Feeling stressed recently? You're not alone.
We brought in an expert to answer some questions about how stress can impact your menstrual cycle.
Dr. Heather Irobunda is an OB/GYN (Obstetrician and Gynecologist) based out of NYC. An OB/GYN does a variety of work - delivers babies, takes care of vaginal issues, and probably most relevant to this post, period/menstrual issues. She decided to become an OB/GYN after seeing firsthand the lack of education provided around menstruation, especially in underserved communities.
We're thrilled to have gotten the chance to speak with her and get some detailed answers about what happens to our bodies when we get stressed.
A: How can stress affect your cycle overall?
Stress can have a negative effect on your body, including your period. All kinds of stress can affect your period – physical, mental and emotional stress. Sometimes, we may think that the effect of stress on our period is in our head – and actually it is. There are lots of hormones that are made in your brain (the hypothalamus and pituitary regions of the brain to be exact) that affect how your reproductive organs work. When you’re under great amounts of stress (from any source, including emotional and mental), these hormone levels become altered. Due to these alterations in hormone levels, we may see spacing out of your period (skipping periods) and in times of great stress, you may see absence of your period for an extended amount of time.
A: Can stress increase period problems (like PMS or cramps)?
Stress can definitely increase a variety of period problems. Again, due to changes in many hormones – not only hormones made in your brain but in other parts of your body, you can see worsening of PMS symptoms. There are hormones, like cortisol, that your body makes as a result of stress that cause you to have increase bloating and can negatively affect your mood in high levels. Cortisol can also affect hormones, like estrogen and progesterone that may change the way your uterus acts during your menstrual cycle. These changes can cause you to experience more painful cramps!! OUCH!
A: Should you discuss your stress levels with your gynecologist?
Of course you should! We are here to help. It is SO important to tell your gynecologist any and everything that is bothering you, including stress. We can take better care of you when we know more about you. Stress can negatively affect not only your reproductive health, but your overall health. Make sure to let us know if you have experienced any traumatic experiences, have increased anxiety, or are worried about any changes in your body.
A: Can an extremely stressful event (like a pandemic) cause your cycle to change dramatically?
A pandemic, like the one we are living through right now can change your cycle dramatically, especially if you have increased amount of stress. If you have a severe illness, like COVID-19, that can cause your body to have increased physical stress which can alter your menstrual cycle. Some of the other consequences of the pandemic, job loss, economic instability, distance from your social support system, and overall anxiety can all cause changes in your menstrual cycle as well. It would not be surprising to experience some changes in your period during this time. If you notice these changes, you should inform your gynecologist about them, so that we can help you through this time!
A: How can stress impact your fertility?
Stress can have a negative impact on your fertility. I actually wrote an article about dealing with fertility issues during the pandemic. During this time of great stress and uncertainty, the rise in cortisol levels can affect the hormones (estrogen and progesterone) that cause you to ovulate or produce an egg to be fertilized by sperm. If your ovulation is disrupted, it will decrease your ability to get pregnant.
A: What are some good ways to manage stress for reproductive health?
There are so many great ways to manage stress during this time so that your reproductive health is improved. First, talking about your stress with friends or family that you trust can really help. If you want to have a more neutral person to vent to, seeking help from a therapist can be helpful too. Expressing your feelings, especially those of stress and anxiety can really help you to keep from bottling up negative feelings and also getting help to manage your stress. In addition, doing activities that increase your mindfulness can help too. Oftentimes, stress and anxiety are linked to being fearful of the future. If you can bring your mind back to the present moment, many times, you can break those anxiety provoking thought patterns. Great examples of activities that help with mindfulness are meditation, yoga, and crafting (painting, drawing, doing puzzles). Physical activity, like walking, running, and exercise class (there are many on YouTube), dancing to your favorite songs help with decreasing stress. When you are engaging in physical activity, you are releasing endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that make you feel good and reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression!
Got some more questions or want to know more about Dr. Heather Irobunda and her work? Check out her website and her instagram!
Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash