Stress & Your Menstrual Cycle
When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands pump out adrenaline and cortisol, which gets your body ready to either fight or run away from a real or perceived danger in your environment (the fight-or-flight response). This hormonal cascade is a natural process — and, in instances of grave danger, an extremely useful one. But when this happens over and over again, triggered by everyday stressors like deadlines instead of life-or-death threats, it depletes your cortisol reserve, leaving your adrenals unable to respond properly to stress.
A woman’s stress response is also different based on where she is in her 28-day hormone cycle, called the infradian rhythm. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is naturally at different levels in the first and second half of the infradian rhythm and it is important to tailor our self-care and exercise routines accordingly so as not to further disrupt cortisol and cause even more hormone imbalances.
This stress response, paired with lack of appropriate phase-based self-care, has a lot of negative effects on your hormones. Here are the ways stress damages your hormones and negatively affects your well-being:
1. Stress messes with blood sugar. Stress raises cortisol levels and disrupts your blood sugar which, in turn, disrupts your ovulation and period. Imbalanced blood sugar harms your hormones. One of the foundations of the FLO Protocol is using food and supplements to balance blood sugar. Improving your blood sugar is one of the single best things you can do to balance your hormones and heal period problems like acne, PMS, bloating, cramps, heavy or irregular periods, and missing periods.
2. Stress lowers progesterone. The stress hormone cortisol blocks progesterone production and lowers progesterone levels. That’s because your body uses progesterone to make cortisol and respond to the stress — and the more stress you experience, the more progesterone your body will ‘steal’ to make cortisol. This messes with your cycle by lengthening your luteal phase and makes your periods start off slow, with a lot of brown spotting and brown blood before your regular flow.
3. Stress delays ovulation. If you experience stress around the time you typically ovulate, the increased levels of cortisol can delay or even prevent ovulation. Stress’s negative influence on ovulation makes sense evolutionarily – a pregnancy on top of a stressful period in a person’s life is not ideal. By stopping ovulation, your body is trying to preserve energy to deal with the stress before conception takes place.
4. Stress changes the timing of your period. A period of stress after you ovulate can throw your hormones off balance. If you experience a high level of stress after you ovulate, you may experience spotting, an early period, or a period that looks or feels different than your norm in terms of consistency, color, length, or symptoms like cramping.
5. Stress can cause your period to go missing. Intense stress can cause anovulatory cycles, or months when you don’t ovulate at all. This means no period, or a small bit of ‘breakthrough’ bleeding (which isn’t a real period, but rather your uterus still needs to shed its lining).
6. Stress causes vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Excess cortisol from stress depletes the body of essential vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. B vitamins, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids are especially susceptible to stress — and are especially important for soothing your overworked adrenal system. Stress causes you to lose the micronutrients you need the most to help calm your fight-or-flight response!
7. Stress disrupts up your gut. Stress can interfere with the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut — and a healthy gut is critically important for any woman who wants to balance hormones and erase period problems. That’s because the gut flora, and specifically a colony of bacteria called the estrobolome, help process and eliminate excess hormones from the body — and when your elimination system is sluggish, your hormones will get out of balance.