How Stress Affects Your Cycle and What to do About It

Essential Takeaways

  • Stress is more than just a feeling; it’s something that affects our whole body.
     
  • Stress also affects our mood and behavior.
     
  • It’s proven you’re the most susceptible to stress right after ovulation ends and before your period even begins.
     
  • There are tools you can use to help cope with stress and reduce its effects on your cycle.

We are all running too low on energy and too high on stress. From messy bun moments to hair jerking jitters, the daily struggle is real. And who’s to blame us? Every time we deviate from our stress-free zone, it affects our cycle. 

Read more: Painful Periods: When to See a Doctor

One “official” definition of stress is:

A physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the "fight or flight" response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems.

Stress is more than just a feeling; it’s something that affects our whole body, including:

  • Brain and nervous system
  • Muscles and joints
  • Heart
  • Stomach
  • Pancreas
  • Intestines
  • Reproductive system

The effects on our body translates to these common reactions:

On our body:

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension/pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sex drive
  • Upset stomach
  • Sleep problems
  • Chronic inflammation

On our mood:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation/focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability/anger
  • Sadness/depression

On our behavior:

  • Overeating or under-eating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Drug/alcohol misuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal
  • Exercising less often

Stress and Menstrual Cycles

It’s pretty clear: stress and our cycle are connected. At very specific times, too. Studies show heightened vulnerability to psychological stress in the mid-luteal phase of your cycle (aka the second half of your cycle).

How do we know? One study tested how men and women (split into the follicular phase and mid-luteal phase of their cycle) reacted to stress. They found that mid-luteal and follicular women both report higher distress than men, but mid-luteal women put more effort into suppressing responses to stress than those in the follicular group (we’ll cover follicular feels later).

Long story short - it’s proven you’re the most susceptible to stress right after ovulation ends and before your period even begins.

Here’s what’s really happening when you’re most vulnerable to psychological stress:

Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). 

Better known as the central stress response system, the HPA axis may directly affect reproductive hormones and potentially interfere with normal follicle development, menstruation, and fecundity (such as getting pregnant the first time you try). 

Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) has been identified in most female reproductive tissues including the uterus, the placenta, and the ovaries. It is responsible for “hypothalamic” amenorrhea of stress (when menstruation stops for several months due to a problem involving the hypothalamus). 

When the stress feels start flowing, the HPA axis releases CRH and cortisol, which can cause dysregulated reproductive hormone release. This can transpire into amenorrhea (not getting your period), anovulation (not ovulating), or irregular ovulation. This also means chronic stress can have long term negative effects on the reproductive system.

Stress and Fertility. 

While the mid-luteal phase plays a role in how you respond to stress, the follicular phase (the period between the first day of menstruation and ovulation) plays a role in how stress, in turn, affects your cycle.

Higher reported stress during the follicular phase strongly correlates with changes in normal reproductive function. Stress can cause amenorrhea (not getting your period), abnormal ovulation or anovulation (not ovulating), and changes in cycle length. All of the above can make conceiving much more difficult and even impossible.

To conceive, you need to ovulate, and women with irregular cycles do not have normal ovulation and sometimes don’t ovulate at all. One recent study showed those with stress during the follicular phase were less likely to become pregnant compared to those with no stress during the same time. This tells us stress may cause our bodies to delay or entirely suppress ovulation. 

Stress and Period Pain

Stress and dysmenorrhea (period pain) are linked. Here’s how:

  • Stress on the job - Every pang of stress you feel in the workplace contributes to dysmenorrhea. In fact, dysmenorrhea has been linked to working a job that exhibits low control, insecurity, and low coworker support. 
  • It’s a month-to-month thing - One would assume present stress affects a present period. Turns out, stress from a preceding month may affect how often dysmenorrhea occurs. That means you might not have a painful period as a result of stress until the following month. 
  • There’s a history lesson - People with a history of dysmenorrhea are more likely to experience the prolonged effect. Similarly, those who have a history of experiencing stress earlier in their cycle report severe symptoms leading up to and during their period.

Stress Management Tips for Success

There are tools you can use to help cope with stress and reduce its effects on your cycle.

Get some ZZZs. We all know sleep is important. And it turns out stress can affect sleep, which negatively affects our cycle. Research shows our bodily timing systems (our circadian rhythm) interacts with the HPA axis (remember, this regulates the menstrual cycle). Distress in daily rhythms is associated with increased menstrual cycle irregularity, increased risk of miscarriage, difficulty in conceiving, and a higher risk of breast cancer.

Get your blood moving. Whether you Zumba, Bikram, or SoulCycle, exercise is proven to help reduce and help cope with stress. And bonus — exercise has also been shown to reduce dysmenorrhea. Mindful exercises like yoga have been shown to improve the regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis.

More ideas. In addition to getting better sleep and exercising, try any of the following to help reduce stress:

  • Eat well
  • Take breaks
  • Talk to close ones
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol

Try Elix for Stress

Our Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal tinctures contain certain herbs that work to reduce stress’s impact on your flow by balancing hormones and decreasing inflammation. Your Cycle Balance formula is personalized for your flow to help regulate your cycle and heal menstrual symptoms, including anxiety, menstrual cramps, hormonal acne, and more.

Take our online health assessment today to find out how you can stress less for your next flow. 

 

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