Written by Audrey S. Geyer
With the holidays approaching, many women find themselves trying to manage stress in many different areas of life… between work, family, the news, living during a pandemic, and other holiday triggers, you can feel overwhelmed at times.
This year, more people than ever are also experiencing a sense of burnout or prolonged stress.
Women’s bodies and female sex hormones are especially sensitive to the effects of stress. When a threat is perceived by the brain and body, hormones prioritize survival over more desirable hormonal effects, such as energy, high metabolism, fertility, and libido, in order to fight the stressor.
After experiencing a high level of stress or chronic stress for months, there can be noticeable changes to the menstrual cycle. Whether you’re trying to conceive, trying to avoid pregnancy, or simply want to understand your body on a deeper level, knowing the impact of stress on your body - and your cycle - can give you insight on what you’re experiencing.
Your Sex Hormones, Stress Hormones, and Brain
Your menstrual cycle, fertility and experience of stress all have one thing in common: they all start in your brain.
Your cycle and fertile window are launched when the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to release follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which communicates with the ovaries and causes estrogen to rise.
The pathway of communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries are known as the HPO Axis.
Similarly, when you experience any kind of stress (physical, metal, or emotional), your hypothalamus perceives this as a threat and begins the conversation to the rest of your body. Here's what that looks like:
- The hypothalamus sends a hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRF) to the pituitary gland.
- The pituitary gland releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to communicate with the adrenals-- these are two small glands that sit on top of your kidneys.
- The adrenals then secrete cortisol, which is the main stress hormone that is now putting the rest of your body into that “flight, fight, or freeze mode” that your brain has begun.
This is known as the HPA Axis.
When cortisol is too high for too long, this causes dysregulation of the HPA Axis, which is sometimes nicknamed “adrenal fatigue.”
Just like your cycle affects your health, mood, energy, and metabolism throughout the month, your stress response affects these areas of your life as well. If you’re often feeling depleted or like you’re “running on empty,” experience fatigue, have trouble turning racing thoughts off and going to sleep, are gaining weight, stress eating, or experiencing menstrual cycle changes after high stress or prolonged stress, this is why!
Cycle Changes Due To Stress
Even if your cycle is typically regular, charting the biomarkers of your cycle using fertility awareness shows you that your body is not a robot and that your sex hormones are on no other schedule but their own. It can be totally normal (and even healthy) to have a few days of variation from cycle to cycle.
There are times when stress can directly impact changes in your cycle, though, and being able to understand them as they happen can better empower you to take care of your health, manage both your stress and fertility, and equip you to speak to your medical provider if needed - with data on your side!
If you notice that your temperature shift occurs later than usual and your cycle is longer, that means that ovulation was delayed from the stress you experienced.
If you notice that the days between ovulation and your period (your luteal phase) are shorter than usual, this might be due to low progesterone. Progesterone is commonly depleted by stress and is the hormone that maintains your uterine lining and even prevents PMS.
Noticing a lot of PMS symptoms during the luteal phase can also be caused by stress hormones.
Making notes in your chart of the days you experience this, along with the symptoms you’re noticing, can also provide valuable insight about the health of your cycle.
Even if ovulation is delayed, there’s a change in the luteal phase, or cortisol is keeping you up at night, Tempdrop will continue to provide accurate data in real time so that you don’t have to wait until there are long-term problems with your cycle to address them.
So fertility charting can help you understand your body's stress levels! And it can help you understand if the changes you're making in your life are having a positive impact on that stress.
Audrey is a High Performance Women's Wellness Coach based in Memphis, TN, working virtually with clients both across the United States and internationally. Leaving nothing unintentional or uninspired, she is a go-to source for women's health, personal development, and lifestyle strategy for ambitious, health-conscious women. She has a fresh perspective on what it means to live a balanced life and coaches women on how to achieve their goals, while making PMS and burnout a thing of the past. Shop Tempdrop with a discount through Audrey’s unique link.You can find her on Instagram or her website.