Stress and The Menstrual Cycle
When it comes to managing stress, awareness is key.
Guest post by: Courtney Rae Jones
Looming deadlines. Back-to-back meetings. A never-ending to-do list. Overflowing inboxes. Cashflow uncertainties. Remembering to file GST returns. Ah, the life of a badass boss lady. Although, most of us would not trade working for ourselves for anything, running your own business can come with a lot of stress - especially in the modern age where we can’t easily disconnect. 40 hour work week? What 40 hour work week?!
Although, studies show that acute (short-term) stress can be beneficial, chronic (long-term) stress can negatively impact our bodies physically and mentally. Long-term stress is one of the leading contributors to the development of chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, auto-immune disease and mental illness. Stress is also known to suppress the immune system, promote insomnia, stimulate fat storage, reduce one’s libido and affect the digestive system (ie. our second brain).
Stress & Our Menstrual Cycles
One of the most surprising ways in which chronic stress can affect our bodies is through the suppression of our sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen, testosterone etc). For this reason, chronic stress is at the root of many irregular menstrual cycles. Stress can induce irregular symptoms such as painful cramping, carbohydrate cravings, mood swings, abnormal spotting, anovulation (absence of ovulation), skipped periods, amenorrhea (absence of a period) and unusually heavy periods. The follicular phase (pre-ovulation phase) is especially sensitive to both external and internal stressors.
How Can Stress Affect our Menstrual Cycles?
The human body is programmed to automatically suppress its production of reproductive hormones during times of stress. Why? Well, our highly intelligent bodies know that in times of stress, it may not be safe to bring a child into the world.
Our main stress hormone (cortisol) and our sex hormones stem from the same precursor hormone - pregnenolone. Pregnenolone is produced in the adrenal glands mainly from cholesterol. When healthy, the liver is able to produce 80-90% of the cholesterol the body needs, while 10-20% is obtained through the diet. During periods of stress, the body will shunt cholesterol to the production of stress hormones and suppress non-essential systems such as digestion, immunity and reproduction. Reproduction is not a priority when there is a perceived danger (internal or external). Without adequate reproductive hormones, irregular menstrual cycles are inevitable.
Managing Stress & Mastering Your Cycle
When it comes to managing stress, awareness is key. Try checking in with yourself throughout the day to see how you are feeling. This allows you to recognize the physical signs of stress and promptly address the stressor. Short-term stress can turn into chronic stress if left unchecked. Chronic stress can then manifest itself into irregular menstrual cycles.
Prioritize sleep to ensure your body spends sufficient time in the rest & repair mode. Seven to nine hours of sleep per night is ideal. Take short 20 minute naps throughout the day as needed. Move! Do some yoga, go for a walk, dance around your living room, take a hike or bike around the city. Get the blood pumping throughout your body to supply oxygen and nutrients to all of your organs including your reproductive organs. Make time in your daily schedule for rest and relaxation. Epsom salt baths a few times a week are great for stress relief and one of my favourite ways to prevent cramps & menstrual headaches. Yay for magnesium!Give meditation or mindfulness a try. Practice gratitude and pay it forward. Journal your successes, triumphs, losses and lessons.
supporting your liver by consuming cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, bok choy), asparagus, dandelion greens and beets
incorporating estrogen-modulating foods with isoflavones such as non-GMO tofu, tempeh, tamari, miso and edamame
enjoying fibre-rich foods to promote adequate elimination of excess hormones
consuming vitamin B (whole grains) and vitamin C (bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, kiwi) rich foods to support the adrenal glands
drinking lots of pure water to keep your body hydrated and promote regular elimination through the bowels and the kidneys.
From a dietary standpoint, you can dampen the effects of stress and balance your menstrual cycle by consuming unprocessed, balanced snacks & meals (protein, fat and fibre). Keeping your blood sugars balanced is critical for overall hormonal health.
A few other ways in which you can keep your menstrual cycle in top shape as a busy boss lady include:
minimizing your intake of caffeine (stimulates your natural response response)
consuming adequate amounts of good quality fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, flax oil, hemp oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, avocados, olives, raw nuts & seeds
As a final note, one of the best ways to keep your reproductive health in check during times of stress is to get to know your normal. Use a menstrual cycle tracker such as Clue or Kindara to keep track of your cycles (period, basal body temperature, cervical mucus consistency, PMS symptoms etc). Your menstrual cycle is a barometer of your overall health.
Your body speaks in symptoms. Make sure you are listening to what she is saying.
Wishing you vibrant health,
Courtney Rae Jones is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Reproductive Health Expert residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Upon being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) in 2015, she made it her mission to support other menstruators going through similar reproductive issues. She works one-on-one with clients to bring their cycles back into balance through changes in diet & lifestyle. Courtney completed her diploma in Natural Nutrition through the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition in 2018. She also holds certification as a Culinary Nutrition Expert and Certified Functional Nutrition Coach.