Have you ever experienced irregular, painful, heavy period during an exam week? While preparing for an important event? After working super hard on a project? Or trying to keep up with a busy schedule? Were you aware that some hidden stress factors are imperceptibly affecting your menstrual cycle? In order to understand how stress and period are connected together, let’s start from the top
First of all, what is considered stress?
Try to list a few moments when you felt stressful. You might have perceived stress as anxiety, tiredness, fear, depression, and you might have experienced difficulty to fall asleep, irritability, decreased or increased appetite, digestive issues, skin issues, even sickness and illness. Now you see, stress responses can be both psychological and physical. While mental and emotional changes are usually well detectable, physical changes can be mild and chronic, and only come to your notice after a period of accumulation, when your health condition is compromised, or when you just got a chance to take a break. Your body usually detects and starts coping with stressors far before your mind does. Changes in the environment, weather, diet, lifestyle, and everyday routine, can all cause different degrees of stress. Habits and health conditions, like malnutrition, insomnia, alcohol consumption, drug use, over exercising, also create extra burden to your system on a daily basis, which accelerates the develop of diseases. Stress can be also caused by positive events like participating in a competition, marriage, giving birth, working out, going on a trip, etc. In a word, regardless of whether and how you perceive it, any situation that requires your adjustment, any balance that you need to rebalance, are considered stress, and will trigger the stress response.
How is stress processed in our body?
In the time of stress, your fight-or-flight response takes over and triggers a bunch of reactions on different parts of your body through the effect of sympathetic nervous system and endocrine system. The fight-or-flight response involves the whole body to work in sync when you’re facing threatening situations, like rushing into a car or escaping from a fired-up building, in order to focus the resources at where it’s needed the most at the moment.
Your heart beats faster to pump more blood, and you breathe faster to inhale more oxygen and exhale more carbon dioxide as a waste of muscle movement. The sympathetic nervous system and endocrine system use neurotransmitters and hormones to direct immediate responses of either excitement or inhibition in different organs. For example, the blood vessels on your legs are loosen, while the opposite happens to your digestive track, to make sure your legs have enough blood flow to run instead of sharing it with your stomach.
However, although we’re not subject to life-threatening situations every single day, the super effective stress response is triggered so easily when we’re just exposed to the very mild stressors as I mentioned before. Chronic stress is related to increased risk of heart diseases, digestive issue, compromised immune functions, and even infertility.
So, how does stress affect period?
When we’re stressed, the fight-or-flight response is prioritized as the sympathetic nervous system dominates to keep us safe, and the rest-and-digest response is restricted as well as the parasympathetic nervous system. Reproductive functions, unfortunately, is on the list of suppressed functions. The stress response competes with the reproductive functions mainly through occupying more energy and resources to induce physical changes and hormonal changes. Both of the stress hormone, cortisol, and the sex hormones are built with the same building blocks called cholesterol. When stress response is triggered, the endocrine system prioritizes the cholesterol source for cortisol production, and your reproductive organs suffer from imbalanced or insufficient secretion of sex hormones. As a consequence, your hormones cannot support a pain-free and struggle-free menstrual cycle, and eventually it could even affect your fertility.
On the other hand, as sleep cycle and digestive functions are also affected by stress, your body will be prone to malabsorption, bowel discomforts, and sleep deprivation, which can worsen the menstrual symptoms. Note that lacking of sleep is a stressor itself, so be careful to not fall into the vicious cycle.
Here you have it! You’re welcome to share your thoughts about stress and let us know if this blog helped you to understand the stress and period battle better!
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