A top question coming in from our readers and patients is, “does stress affect your period?” Right now, the entire world is experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress and periods are getting downright weird. It's actually normal to have these changes and in this article I will explain:
- How stress affects your period
- Common stressors
- How your adrenal glands and ovaries are connected
- What you can do to balance your hormones when you're stressed
Does Stress Affect Your Period?
If you've been wondering this too, the answer is yes. Stress does affect your period. Your body is very smart and knows that when stress goes high, it is best to produce stress hormones and that getting pregnant isn't such a good idea.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal physiological and psychological adaptation to triggers in the environment. It's important to understand what stress is and what are common stressors in the context of the discussion on stress and periods.
Common Causes of Stress Include:
- Relationship issues
- Work conflict
- Chronic illness
- Chronic infection
- Skipping meals
- Poor sleep
- Caregiver stressors
- Extreme exercise
- Traumatic events
Not all stress is bad. For example, exercise is a form of stress that has health benefits. But it is also one that when overdone, especially without appropriate caloric intake, can lead to a missing period (amenorrhea).
But when most people talk about stress, they are referring to chronic stress that is taking a toll on their health. They can feel at the mercy of stress, anxious, or overwhelmed by even the smallest stressors. This is a sign of HPA Dysregulation, what is commonly referred to as “adrenal fatigue.”
How Your Adrenal Glands and Ovaries Are Connected?
Your ovaries, adrenal glands and thyroid depend on one another to function properly. I like to think of the ovarian adrenal thyroid axis (OAT) as a 3 legged stool. For that stool to remain sturdy, and well…functional, you need all three legs supporting it. If one of those legs (systems) starts to falter, the whole system can eventually topple.
If you have been experiencing symptoms of hormonal imbalance— fatigue, acne, PMS, anxiety or depression then you’d likely benefit from supporting all 3 legs of that stool. In my practice, I find that starting with the adrenals glands often proves to be most beneficial and foundational to supporting hormonal health.
How Does Stress Affect the Menstrual Cycle?
Research has shown that when under stress the brain will signal to your body to produce stress hormones and temporarily decrease sex hormone production.
Your adrenal glands, the two little glands that sit on top of your kidneys, produce a hormone called cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in response to stress. They also produce aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure, and DHEA, which is a precursor to estrogen and testosterone.
When your body perceives there is a great deal of stress it pushes into higher cortisol production while also down regulating the mechanisms that lead to reproduction. Ever wonder why stress shuts down the libido?
Now I know this sounds really bad, but this is actually what your body should be doing. If you are in a stressful environment then your body is receiving a signal that now is not the best time to become pregnant. The answer? Down regulate production of sex hormones, like progesterone, and up regulate survival hormones like cortisol.
What is Pregnenolone Steal?
Pregnenolone steal is a common, yet outdated, explanation for why progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, and other hormones become depleted with stress. What this theory proposed is that since these hormones are all synthesized from pregnenolone then it must be that the body “steals” pregnenolone to make more cortisol leaving insufficient pregnenolone to produce other hormones. As we’ve deepened our understanding and research has emerged, we’ve come to understand that there is no pregnenolone steal happening.
That’s right, pregnenolone steal is an inaccurate concept that is still perpetuated.
There is no pool of pregnenolone, but rather, the shift in hormones is caused by brain signaling to the different glands in the body.
Stress Can Lead to Period Problems
Stress up regulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). During this time you experience a rise in Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus (brain structure). This in turn signals the pituitary to release Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which tells your adrenal glands to release cortisol.
When this occurs, we can see a shift in sex hormones and less favorable levels of progesterone and estrogen.
Low Progesterone Symptoms:
- Breast tenderness
- Easy to cry
- Heavy or short menstrual cycles
When your body is preferentially making cortisol, your progesterone levels dip and estrogen is left unchallenged. The result is a state of estrogen dominance.
Estrogen Dominance Symptoms:
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Hair loss
- Heavy or irregular menses
- Uterine fibroids
- Hot flashes
- Weight gain
Can Stress Delay Periods?
It most certainly can. Progesterone is responsible for helping you build your endometrium, the lining of your uterus. If you don't make sufficient progesterone then the uterine lining may not build up sufficiently to have a period.
Can Stress Cause You to Skip a Period?
Depending on when the stress occurs in your cycle, how long it has been going on, or how significant it is—you just may skip your period altogether. This is called secondary amenorrhea and should be temporary. Follow the steps below to help restore your cycle.
Can Stress Cause an Early Period?
Yes, if progesterone rises just enough to stimulate the uterine lining, but not enough to carry you through 10-14ish days then you may have early bleeding or spotting.
How to Manage Stress and Balance Your Hormones
Follow these steps to support your hormones and effectively manage stress.
1. Eat the Nutrients You Need
During times of stress we want to reach for the chips, chocolate, and anything that tastes good. You're not the only one who does this and you're certainly not bad for having these cravings. These cravings is one way your body is protecting you from environmental stressors by increasing caloric intake and feel good comfort foods. But this might not be the best solution to what your body really need—blood sugar stability and nutrients!
Vitamin C, B Vitamins and magnesium are often necessary to support adrenal function and create sex hormones that make for happy periods.
Start incorporating vitamin C rich foods like bell peppers, citrus, and strawberries into your diet. Eating avocados, chicken, and nuts can help you get necessary B vitamins. Improve your magnesium intake with black beans, salmon, raspberries, and figs.
If you're looking for some hormone friendly recipes and a meal plan to get started, you can grab a free one here.
2. Use Adaptogenic Herbs
Adaptogenic herbs help you adapt to stress. Common adaptogens include Rhodiola, Eleutherococcus, Holy Basil, Ashwagandha. These herbs can help your body regulate stress hormones and can support your mental and physical health with regards to stress.
3. Consider Supplements to Support Hormones
Depending on the duration or type of stress, supplement support may be warranted. Keep in mind, you can't just out supplement stress and they don't work like a pharmaceutical. They are meant to support what your body is designed to do while you also focus on the foundations (see point #1).
Balance Women's Hormone Support can also be beneficial in helping optimize estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels.
A Typical Protocol I Use with My Patients Includes:
- Adrenal Support: 3 caps with breakfast
- Balance Women's Hormone Support: 2 caps with breakfast
- B-Active Plus: 1 cap with breakfast
- Balance Women's Hormone Support: 2 caps with breakfast
Evening (1-2 hours before bed):
- Magnesium Plus: 1-2 caps
- Adrenal Calm: 3 caps
4. Quality Sleep
I can’t stress this one enough. If you are not sleeping, you stand no chance at balancing your hormones. Your body relies on sleep to repair from the day. Skipping sleep causes confusion for your body and takes a major toll on hormones.
Aim to be in bed for 8 hours or more nightly while you are dealing with stress. Try incorporating bed time practices like dimming the lights a few hours before bed, turning off electronics an hour before bed, and avoiding stressors (like the news) in the evening.
5. Stress Relief Practices
Find time in your schedule to relax. Take a deep breath and fill your heart and mind with all the reasons you have to be grateful. Taking time to relax signals your body to do the same.
Stress Relief Techniques:
- 🌈 Write and read fro your gratitude journal⠀
- 🌈 Take deep breaths⠀
- 🌈 Cuddle your dog, cat, or other furry friends⠀
- 🌈 Take a 15 minute Walk⠀
- 🌈 Take an epsom salt bath⠀
- 🌈 Drink a relaxing cup of tea⠀
- 🌈 Call a friend or loved one and talk it out⠀
- 🌈 Free flow journal the feelings that are coming up for you⠀
- 🌈 Stay off of social media, email, or whatever is driving the “freak out train” 🚂 until you've given yourself a moment to relax⠀
- 🌈Visualize yourself in the woods or on the beach or anywhere that helps you feel calm
- 🌈Get into nature
- 🌈 Remind yourself of the badass you are
Remember, your adrenals as the foundation of your hormonal health. When you have a strong foundation, it is easier to support the others and optimize your thyroid and period hormones.