body’s stress response. One of Sarich’s main suggestions? Get good sleep: “We are a culture of chronically sleep deprived people. The hormones of the pituitary gland, which regulate our hormonal cycles, can be impacted by lack of sleep, as well as artificial light (meaning light from your home, devices, and outside). Sleeping in total darkness, if you can, can help regulate the menstrual cycle, and especially ovulation.”

Even if you can’t force yourself to get more zzzs, there are still plenty of ways you can lessen stress in order to keep a healthy cycle, says Sarich. “When you are in periods of high stress, look to things that positively impact your mindset, like yoga and exercise. Avoiding excessive caffeine and getting more whole foods into your diet can also positively impact the stress response in the body.” Practice good self-care, as well, whatever that may mean to you and in your life — from more pricey activities like massage to simple time spent with friends — can help your body cope with both physical and mental stresses.

  • I’ve been on the pill since 2014 and this is the first time in years that I got my period a week early (its usually accurate and spot on as to when i get it), but this month (hello coronavirus) due to all the stress/panic, I have been experiencing bleeding/cramping (the same exact cramping I’ve had during period). Earlier this year I traveled across the world and had been adjusting with jet lag. Because of that, I got my period a day late. Long story short, lack of sleep/STRESS/diet can totally shift your period cycle. Pros: thank god its not pregnancy. Cons: it’s overwhelmingly stressful when your period isnt accurate

  • I just got my period two weeks early from sheer anxiety. This has never happened to me before, so that made me *even more* stressed — and that’s why this article really resonated with me. I was too caught up in why this happened and how stressed I must be for this to have happened in the first place, and I totally neglected to think about the active role I was playing in amplifying the stress my body is already under. I’m excited to try all the tips in this piece (even though not scrolling before bed might be a challenge)!

    • Girl! I don’t think we’re alone in the 2 weeks early bit. I’m on the pill and it’s all… it is time again! Heavier than normal. We’re all going through a shared hell and it’s only adding to our typical personal hells in which we all live. Let’s pray the world heals and we can go back to some forms of normal.

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