How Stress Can Affect Your Period & What To Do About It
"Rest and digest" is a concept you may remember from high school biology class. The opposite of our body's fight-or-flight response, this phase keeps us feeling calm, relaxed, and in control. What you might not recall, though, is that there's a third element of the equation: It's rest, digest, and reproduce. High stress levels can throw off the reproductive process and affect the length and timing of menstruation.
Let's unpack the many ways that stress can affect your period and what you can do to get it back on track every month.
How stress can cause an irregular period.
Any time you are under a lot of stress, it's like a signal gets sent out telling your body you're unsafe. From there, you go into fight-or-flight mode: Blood pressure rises, your heart rate picks up, and you're ready to drop everything and run at a moment's notice. The last thing your body cares about when it's in this tense state is reproducing.
"When you are stressed and in fight or flight, your body prepares for the possibility that you might not survive for very much longer," Erica Matluck, N.D., N.P., a naturopath and nurse practitioner, explains. "Why would you reproduce if you're not going to be here long enough to birth?"
When you think about it this way, a stalled or missed period makes a lot of sense: It's your body's way of telling you that something is off. "It's actually a very smart decision: You're avoiding the risk of a pregnancy that's not going to work, from the body's perspective," says Lara Briden, N.D., a naturopathic doctor and author of Period Repair Manual. "Any change in regularity of the cycle or the timing of ovulation is actually just the brain thinking, 'Oh wait maybe I shouldn't ovulate this month. I'm not sure what's going on, and this feels like it might not be safe.'"
Emotional stressors such as a busy time at work or a family emergency can spur this reaction, as can physical stressors like prolonged bouts of intense exercise or sleep deprivation. (That's why it's not uncommon for marathon runners to lose their periods during training.) Undereating can also be a huge driver of irregular periods, especially in younger women. "If the brain sees there's not enough food coming in, it might decide to shut down ovulation completely," explains Briden.
How to tell if stress is the root of your problems and what to do about it.
Stress affects every cycle differently: It can cause periods to become lighter, heavier, longer, shorter, or disappear altogether. It can also throw off the timing between periods or lead to breakthrough bleeding or make your normal PMS symptoms more severe. This means that there's no single telltale sign that stress is at the root of your irregular periods.
That being said, if you notice that your period has changed, Briden recommends first asking yourself what was happening in your life three months ago. Since menstruation can run on a bit of a lag, she says that traveling back in time may give you a better understanding of what's going on with your current cycle. If you've been under a lot of physical or emotional stress in that three-month time frame, it could explain your symptoms.
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Once you identify the root causes, you can start the process of tackling your stress to get it (and your cycle, by extension) under control. Briden recommends introducing a supplement like magnesium to your routine. Magnesium is her favorite supplement for period health, since it "helps the nervous system cope with stress to some degree, and it's actually quite calming for the brain."* She adds that it can also help ease PMS symptoms and support general hormone balance.* "That's not to say it's going to fix every period problem," Briden notes. "It's just that it's one thing women can do to kind of take the edge off and give the body a bit more of a chance."
You can also try techniques that strengthen the body's parasympathetic nervous system such as deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude. Whatever route you choose, it's important to keep up with it for the long haul: "This isn't just about the week before your period," Matluck says. "This is about looking at your relationship with stress all the time."
If your irregularities persist for more than three months, you'll want to see a doctor to rule out any other conditions. And keep in mind that this advice doesn't apply to people who are on hormonal birth control. Since your cycle is dictated by hormone withdrawal, stress shouldn't affect it too much.
The bottom line.
Your natural period is a great diagnostic tool. Briden likes to think of it as a natural report card that tells a story of what's happening in your body that month. If you notice that it's irregular, it's likely a sign that you need to get more rest, eat more nourishing food, and tighten up your stress management regimen—but you'll want to see a doctor if the irregularity persists for more than three months.