Your hormones control your metabolism, hunger, mood, reproduction and much more. Stress is one of the biggest causes of hormonal imbalances and impacts the menstrual cycle in many ways, for example by not ovulating and causing PMS symptoms. The body is super smart and when there is a lot of stress, it doesn’t feel like it’s a safe place to reproduce, so it suppresses ovulation.
The stress response
When we experience a stressor, our body launches into sympathetic activation. In an instant, the amygdala (a small part of the brain that regulates emotions) sends a sort of SOS signal to the hypothalamus, which is kind of like a central command center for the fight-or-flight response. Through a complex web of communications, called the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA axis), this signal makes its way to the adrenal glands, which start producing adrenaline, If the threat doesn’t immediately pass, the HPA axis activates another series of communications to keep the sympathetic nervous system activated for more than just a few seconds. This leads to the release of cortisol.
Both excess physical and physiological stress can disrupt the production of hormones. It’s not only excess physiological stress that does this like it’s often thought, but physical stress to the body, like too much exercise, can also cause menstrual symptoms.
Read the blog post below for more about the body’s stress response.
Stress and Hormonal Imbalances
The balance of the hormones DHEA and cortisol is important to keep the menstrual cycle running smoothly. When too much cortisol is being produced because of stress, the DHEA level goes down and the body produces less of the sex hormones progesterone and estrogen. These are two key hormones that play vital roles in regulating the menstrual cycle. Elevated stress levels may lead to irregularities in the menstrual cycle ranging from missed or delayed periods to more severe disruptions. It also increases the risk of infertility. This can cause irregularities in the menstrual cycle ranging from missed or delayed periods to more severe disruptions. It also increases the risk of infertility.
Stress and its Ripple Effect on Menstrual Symptoms
The hypothalamus and pituitary gland that are mentioned before, are both endocrine glands located in the brain that are responsible for and involved in the production of certain hormones. As you’ve already read, these are connected with the adrenal glands through a complex web of communications called the HPA axis, which is a key component of the body’s endocrine system. The interplay between stress and hormonal imbalance is particularly evident in this HPA axis. Stress signals from the brain trigger the release of cortisol, which, in turn, can inhibit the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) in the hypothalamus. GnRH is crucial for regulating the menstrual cycle by impacting the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) from the pituitary gland. LH and FSH both play crucial roles in the process of ovulation. The disruption of this finely tuned hormonal symphony can lead to irregular ovulation, changes in menstrual flow, and increased susceptibility to symptoms such as bloating and breast tenderness.
When the body has to make a lot of cortisol to deal with stress, two things can happen. One, the adrenals can make it or two, the body can break down the sex hormone progesterone to form cortisol. Cortisol and progesterone both come from the same precursor hormone called pregnenolone. If the adrenals are maxed out on production, the body steals both pregnenolone and progesterone in order to make enough cortisol to deal with the stress, this is also called pregnenolone steal. Normally, pregnenolone is used to make the sex hormones. So, when pregnenolone is being used for cortisol production, the production of sex hormones suffers. This is why long periods of stress can be so detrimental to a women’s menstrual cycle and fertility. It’s also why your sex drive can make a nosedive when you’re stressed out. Low progesterone also sets the stage for estrogen dominance which can then cause PMS symptoms.
Another challenging menstrual symptom that can come from stress is period cramps. These can intensify due to heightened muscle tension caused by stress. The body is literally shedding and healing itself during your period, which is an inflammatory – but necessary – process. There’s an increase in hormone like substances called prostaglandins, which are released by the uterine lining as it prepares to shed. Prostaglandins help the uterus contract and relax and while doing this, they do cause a lot of inflammation. Stress can contribute to inflammation and increased levels of prostaglandins. Research has shown that women with menstrual symptoms have higher levels of the inflammatory markers prostaglandins. So from this we know that too much inflammation can cause an increase in menstrual symptoms like PMS and period cramps.
Reducing both physical and physiological stress can lead to huge benefits when it comes to these nasty menstrual symptoms.
Practical tips to support your body
- Move your body, but don’t overdo it. It is really important for overall health to move your body and stay active, but make sure you’re not overtraining and burning yourself out. It’s hard to say where the line is between normally exercising and exercising in a way that causes too much stress on your body. This limit is different for everyone so make sure to find out what is best for you. Also don’t be scared to workout because of this, because in most women the limit to overtraining is really high and does not happen at going to the gym 4-5 times a week. Keep in mind that stress is stress. Whether that is stress from lifestyle or from exercise. The more stress you’re putting on yourself from lifestyle, the less stress you’ll be able to put on yourself from exercise.
- Make sure you eat enough. Not eating enough calories can also lead to hormonal imbalances because your body sees a low calorie intake as stress. When your stress level is chronically elevated, so is your cortisol, which also leads to a chronically elevated insulin level. High cortisol has an influence on your menstrual cycle by impacting your estrogen and progesterone levels. This can also happen when you’re fasting because fasting definitely isn’t for everyone.
- Do stress reducing activities This is really personalized so make sure you find out what works best for you. Some great stress reducers are: meditation, yoga, journalling, social connection, deep belly breathing, saying ‘no’ and taking a break when you need it.