Most of us are all familiar with stress, and unfortunately, many of us experience stress on a daily occurrence. Stress can present when we’re trying to smash out a last-minute report that we’ve been procrastinating on for work, or when we’re adding more items to our never-ending to-do list or rushing from meeting to meeting or being in lockdown due to a pandemic.
Whilst our bodies are adapted to handle a little bit of stress, too much of it and prolonged stress can have detrimental impacts on all our body systems including our gut, immunity, cognition and even our menstrual cycles (Herrera, Nielsen and Mather, 2016) (Mariotti, 2015).
Stress can make our periods more painful, heavier, irregular, or even to go MIA. A study published in 2011 found female students who experienced academic stress were twice as likely to experience menstrual disorders (including heavy periods, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms periods and irregular periods) (Ekenyong, Davis, Akpan and Daniel, 2021). Other studies have also reported similar findings (Nagma, 2015).
How stress affects our periods is likely due to its effects on our hormones. When we’re exposed to stress it kicks our body into a sympathetic state or ‘flight
or fight’ mode. In this state, our body produces more stress hormones such as
adrenaline and cortisol. Meanwhile, our female sex hormone production
(Oestrogen and production) is dialled down and our ability to ovulate is
suppressed. When our female sex hormones are thrown out of balance, this can lead to disrupted menstrual patterns.
Additionally, stress hormones (including adrenaline and cortisol) also play a role in prostaglandin synthesis (Ansong et al., 2019). Prosta-what? If you’ve never heard about prostaglandins, they’re a group of pain-causing lipids. Too much of them can cause issues associated with pain and the more prostaglandins we have, the more painful our periods can be (ouch!). Additionally, stress increases our sensitivity to pain via its ability to produce neurobiological changes in the pathways related to pain processing (double ouch!) (Gollenberg et al., 2010) (Jennings, Okine, Roche and Finn, 2014).
So, what can we do?
It can be super frustrating when our cycles become thrown off. I know, it’s the last thing we need when we’re already stressed! But it’s important to remember, our body is always on our side. Our body is responding this way because it doesn’t think it’s an ideal time to reproduce. Although we can’t always control our external environment and its stressors, we can control
how we respond to stress.
We can start by ensuring we’re meeting all our foundational needs by eating a
whole-food diet, drinking 2-3L of filtered water daily, setting boundaries, prioritising sleep and making time for joy in our lives. Having these basics needs met ensures we’re not pouring from an empty cup.
Finally, we’ve all heard of the benefits of stress management practises including mindfulness, yoga guided imagery, journaling, and even colouring in. And for good reason! Countless studies have found the beneficial effects of these activities on reducing our perception of stress, increasing our resilience to stress, and improving our mood. So prioritise you and your mental health, your hormones will thank you for it.