June 17 2021 | Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her)
The past year-and-a-half has been unforgettable for all the worst reasons. Life during covid has been scary, disappointing, exhausting and, above all, stressful. For most, it’s common knowledge that being under stress can negatively impact your health. Within thirty-seconds of a Google search you can find an array of articles that provide you with tips for stress management: meditation, exercise, reducing screen time, listening to music, and my personal favourite, “laughing it off” - as noted in this Healthline listicle. Most of these articles urge the importance of stress-relief, warning that being under stress can cause weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, high blood pressure and more. But how does stress impact your menstrual cycle? In this week’s blog, we are exploring the connection between stress and menstruation, and discussing how to maintain menstrual health while dealing with stress during the pandemic, and beyond.
Why does stress affect menstruation?
To answer this question, we need to first understand how our bodies biologically deal with stress. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) is a pathway in our brains that is made up of three parts: the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands. This pathway is an integral part of the system and is a key player in not only helping your body deal with stress, but also in its every day functions. When stress is introduced to your body, this pathway is activated and jumpstarts the production of two hormones: cortisol and the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). While these hormones can be helpful in allowing our bodies to regulate, they can also inhibit the production of normal reproductive hormones (i.e. estrogen and progesterone). When your reproductive hormones aren’t being produced at a normal rate, you run the risk of experiencing a number of menstrual-health issues.
How does stress affect menstruation?
One way this may affect your cycle is abnormal ovulation or menstrual irregularity. Without the right hormones being produced, your body may struggle to menstruate regularly - on a consistent basis, for example, every 28 days. When under high amounts of stress, you may find that your period isn’t starting on schedule or that you’re spotting in between periods.
In other cases, stress may cause you to lose your period altogether, also known as amenorrhea. To read more about amenorrhea, check out our past blog: “Amenorrhea: Where Did My Period Go?”
Increased stress levels have also been linked to menstrual pain. In a 2004 study, almost 400 women were observed in an attempt to find an association between stress and dysmenorrhea: usually characterized by painful cramping, pelvic pain, vomiting, nausea, fatigue, weakness and more. The study concluded that there was a significant association between stress and dysmenorrhea, in fact, for the women involved, the risk of dysmenorrhea more than doubled among women with high stress. Keep in mind, this study is correlational and future research may show a different pattern - but for now we will make do with the data that we have!
How do I manage stress and promote menstrual health?
The oversimplified, generic answer, would be to “take time for yourself”, but we know that managing stress is no easy task. Unfortunately, carving out time in the day for self-care isn’t always as simple or as glamorous as it sounds. If you are looking for a few strategies that might help you manage your stress levels, we’ve listed some below, and if there are other tactics that help you, feel free to leave a comment down below!
1. Limit your screen time
It can be difficult to step away from our devices and engage in alternative activities, but this can be incredibly helpful in managing stress. Studies like this one, conducted at Concordia University proved the connection between screen addiction and high stress levels. If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try shutting off your devices and instead take a walk, read a book or journal.
2. Regulate your sleep pattern
Setting a strict bedtime routine can allow you to get consistent, quality rest. The more quality sleep you get, the easier it will be for your body and mind to repair in stressful times.
3. Move regularly
Exercise and movement in general can do wonders for both your mental and physical health. Allowing yourself dedicated movement-time every day will not only help your body produce happy hormones (endorphins), but can also improve your quality of sleep!
4. Get outside
Exposure to nature has been proven to reduce stress. If you can find room in your schedule, try to dedicate some time every single day to being outdoors. According to a psychological study conducted in 2019, even as little as 20 minutes can help lower your stress levels.
5. Be mindful and aware of your mental health
Thankfully, as a society we are becoming more comfortable with and aware of the struggle of maintaining mental wellness. Taking care of your mental health is an important factor when it comes to stress-management. Everyone will differ here in terms of what works best, but try to find a technique that best serves your mind, body and schedule. Some people favour meditation, others prefer counselling/therapy. Whatever allows you to be introspective, reflective and ultimately, relaxed, is the best option!