Does stress make periods worse?



Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


04 March 2019

Types of stress

Unfortunately, we all face some sort of stress in our day-to-day lives. For some of us, short-term stress is more common, caused by an upcoming presentation or a difficult drive to work; others struggle to cope with long-term stress, such as money worries or illness. No matter what the cause of our stress, however, our bodies tend to react in a similar way, which is not always sustainable.

Thousands of years ago, sources of stress were almost entirely different. There were no work reports to submit, bills to pay or frightening exams to pass; instead, stress was more likely to present itself in the shape of a deadly animal, so we adapted a fight-or-flight response.

However, nowadays our stress is often long-term and can’t be solved by running away or physically fighting the issue. Despite this, though, our bodies still respond to stress by releasing stress hormones which can affect our bodies in lots of different ways.

Stress and hormones

When our bodies are faced with stress, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released, each of which have different effects on the body.

When the body releases adrenaline, this triggers the initial physical symptoms of stress – setting your heart racing, causing you to sweat and increasing your breathing rate. While these mechanisms would have been useful once upon a time, when we had to physically outrun our stressors in a short period of time, they are not sustainable and do not bode well for the largely sedentary lifestyles many people have these days. 

On a similar note, when cortisol is released in reaction to stress, it influences your metabolism to give you quick access to energy which can be used to fuel your escape. Again, however, this response isn’t best suited to dealing with long-term causes of stress in the modern world. We are often unable to expend this extra energy in order to relieve stress, especially if we’re tied to the desk at work!

 

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Stress and the menstrual cycle

The menstrual cycle is an intricately-timed process which relies on the cooperation of important hormones, at specific times, to release an egg and prepare the womb in order to reproduce. If these hormones are disrupted, then your menstrual cycle can be affected too.

Missed periods

When you’re stressed, cortisol can interact with the hypothalamus (the master gland controlling the production of many hormones) and shut down non-essential endocrine functions, such as those involved in digestion or the menstrual cycle. Think about it, if you’re running from a hungry bear, the last things on your mind will be eating lunch or having babies!

As a result, if you’re trying to cope with a great deal of stress you may find that you miss periods or have a slightly irregular cycle, as stress hormones can have a huge impact on your reproductive hormones. Once you have ruled out the obvious causes, such as pregnancy, you can look at managing your stress levels if you think these are toying with your cycle.

Heavy or painful periods

Dysmenorrhoea, the term used to describe painful stomach cramps, is one of the most common symptoms women face when it comes to their menstrual cycle: each month, up to 80% of women are affected. Cramps can start a few days before your period and can continue through the first few days of your period, usually easing off towards the end.

Some women find that these painful period cramps also occur with other symptoms, such as dizziness and headaches. Painful periods are also often linked with a heavy flow of blood. Needless to say, this can be quite debilitating and can be hard to cope with on a monthly basis.

Research has found a link between high stress levels and painful periods: in one study, women who were coping with high levels of stress were twice as likely to suffer from painful periods.1 Plus, it is thought that when we are in a state of stress, we experience a heightened sensitivity to pain, so it is important to take a look at your stress levels if you suffer from painful periods often. 

PMS

Being more prone to stress is a symptom of Premenstrual Syndrome, so if you feel that you struggle to cope with stress, particularly in the week before your period, it could be that you are suffering from PMS.

What is more, stress can also exacerbate other PMS symptoms such as mood swings, allowing negative thoughts and feelings to mount up and make things seem even worse.

Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you might be suffering from PMS. You can also head over to our PMS hub where you’ll find lots of useful information on the condition, as well as tips to help you cope with PMS.

How to manage a stressful period

If you feel like stress is affecting your monthly cycle and are struggling to cope with symptoms, you can try some of these tips:

1. Try Stress Relief Daytime

If you are looking for a way to tackle your stress levels and ease your period symptoms, a good place to start is our Stress Relief Daytime. It contains fresh Valerian and Hops which gently relieve stress and anxiety. By regulating your stress levels, this can help you to identify which of your symptoms are made worse when you are feeling overwhelmed or worried.

2. Up your magnesium intake

Painful periods can be very difficult to overcome, especially if you’re already feeling stressed about other issues. Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant, so a deficiency in this vitamin can often make period pain worse.

Try to increase your intake of foods containing plenty of magnesium to ease nasty period cramps – nuts and seeds are often a good source of magnesium, as are green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale and certain fish, like salmon. 

On top of this you could also try Balance Mineral Drink, which contains a healthy dose of magnesium as well as potassium, vitamin D and calcium. Incorporate it into your favourite fruit smoothie, or just add to plain water for a refreshing strawberry drink.

3. Exercise

Another way to ease painful periods is through gentle exercise. You can try to fit in some simple exercises in the days before your period, which will not only help to improve your mood and ease stress but can also help to ease menstrual cramps. 

Exercises such as swimming and cycling will get your blood pumping, which is great because a lack of blood flow to the pelvic area can make cramps even worse! Check out another one of my blogs here, which suggests some simple exercises to do on your period.

4. Increase your iron

If you suffer from heavy periods, you should make sure to keep your iron levels topped up to avoid the possibility of an iron deficiency. Losing lots of blood every month will put you more at risk of anaemia, which can leave you feeling tired and dizzy and cold.

When it comes to increasing your intake of vitamins and minerals, food sources are always best. Good quality beef or tofu will provide you with iron, and so will green leafy vegetables like spinach.

However, you can also try to top up your iron levels using supplements. An iron supplement I would recommend is Floradix, which contains a sensible dose of iron. You can find it with our friends over at Jan de Vries.

1https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijrmed/2017/3208276/

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Here's what I recommend

As the A.Vogel  Women’s Health advisor, I recommend Agnus castus to help relieve premenstrual symptoms such as painful periods.

Learn more

Did you know?

Did you know the average age of starting your periods has changed? A 100 years ago, 16 was the average age for a girl to get her first period in the UK but now this has dropped to just 12! Incredible!

15 interesting facts about your period

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