Can stress wreck your periods?

A woman looking stressed

Today, we face times in which demands are many and resources are few. This means that all of us are quite familiar with stress. Speaking of stress, women typically have it worse than men. Not because they are psychologically weaker, but because there is more going on inside their bodies. Menstruation, in particular, is a challenging time for women. The “more” that goes on inside a woman’s body kicks into overdrive during the menstrual cycle. Today, a growing number of researchers are concerned with how stress affects menstrual health. This is because, in this modern age of highly constrained and fast-paced living, stress may very well be the reason for the increased reports of menstrual dysfunction. Let us now look at some studies that focus on the issue. 

FIVE RECENT STUDIES 

The first study is about medical students: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/To-study-the-impact-of-lifestyle-over-menstrual-in-Desai-Sawant/ff14106e37bf0383102bc909e6b6d282066ae51c

We all know that medical students are some of the most stressed people in the world. When humans are stressed, they tend to make poor lifestyle choices, such as eating a lot of junk food or not sleeping well. This, in turn, can compound stress. Most medical students are classic examples of this behavior, which is what makes this study a strong case for the effects of stress on menstrual function. The study found a strong correlation between stress and menstrual cramps (this result is also found in many other studies that focus on medical students). 

Additionally, the study showed an increase in ovarian cysts and hyperthyroidism in 21% of the population. For those of you who are unaware in this domain, that is not a low percentage. Note that ovarian cysts and hyperthyroidism can lead to ovulation problems. Still, 21% is not a large enough percentage to draw any firm conclusions. However, further research to investigate this concern is most definitely worth it. Since medical students undergo work stress and academic stress, these results can be extended to other work and academic settings as well. 

The second study analyzed a whopping 4445 women aged 19-49 years.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00737-018-0872-8

Any study that covers such large numbers is worth paying attention to. The study reports that stress, depressive mood, and suicidal ideation are strongly linked with irregular menstrual cycles. The problem appeared to be further compounded by sleeping less than 5 hours a day. The limitations of the study include the fact that the scores were obtained through self-reports, which are notoriously susceptible to unverified responses. 

The third study is about work stress. 

https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/indhealth/45/5/45_5_709/_article/-char/ja/

In this study, about 540 participants were ascertained to perceive stress at work. The study found work stress to be linked with menstrual cycle irregularity as well as longer menstrual bleeding periods. To be more specific, for every 5 cases where the above conclusion held true, there was 1 case where it didn’t. So, the ratio of positive to negative examples for that statement was 5:1 (actually 4.8:1 but I rounded up the 4.8 to 5).

Coming to the 4th study, so far, we have seen some studies that highlight the damage. Now, let’s look at one that highlights the cure. More specifically, one that highlights the role of resilience. 

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/0167482X.2014.912209

Operationally, resilience to stress means staying calm and productive during stress. For example, if you face stress at work, then you still manage to get the work done. As another example, if you face stress at home, then you still manage to finish your tasks and sleep well at night. Now this study had 696 participants who were trying to deal with menstrual disturbances. About 45% ended up using a medication, while 55% did not. In both groups, higher scores for resilience reduced menstrual disturbances. So, the conclusion was that resilience helps significantly regardless of whether you take medication.  

The 5th and final study is about yoga. 

https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2016.0363

We have all heard that yoga and meditation are great for combating stress. So here we look at a study that zeroes in on the link between yoga and menstrual health. All 18 papers that were reviewed reported a reduction in menstrual disturbances. They covered various yogic techniques including pranayamas, asanas as well as deeper meditation techniques. 

PERSONAL ANECDOTES

This YouTuber states that Adrenaline and Cortisol, which are classic stress hormones interfere with crucial period hormones, Estrogen, and Progesterone. She explains that when stress hormones increase, the body thinks one is in danger. The result is that stress hormones take up brain capacity i.e. they win over any other hormone, including period hormones. Now this YouTuber claims that this process, for her, led to all kinds of period disruptions such as heavy bleeding, irregular cycles, pain, and acne. Now, the question is whether science backs up these claims. Well, the following link presents a 2018 paper about stress and progesterone:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235228951530028X

This paper suggests the opposite. It says that cortisol and progesterone have a positive correlation. That is when cortisol increases, so does progesterone. However, I also found two other papers that support an indirect link between stress and progesterone. Here are the links:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1526590017308040

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2452073X1730003X

The first paper reports an increase in pain levels due to excess stress. The pain would be like soreness and heat felt mainly in one’s hands and feet. Now the second paper found that this kind of pain decreased progesterone levels. 

The conclusion we can make is that excess stress — the kind that leads to pain and headaches — causes a decrease in progesterone levels. Whereas, moderate levels of stress, which basically amounts to caution and awareness, actually helps with progesterone levels. The same can be said for estrogen. 

Another anecdote is contained in the following link:

It states 4 reasons for the loss of periods, one of which is stress. In fact, she says the main reason was stress, and this was after she’d received a clean chit from several doctors. Again, there is ample evidence that indirect stress responses like pain, tension, and headaches cause hormonal disturbances. This anecdote also attests to the stress control benefits of yoga and meditation. 

STRESS AND MUSCLES

Most of us are aware of how stress affects the muscles. In some cases, it causes them to push so hard that you end up with diarrhea every time you use the bathroom. Similarly, it may lock up the muscles so tight that you end up with constipation. I realize this is a rather crude example, but it’s one that we’re all familiar with. At the end of the day, menstrual mechanisms occur through muscle releases too. The ovaries have to push. The fallopian tubes have to push. So on and so forth. So… since stress is known to fracture and lock up muscle mechanisms, it follows that it can do the same for menstrual muscle mechanisms. 

WHAT CAUSES STRESS?

This is an issue that psychologists have grappled with for ages. Basically, one feels stress when they can’t handle a demand. It may be that you have less time to get your work done. It could be your family putting social pressures on you. It could be anything. Managing stress is a huge topic that is beyond the scope of this post. If you need help with it, we encourage you to contact a professional. The issue is usually personal, which means there are no “general guidelines.” There is only what works for you.  

SUMMARY

All of the studies mentioned here are fairly recent. Therefore, these insights reflect the current scientific consensus regarding stress and menstrual health. A final statement that we can make on the issue is that stress management is extremely critical to menstrual health. Oftentimes, even medication doesn’t work and the doctors tell you everything is fine even though they’re not. The culprit in these instances is stress. So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re taking all the right medications and going to all the right doctors. In the end, you need to get your stress under control. 

About the author:

Kunal is a writer and a thinker. He has authored “4 weeks – the beginning”, (which is available on Amazon) as well as co-authored two IEEE research papers. He has also given a TEDx talk titled “childish fantasies”. Kunal secured a degree in computer science and an internship from Silverline Counselling and Learning Center. Psychology as a subject has always been close to Kunal’s heart. To that end, he has switched career paths and is currently a master’s student in psychology at IGNOU and an editor/coauthor at bythepeepaltree.wordpress.com.

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