5 Ways Stress Can Impact Your Cycle (That FABMs Can Easily Reveal)
It’s a beautiful thing when everything in life feels balanced, organized, and under control. But for a lot of us, that feeling rarely lasts for very long. Between family, work, friends, self-care, and other commitments, many women today have a lot going on that can threaten a peaceful perspective. Those who chart their cycles know that stress—whether emotional, mental, or physical—can take a physical toll, often manifested in a change in our monthly menstrual cycle.
We know it happens. But why does it happen?
The short answer is the female body goes through different hormone changes throughout each month, and stress can affect those hormonal shifts.
The technical answer is that at the start of a typical cycle, a message from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland initiates the release of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). A follicle develops to the point that a mature egg is released. At the same time, estrogen levels increase, triggering a surge in luteinizing hormone (LH), which, at its peak, causes that mature egg to exit the ovary and enter the fallopian tube. This synchronized process is more concisely referred to as ovulation.
“Stress” can come from any number of interferences to these hormonal shifts—a busy season at work, emotional upheaval within a relationship, extensive travel, exercising too much, not eating well, or changing medications. In these situations, hormones can get out of whack, causing abnormal cycles (and making it very difficult to conceive, if that’s the goal).
Here are just some of the most common ways stress can affect your cycle.
1. Delayed Ovulation
When stress occurs in the follicular phase, that is, the stage before ovulation, the body may not trigger hormones to be released at the proper time, resulting in delayed ovulation. A woman charting basal body temperature would recognize this situation on her chart in the lack of a rise in temperature.
2. Longer Cycle
A secondary effect of delayed ovulation is a longer cycle overall. A woman charting cervical mucus would see the typical “build-up-to-peak” mucus pattern occurring later than usual, which would also delay the onset of the next menses (the start of the next cycle).
3. No Ovulation
Stress early in the cycle may interrupt ovulation altogether, so that a woman experiences an anovulatory cycle, that is, a cycle in which neither ovary releases an egg. Because she will still bleed as if she is having a period, without charting this situation can be difficult to spot.
If she’s trying to conceive, she may wonder why she’s not successful, when her period seems to come and go more or less on schedule. Women who track cervical mucus will notice “a pattern of intermittent mucus without a peak,” rather than the typical build-up of an ovulatory cycle.
4. Shorter Luteal Phase
The length of the post-ovulatory, or luteal phase, is typically more consistent than that of the follicular phase. When stress occurs after ovulation, it can shorten the luteal phase (which is normally between 12 and 16 days), and cause the period to begin sooner than anticipated.
5. Missed Periods
In more extreme cases, stress can cause a woman to miss a cycle—or three—all together. A woman who’s missed three cycles in a row may be diagnosed with “hypothalamic amenorrhea,” or in other words, a lack of period caused by an issue with the hypothalamus. In short, the body is so stressed out, it doesn’t release the hormones needed to reproduce. Lifestyle changes that improve nutrition, exercise, and mental wellbeing can help to alleviate the condition.
Often, we take a head-down-power-through approach to the stressful seasons of life. But seeing the effects our bodies are seeing on paper or within an app can elicit a change of heart. When we recognize that our bodies are trying to tell us things are out of whack, we can use that information to care for our overall health in a holistic, safe, natural, and long-lasting way.
Whether or not a woman is trying to conceive, understanding the effects of stress on the menstrual cycle is information everyone with a uterus should have. Using fertility awareness-based methods (FABMs) like those mentioned above allows women to acknowledge that stress is a factor, identify ways to alleviate it, and reap the benefits of positive lifestyle changes.