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How Does Stress Affect Your Period?

Written by
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Heather Davis
MS, RDN, LDN
a girl in a hospital gown holding her stomach in pain

Did you know that as many as 35.6 percent of people experience irregular periods? Menstrual problems can affect your general health, and are associated with health-related anxiety.

You may be wondering if there’s a link between menstrual irregularities and stress. There are actually many reasons why your menstrual cycle could be irregular, including hormonal imbalances. These irregularities may include:

  • Amenorrhea: The absence of menstruation, or missed periods
  • Dysmenorrhea: Painful menstruation, abnormal bleeding, or PMS symptoms

Keep reading to learn how stress may affect your menstrual cycle and what you can do about it. Plus, stick around until the end to learn how you can detect the symptoms of high stress levels.

What Counts As Stress?

a girl holding her head while sitting down

There are many ways different types of stress can impact hormonal imbalances or menstrual irregularity. But to understand how high levels of stress might impact the menstrual cycle, it’s important to know what counts as stress. 

Stress is any type of pressure applied to your body. What your body does to adapt to the stress is called a stress response.  

Acute stress is short-term stress that goes away quickly, and is sometimes known as your fight-or-flight response. This stress can occur as you slam on the brakes in your car, have to meet a deadline, or have a fight with your friend.

Some stress may help you manage dangerous situations, and can occur when you are doing something new or exciting. Chronic stress can go on for weeks or months, or longer. Chronic stress can lead to health problems

Here are some potential sources of stress that can affect your health and well-being:

  • Emotional, social, or psychosocial stressors
  • Nutrient imbalances
  • Under-exercise or over-exercise can both be stressors
  • Poor sleep
  • Fasting less or more than your body needs
  • Injuries or infections
  • Intolerance to foods, supplements, or medications
  • Underlying medical conditions that compromise your body’s function

Stress and Your Period

When it comes to women’s health, both hormones and the menstrual cycle can be affected by all the areas of stress listed above. Here is some more information on these stressors and how they may impact your menstrual cycle, as well as some tips for reducing each kind of stress. 

1) Psychosocial or Psychological Stress

Someone with their head down on the table and their hands over their head

Psychosocial or psychological stress is stress surrounding social life and situations. These can include:

  • A fear of being excluded
  • Social performance anxiety
  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • A fear of being negatively judged by others
  • Experiencing trauma, abuse, or violence

When your body is exposed to a stressful situation, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated. The HPA axis releases glucocorticoids, which are a major class of stress hormone that includes cortisol.

Changes in cortisol levels can also impact other hormone levels, like thyroid stimulating hormone, or TSH. Thyroid function can impact the sex hormones that influence your menstrual cycle. 

Stress may also impact sex hormones through the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis dysfunction, which can lead to menstrual irregularities. Dysmenorrhea, or painful periods, is also associated with stress factors like depression and anxiety.  

Tips to Kick the Stress

So what can you do to reduce psychological stress

1) Mindfulness or Meditation

Mindfulness is a type of wellness practice that involves breathing exercises, guided imagery, and other meditative techniques to cultivate a sense of feeling present and in the moment. 

Meditation exercises can help relax the mind and body. They may also help reduce stress and anxiety, and improve general well-being.

2) Therapy

Therapy can also be a useful treatment for anxiety and stress that can be personalized for your specific needs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for example, teaches people that they can change their way of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations. 

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has even more tips for managing psychological stress, such as practicing yoga, eating balanced meals, and getting regular exercise.

a graphic of tips for managing stress

2) Nutritional Imbalances 

Most people may not automatically think of nutritional imbalances as stressors, but that’s exactly what they are! It’s stressful for the body to not have what it needs nutritionally to do the physical work of everyday life.

Nutritional imbalances can also lead to changes in hormones and menstrual irregularities. One study showed that dysmenorrhea, PMS, and menstrual irregularities were directly associated with dietary habits and physical activities.

PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is associated with insulin resistance, excess body fat, and hormonal irregularities that can negatively affect the menstrual cycle. However, a low-GI diet has been shown to positively impact these parameters in people with PCOS. 

Too much or too little fasting may also negatively impact hormonal health. A study looking at lean women and fasting determined that changes in neuroendocrine function, anovulation, and a lengthened follicular phase occurred after fasting. This may suggest that lean women can be more vulnerable to fasting stress than normal weight women.

Some preliminary studies suggest that strategic short-term fasting during the luteal phase may actually reduce menstrual symptoms. However, it’s important to work with a healthcare professional such as a gynecologist or a registered dietitian when exploring fasting approaches. 

Tips to Kick the Stress

a bowl of nutritious oatmeal with figs

Everybody is unique, and different people may need different amounts of nutrients. Working with a qualified nutrition professional, such as a registered dietitian, can be very helpful in finding what works best for your body. 

Of the research we have, we see important connections between menstrual health and:

3) Too Much or Too Little Exercise

Regular physical activity is crucial for your body’s health. Both too little and too much exercise can act as stressors on the body in ways that may negatively impact hormones

Over-training, especially when not adequately fueling, is associated with amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation) and other unhealthy metabolic changes in female athletes. 

Appropriate and well-fueled exercise can be beneficial for sex hormones and menstrual function. Aerobic exercise may also reduce symptoms of PMS, but more research is needed to confirm these findings.  

Tips to Kick the Stress

someone doing a yoga pose in their living room

Everyone’s body is unique, so what works for you may not work for someone else. You can customize your exercise to your particular enjoyment level and physical ability. 

It’s also important to make sure you are fueling to support your physical activity. If in doubt, work with a dietitian to help you customize your fueling strategy to your workout and fitness goals.

You can also pay attention to your menstrual cycles. If you struggle with menstrual irregularities like amenorrhea in the presence of higher or lower activity levels, it may be time to seek more medical guidance. 

If you’re new to exercise and haven’t been in the habit of regular exercise, check out our articles about glute and hamstring exercises and chest and shoulder workouts for beginners!

4) Poor Sleep

We know that diet can impact sleep, and that poor sleep can negatively affect our blood sugar. Sleep can also play an important role in the menstrual cycle. 

One study found that delayed sleep phase syndrome, a condition in which your sleep pattern is delayed by two or more hours from a conventional sleep pattern, is associated with irregular menstrual cycles and PMS. 

In this study, twice as many subjects with delayed sleep phase syndrome reported an irregular menstrual cycle than the control group. Premenstrual problems like cramps and mood swings occurred in 69 percent of subjects with the syndrome, compared to 16.67 percent of the control group.

Another study also found that the menstrual cycle may affect one’s quality of sleep, though the finding was not deemed clinically significant. Interestingly, a poor diet seemed to increase the likelihood that someone would sleep poorly during menstruation. 

Tips to Kick the Stress

a girl laying in bed sleeping

To ensure you are getting a good, healthy night of sleep, experts recommend:

  • A consistent sleep schedule. Opt for at least 7 hours a night, and try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Be mindful of what, and when, you eat and drink. Try not to go to bed hungry, but avoid large meals within a few hours of bedtime. Limiting nicotine, caffeine and alcohol is advisable.
  • Create a restful environment. Avoid screen time just before bed time, and keep your room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. 
  • Limit long naps during the day. If you do need a nap, don’t nap for more than an hour, and avoid napping late in the day. 

Since sleep quality can also be influenced by diet and other stress factors, addressing any nutrient imbalances or other stress factors can go a long way in supporting sleep!

Are you Experiencing High Stress Levels?

Chronic stress can become such a part of regular life that you may not notice it. Unfortunately, this stress can still lead to certain health issues. Symptoms of high stress levels may include:

a graphic list of signs of high stress levels
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