Stressful periods

Could a stressful lifestyle be affecting your cycle?

Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
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18 November 2016

How can stress have an effect?

You might be surprised to know that busy, stressful lifestyles could be having an effect on your menstrual cycle. Chronic stress (that is long-term stress) can be particularly troublesome and cause a number of problems throughout the body; from your mood to your ovaries – and many bits in between. Unfortunately, as so many systems of the body are so perfectly in tune, if just one part is thrown off balance, this can result in a domino effect and a number of other functions can become affected as a result.

What do I mean by stress?

Have you ever missed a period for some unknown reason? Working up to a pregnancy test can be daunting in itself but then if it’s negative, or if there’s no chance that you could be pregnant, what else might be going on? It can be quite a worry initially.

However, it’s important to remember that a number of factors could be having an effect: body weight, excessive exercise, and the big ‘S’ word, stress. Actually, these factors all have something in common; they all come down to stress. Being morbidly obese or exercising within an inch of your life are both forms of stress on the body. Although you might be relatively unaware, your body may actually be dealing with a whole barrage of physical and mental stressors as a result of your hectic, modern-day lifestyle.

Let’s talk about stress responses

Your body has adapted well in that you do have specific stress responses in place. This is useful in many instances of course, and will most definitely aid your survival in many situations.

Say, for example you are being chased by a deadly animal (I have to say this was a more common occurrence for humans thousands of years ago), your body is well equipped for adapting and getting you out of that tricky situation. However, we do have a slight problem when it comes to stress nowadays. Your body struggles to differentiate between the types of stress you are experiencing. Therefore, your stress response will still kick in the same way whether you are being chased by some prehistoric creature or panicking over an overwhelming pile of bills, never-ending work deadlines or ongoing family disputes. A key difference is that these modern-day examples of stress are often long-term problems.

Rather than you having to instigate a swift dash to safety, you are faced with day after day of stressful situations. When your stress response is activated long-term you can run into bigger problems – this is known as chronic stress.

Fight or flight

So, during this so-called stress response, also called ‘fight or flight mode’, a number of stress hormones are released. The first hormone of interest is adrenaline. Adrenaline is responsible for many of the initial physical symptoms we experience in times of stress such as increases in your heart rate, breathing rate and sweating.

Next, we have cortisol. Cortisol exerts some longer-term effects of stress on the body such as altering your metabolism and making fast, accessible sources of fuel available.

But, how can cortisol and the stress response affect your period? Well, it all starts with the effects it has on the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus can be thought of as the master gland of the endocrine system. It affects a whole number of hormones and can influence everything from your current mood to your sex drive.

As a result of cortisol interacting with the hypothalamus, ‘non-essential’ endocrine functions can become affected. Non-essential to your current life-threatening situation that is – and this all makes perfect sense. We already know that your body struggles to differentiate between a serious, life or death scenario and a modern day, let’s say, not quite so dangerous state of affairs (although you do sometimes feel your manager could turn on you at any moment). So, in the event of a traditionally stressful situation, you’re in grave danger and your body needs to do everything it can to keep you alive at that very moment in time. This means it works towards shutting down any system that isn’t so crucial to life to conserve energy elsewhere. So if we think about this, we need our cardiovascular system and respiratory functions to be tip top and working away to the best of their ability (hence the heart rate thumping out of your chest and the quickened, shallow breathing) in order to provide our skeletal muscles with the energy they need to move quickly and efficiently. However, unfortunately, digestion, your immune system, and your reproductive functions are shoved to the back of the priority list. Why would you need to bother about digesting your latest meal or having a baby in a life threatening emergency!?

Your period can be affected too

So, as a result of all of this, the cascade of hormones from the hypothalamus directing your ovaries to release oestrogen and progesterone can become interrupted; there’s no longer enough attention to detail that gives you the intricately timed, intricate system that is your menstrual cycle and as a result you can experience irregular or missed periods. Stress has been associated with more painful periods too. This could be down to some sort of physical cause such as an increase in inflammatory chemicals or there could be a psychological aspect – it’s possible stressed individuals have an altered perception of pain.

Unfortunately, if stress and irregular periods are an issue for you, this can turn into an inconvenient vicious cycle. Often a missed period can be a cause for concern. Is there something seriously wrong? Are you pregnant? As you become increasingly stressed, it’s more likely your period will be delayed further.  It’s also often the case that women work themselves up into a panic, they eventually take a pregnancy test to find out that it’s negative and after relaxing slightly, their period arrives a day or two later.

If troublesome periods are getting you down, take some time to reassess your lifestyle. Addressing the stress you are facing could help you to get you out of the rut that you’re stuck in and allow for happier periods going forward. Best of luck!

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