Stress is the number one cause of hormonal imbalances & problems related to the menstrual cycle. Feeling burned out doesn’t just take a toll on your goals or work. It takes a toll on your health. In this two-part blog series, we’ll be talking about how stress impacts your cycle. Part one is about why & how stress affects your cycle. This will give you the context you need to then understand Part Two, which will be about tips & tools to use if you’ve ever experienced these changes or are dealing with stress in your life.
Stress & Adrenal Fatigue
Stress is defined as “the body’s response to physical, mental, or emotional pressure.” You usually know that you’re experiencing stress when you’re overwhelmed, feel on-edge, or have a sense of anxiety.
When you’ve had a stressful week, you might have a harder time falling asleep, feel less well rested when you wake up, or crave more carbs, sugar, and caffeine.
As stress compounds, you might feel more anxiety or low moods, less motivation, fatigue, experience appetite changes, get stress breakouts, have more frequent bloating, gain weight, or have changes in your cycle.
“Adrenal Fatigue” is often used as a term to describe effects of stress that compound over weeks or months. Adrenal Fatigue is a casual term for HP-A Axis Dysregulation and has to do with the way that cortisol (a stress hormone) communicates between your adrenal glands & your brain.
First, the hypothalamus, which is part of your brain, perceives the stress you’re experiencing. It sends a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRF) to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in order to communicate with your adrenals.
Next, your adrenals (the little glands on top of your kidneys) release cortisol. Cortisol is meant to help your body fight stress. You need cortisol to survive! Every morning, a healthy body produces a small amount of cortisol to -prepare you for the day, but gradually, cortisol should decrease & allow you to relax.
When cortisol spikes too often, that’s when you experience the physical, mental, & emotional challenges that come with “being stressed out” & can cause hormonal health problems over time.
Your Cycle & The HPO Axis
Just like your Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, & Adrenals make up your HP-A axis, your
Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, & Ovaries are known as the HP-O Axis. These are the organs that release the hormones responsible for your menstrual cycle.
After your period, you enter the Follicular Phase of your cycle. In the Follicular Phase, your hypothalamus communicates with your Pituitary Gland through gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Then, your pituitary gland releases Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) to communicate with your ovaries.
As this happens, your estrogen begins to rise day by day. This conversation is where the whole process of the menstrual cycle begins.
Cortisol can also deplete progesterone, which is the dominant hormone in the post-ovulatory part of the cycle known as the Luteal Phase. Progesterone is sometimes called “Nature’s Xanax” because it’s so calming.
With HP-A Axis Dysregulation & chronic stress, the levels of high cortisol can take a toll on your menstrual cycle by affecting the HP-O Axis & impacting sex hormones. Many women experience changes or imbalances in their menstrual cycle due to stress, and this is why!
How To Tell If Stress is Affecting Your Cycle
Have you ever noticed that stress has affected your cycle or worried that stress may be affecting your cycle? This can feel frustrating & cause even more stress than you’ve already been experiencing. Even worse, you may not always realize it’s happening right away.
Understanding what cycles affected by stress can look like can be helpful because you’ll be able to name what exactly was causing the change.
Here are the three main ways chronic or high stress can affect your cycle:
Long Cycles: The first is that it can make your cycle longer. This is when you think that your period is late because HP-A Axis Dysregulation & HP-O Dysregulation caused a delay in ovulation.
Since your period is a result of ovulation, your period will come later because it took your body longer to reach the hormone levels needed for ovulation.
Short Cycles: Under chronic stress, your body often stops producing enough progesterone. Progesterone is the dominant hormone in the Luteal Phase of your cycle, which happens after ovulation.
One big job that progesterone has is that it maintains the uterine lining. If you don’t make enough progesterone, it will break down more quickly & your period will arrive sooner than normal. You also may experience spotting before your period begins. This will also probably cause your PMS to feel worse!
Absent Cycles: If your stress is bad enough or this goes on for a long time, you might lose your cycles or not experience one for several months. This can be especially common for athletes, body builders, women with PCOS, or women with disordered eating.
All of these happen because when you’re in a state of stress, then your hormones prioritize survival over fertility, high energy, metabolism, libido, and other more desirable parts of hormonal health.
The good news is that there are tools & practices that can help you understand your cycle, manage stress, & improve your hormonal health. That’s what we’ll be covering in Part Two & I can’t wait to share it with you!
In the meantime, let's keep the conversation going on Instagram! Let me know what questions you have & if this post was useful for you!