All of us experience stress. And that’s OK! Life just is stressful at times. While our bodies are equipped to handle stressful situations, chronic stress can be taxing for the body and start to wear out our other physical systems.
The good news is that our bodies have a way of telling us they need a little help…our menstrual cycles! Because stress affects all of our hormones, changes in your menstrual cycle can let you know if your body is being overwhelmed, and you may need to take some time to focus on self-care and stress management tools. During the pandemic, we polled our Allbodies community, and half of the community said their cycle had been affected by it! People shared they noticed shorter periods, longer periods, less bleeding, more bleeding, longer cycles, shorter cycles, more painful periods, skipped periods altogether…stress shows up differently for every body.
We’ve got a little tool to help you though. Daysy is an intelligent fertility tracker that can help you detect whether your body may need a little TLC. Using Daysy and their companion app you can track how long your normal cycle is, the length of your different cycle phases, and even whether you have ovulated in that cycle – all ways you can determine whether your hormones need support. But don’t take just our word for it! In a representative survey (2020) of 1,200 Daysy users, 75% indicated that they identified stress symptoms based on their cycle curve (1).
It’s actually kinda cool how our bodies know how to talk to us, huh? So why does stress throw our cycles off so much? Here’s what’s happening.
What exactly is stress in our bodies anyway?
Stress is the body’s reaction to an internal change that requires the body to make a response or an adjustment (2). Interestingly, this isn’t always an inherently negative change. We could be doing something that we think of as positive, like starting to exercise a lot, and this can still cause a stress response in the body because an internal shift has occurred from the exercise.
The main hormone causing the stress response is cortisol. The hypothalamus, a tiny section in the base of your brain, triggers the alarm that an internal change has occurred and the stress (3) response is needed. Whether this internal change stems from your overly-vigorous exercise routine, or because you have deadlines at work, or because you are face-to-face with a bear, your body perceives these stimuli all the same: As threats. So, the adrenal glands (2, 3) are signaled to release cortisol.
It is this spike of cortisol that puts the body into a state that is commonly referred to as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. It’s called this because (drumroll please…) it biologically prepares us either to stay and “fight” a threat, or to run away (4) from it. Glucose (sugar) is released (5) into the bloodstream so the body has extra energy, our heart beats faster, and our blood vessels constrict (hello increased blood pressure (5, 6)) so our vital organs can get blood quicker (7) to receive more nourishment and oxygen in order to react more effectively (8). Energy is taken away from seemingly unimportant immediate functions, such as digestion (9). Just to name a few of the changes that occur.
These changes are nothing to worry about when we’re stressed for short periods of time, periodically (10). In fact, all of this is a built-in response system to allow the body to combat successfully stressful situations in those short periods, and get us out alive! But you can start to see how this response can become problematic when chronic stress causes our bodies to remain in “fight or flight” for long amounts of time (high blood pressure, higher blood sugar levels, and we don’t know about you, but we sure want our digestive systems working at full capacity!).
Why stress affects your menstrual cycle
You might be thinking, what does this have to do with the menstrual cycle? Well, quite a bit. Both cortisol and the sex hormones that influence the menstrual cycle are linked to the hypothalamus. That’s right! The same part of our brain influences both stress and our reproductive system (11, 12). The key issue is that cortisol both blocks and lowers good ol’ progesterone – one of the most important hormones in the menstrual cycle. Why? Your body uses progesterone to make cortisol. So, when you are stressed and your body is pumping out the cortisol, it is using your progesterone to do so (13). This means your body’s progesterone levels (14) are going to be lower. And this fact alters the menstrual cycle.
What’s more, progesterone works in tandem with estrogen, another key hormone for your cycle. So, if you have low progesterone, you may experience higher estrogen levels as well, to help compensate (15, 16, 17). While some general signs in your cycle that progesterone is off include anxiety, breast tenderness, low libido, weight gain/retention, and menstrual cramps, this imbalance also impacts your bleeding, ovulation, and cycle phases (which you can track with Daysy!).
What to do?
Well, the first step is to identify when you’re stressed! Sound obvious? Well, not really, actually. As odd as it may seem, you don’t always know you’re stressed. One study looked at a group of menstruators who hadn’t had a period for six months. When tested, all of the participants showed high levels of cortisol (18). However, the participants in the study did not necessarily report themselves as feeling stressed. Even though the participants didn’t think they were stressed, during the study, half of the participants attended a program to reduce psychological stress, while the rest received no treatment. After twenty weeks, 80% of the group who had treatment started ovulating again (18). Pretty wild, right? Good reminder that our bodies are constantly talking to us!
So what can we do if we can’t just automatically identify when we’re stressed? Well, you can use your menstrual cycle as an indicator!
And Daysy can help you do that. With a special algorithm based on 5 million menstrual cycles and 30 years of research, as well as your daily morning temperatures and the menstrual info you provide, Daysy can help you realize when *something* is off. All you need to do is take your temperature each morning with their device, and Daysy does the rest. The four phases of the menstrual cycle will be indicated by a lights system. Period days are a solid violet light. The follicular phase will be indicated by a movement from green lights to red lights. Ovulation will be predicted by flashing red light. And the luteal phase is shown by a return to green lights after ovulation. You use the DaysyView app to track and store your cycle info so that you can start learning your period patterns.
And, if you ever need some more support, Daysy’s customer support team serves more like cycle coaches! They can help you understand better your cycle charts and what may be going on so that you can work more effectively with your health team.
Realize your cycle is off? Take care of yourself! Sleep well, support yourself nutritionally, reduce your light at night, exercise daily, and breathe, breathe, breathe. You got this!
Written by: Martha Michaud
Medically reviewed by: Danielle LeBlanc, RN
All content found on this Website, including: text, images, audio, or other formats, was created for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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