Stress & Our Cycles - Part 1Nov 08, 2021
What is stress?
According to Mirriam Webster, the ’essential meaning of stress’ is
1 : a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.
2: something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety
3: physical force or pressure
With a further definition stating: : “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation”.
Sometimes stress is good and it elicits change (more on this in a future blog post); it is how we get fitter or stronger in the gym or how we grow after challenging times.
But too much stress or stress without sufficient recovery or rest can cause a number of health issues, as well as emotional and behavioural changes.
Stress is not just ‘feeling stressed out’ or feeling overwhelmed. Stress on the body is also caused by poor nutrition, excessive exercise, poor sleep, illness as well as lifestyle stressors (emotional).
When we are stressed we:
Lack of energy
Have trouble sleeping
Can feel anxious, irritable or depressed
Have headaches or stomach problems
Notice changes in our cycle
Our cycles start in our brain
To understand how stress impacts our cycle, we need to do a brief biology lesson. We think that our menstrual cycle is confined to our reproductive organs and hormones but it actually all begins in our brain.
Our adrenal system (HPA axis) is linked to our reproductive system (HPO axis) via the hypothalamus and pituitary glands.
This small area of our brain called the hypothalamus acts like the control centre of our brain; it manages our sleep, our temperature, how much we eat or drink, and produces our hormones by speaking to the pituitary glands.
Our hypothalamus is sensitive to how much we eat (energy consumed) and stress experienced (life stress, exercise, poor sleep, etc.). If it perceives the body to be in a state of famine or a state of threat, it will shut down the reproductive cycle to conserve precious energy for our main bodily functions.
How does stress impact our cycle?
High or prolonged periods of stress elevate our adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, all of which have a knock on effect on reproductive hormones.
Adrenaline results in increased production of oestrogen
Cortisol results in lower levels of oestrogen & progesterone
Furthermore, our adrenal hormones and reproductive hormones use the same building blocks; the mother hormone pregnenolone.
So, when we experience a time of stress our body will prioritise making adrenal hormones over ovarian/reproductive hormones and this impacts our normal hormonal function.
What can we do about it?
This may seem like a bit of a doomsday situation, but it can be empowering instead. We can treat our menstrual cycle* as our fifth vital sign. It is a unique barometer that can tell us if we need to take a step back and check in on ourselves.
Keep an eye out for part 2 of this post where I will delve into how stress might show in up in our cycles and what we can do to reduce our stress.
Sources, Disclaimer & Further Reading
Much of this information is taken from my on-going FEMM (Fertility Education & Medical Management) Teacher Training course, my qualifications & experience as a Women’s Movement, Nutrition & Lifestyle Coach.
Please note that I am not fully qualified at the date of writing this post but soon will be. The content written in these articles is purely for educational and information purposes and should never replace the advice of your healthcare practitioner.
I would highly recommend No Period. No What? by Nicola J. Rinaldi, especially for those who are trying to conceive and have lost their cycles
Dr Stacy Sims, Roar book is another excellent resource for those who take their training very seriously
Maisie Hill’s Period Power is a great book for those who are more geared towards holistic health & wellbeing
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