Can Stress Affect Your Period?

Can stress delay your period or make it late?

We live in a high-stress world – while the internet and interconnectivity helps us come together, it can also add extra stress to our lives.

Whether we’re bombarded by news about something awful that’s happened on the other side of the world (and we have no control over), or constant bings and emails at all hours demanding our time and attention – or likely both – we’re constantly updated with things we can worry about.

Add to that the normal stressors of everyday life, and it’s no wonder we have trouble relaxing in the evenings or taking the time to do a relaxing hobby. Worse still, for the large part, we’re expected to deal with all this stress and just get over it. Yeah, it’s no wonder stress can show up as physical symptoms.

One of those physical symptoms can include disruptions to your menstrual cycle. Of course, there are other factors that can disrupt your cycle too, so before we talk about ways you can get your menstrual cycle back on track, let’s talk about the physical impact that stress and anxiety can have on your body so you can identify similar symptoms. (And hopefully relax!)

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

A stressful situation, whether it’s something environmental, like an expensive phone bill, or psychological, such as persistent worry about a relationship, can trigger a whole deluge of stress hormones that produce physiological changes that our bodies are literally evolved to make.

This is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response, and, while necessary back in the day when there was a chance of being chased or hunted by a saber-toothed tiger, is less helpful when dealing with a difficult colleague or a looming university deadline.

There’s a lot of interesting science behind this “fight-or-flight” instinct that will help you understand how your stress is affecting you, which we’ll explore in a moment. Don’t worry, it’s super understandable and will help you calm down when things aren’t right with your cycle.

Can Stress and Anxiety Cause Irregular Periods?

An irregular period can be caused by several factors besides stress, such as:

  • menopause
  • pregnancy
  • your birth control
  • polycystic ovary syndrome
  • thyroid problems
  • endometriosis
  • uterine fibroids

However, some of these health issues are quite rare, and none are as common as everyday stress.

If you’ve been having regular periods for years now (we don’t have to talk about how long!), you will know that stress and anxiety are generally the most common reason for an irregular period here and there. However, if you’ve only just started having periods, they will almost certainly take a while to even out and become more regular. This is because during this time, your body is still developing and your ovaries might not be releasing an egg every month. As a result, your cycles may be irregular, from as close together as 2 weeks or as far apart as 3-6 months.

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Can Stress Cause a Missed Period?

It’s pretty normal for your monthly cycle to fluctuate, particularly if you’re on birth control. While the traditional pill can often help make your periods more regular, some people who use other forms experience regular missed periods, longer gaps, or even stop having periods altogether while they’re on it.

If you are one of the lucky few who live a relatively stress-free life, this may be the case for you, but if you’re feeling stressed and your period is late, or if you’ve missed it entirely, it can simply be down to how your body is reacting to that stress.

When you’re stressing out, your hypothalamus basically tells your body that it can’t handle pregnancy at the moment, which can result in a missed period entirely. This temporary shutdown of the reproductive system is not only nothing to worry about, it is often exactly what we need at that time.

Given what we’ve just covered, it may not be surprising to learn that one study found that women in stressful jobs had a more than doubled risk for short cycle length (less than 24 days). Another study of stress in female nurses found links between high stress and longer cycles as well as high stress and anovulation (in other words, no period at all that month).

Stress and periods are intrinsically linked, as are our physical and mental health. But every cycle (and everybody!) is different, so the exact effect stress has on anxiety can be hard to quantify as there are so many variables to take into account.

Because our mental and physical health are linked, they can often have knock-on effects on each other. In other words, if someone isn’t taking care of their body, there’s a high chance that their mental health will start to take a dip too.

Things like eating disorders are obvious examples of scenarios where both the body and the mind are suffering. Eating disorders are also very likely to cause a change in your menstrual cycle regularity.

For How Long Can Stress Delay Your Period?

Medically, a menstrual period is considered late if it has not started 5 or more days after the day it was expected to start. So, any earlier than that and you’re panicking for nothing! 5 days is a lot of wiggle room time-wise – it’s almost of the entire cycle.

Research on this is often hard to quantify; as we mentioned earlier, each person is different and even reliable studies often give very different results. There are no two people with the same job experiencing exactly the same stress for exactly the same reasons. This makes it very difficult to definitively say that one particular period has been delayed for a specific amount of time for one reason.

Anecdotally, there are cases of people missing their periods by 10 days or even a couple of weeks, but once again it’s best to look at this on a case-by-case basis. It may also be worth noting that stress might not always delay your period - it can cause your period to come early as well.

So, we’ve answered a lot of questions about what we might be struggling with, so now it’s time for us to have a look at some ways to get things back on track.

What Should I Do if I Feel Stress Might Be Delaying My Period?

One missed period generally isn’t anything to worry about (after all, stress is the reason we’re here in the first place!), but if you miss more than one period, you’ll want to think about contacting your gynecologist to talk it over. Chances are everything is fine – but you’re going to worry about it until you know for sure. (Likely perpetuating the problem!)

From a mental health perspective, it’s always vital to check in with yourself and keep on top of everyday stress. If you feel that your stress levels are becoming unmanageable and that sharing your anxieties with friends and family isn’t enough, you may want to contact your doctor. You can also consider counseling or a talking therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). There are also plenty of apps to help you learn to unwind and those with both AI and humans you can talk to when you need to.

What Should I Eat if My Periods Are Not Coming?

Enough, would be the first port of call. If you’re dieting in any way that requires you to cut calories to the extreme or cut out a food group, it’s a good idea to eat a healthy balanced diet for a week or two to see if that brings things back to normality.

While there’s no magic food we can eat that will magically bring on our periods, there are foods we can eat that will encourage our bodies to bring about this ovulation. Assuming you already have a healthy diet, don’t change things too much. Any sudden or drastic change in lifestyle can result in a delayed or even a missed period, so avoid cutting things out immediately.

If you do have any habits that you think may not be helpful in the long term (drinking lots of coffee, smoking, binge drinking, eating high-fat and processed foods regularly), do your best to cut them out, though you can do so gradually.

Foods to increase your intake of include:

  • Ginger: It contains vitamin C and magnesium which can help your uterus to contract, and in turn, start your periods!
  • Cinnamon: Its properties warm the body from within, which helps promote blood flow.
  • Pineapple: It contains an enzyme called bromelain, which helps in shedding the lining of the uterus, thus starting your periods. This fruit also increases the production of red and white blood cells, which can help with blood flow.
  • Papaya: Specifically, unripe papaya. It can help in contracting the muscles in the uterus, which encourages your body to release the blood and tissues from the vagina.

If you are concerned and think you should go and see your doctor about a missed or irregular period, remember that treatment will usually depend on what’s causing your irregular periods. In some cases, it may require treating an underlying medical condition. Some treatments include:

  • oral contraceptives
  • hormonal IUDs
  • thyroid medication
  • vitamin D supplements
  • weight loss or weight gain

Stress in life is unavoidable, but you shouldn’t always feel stressed and it shouldn’t often have a physiological impact. Exercising, eating healthily, getting enough good quality sleep, and avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption are certainly ways we can stay physically healthy.

From an emotional stress reduction standpoint, confiding in your loved ones and having healthy social activities can potentially reduce the effects of stress on your health. Non-traditional medicine, such as meditation, acupuncture, massage, and botanicals can also be effective alternatives to help cope with stress and pressure.

You also don’t have to manage extreme stress alone. If you are experiencing high levels of chronic stress that you do not think can be managed in these ways, you may want to consider speaking to your doctor.

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