Can stress mess up your menstrual cycle?

My Hormonology

Can stress mess up your menstrual cycle?


Ever get your period earlier or later than expected? Skipped a period or two, but weren’t pregnant? Or noticed that you didn’t ovulate, for example, by using a basal thermometer (which detects ovulation by measuring a rise in body temperature before you get out of bed in the morning)?

When this happens, think back to what happened to you during the weeks leading up to your period: Did you experience major emotional stress, such as losing your job or the death of a loved one? Or did you experience major physical stress, such as training for your first marathon or starting a diet that involves severe calorie restriction?

If the answer is “yes”, then stress could be messing up your cycle.

The stress-hormone connection

How can severe emotional or physical stress impact what’s going on in your ovaries and uterus? It has to do with the brain.

Experiencing intense stress can trigger a chain reaction that starts in the hypothalamus, an almond-sized area of the brain that manages several functions, including the nervous system and hormone secretion.(1) Once signals that you’re under profound stress reach this region, it interferes with the production of a hormone called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH).

When GnRH production is thrown off, then the pituitary gland (a pea-sized region of the brain that helps regulate hormones) doesn’t get the message to spur the production of hormones (follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone) correctly.

When the pituitary doesn’t spur these hormones the way it’s supposed to, this results in an early period, late period, no period (amenorrhea) and/or lack of ovulation (anovulation).(2)

Researchers theorize that the brain may have evolved to use intense stress (for example, from drought or war) as a cue to turn off ovulation to avoid pregnancy when it’s not an ideal environment to sustain a pregnancy or support the needs of an infant.

Get back into balance

Have you had repeated unpredictable cycles or frequent missing periods and think it’s no big deal? After all, it’s not like it impacts your life that much, right? Not so fast.

The research is clear that stress-induced cycle wonkiness can be a risk factor for heart problems, weakened bones and mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. That’s because it’s an indication that you’re producing too little estrogen, which is key since during your premenopausal (cycling) years, your body and brain rely on a certain level of estrogen to keep you in tip-top shape all the way through your post-menopausal years.(2)

Secondly, those unpredictable cycles or missed periods could be a sign of a health issue that needs to be addressed, such a thyroid disorder, ovarian cyst or problem with your pituitary gland.

The message here: Try to get back into balance by reversing the emotional or physical stress you suspect could be causing your cycle to go haywire. And, talk with your healthcare provider to find out if your out-of-sync cycle is a sign of a separate health condition. Once you treat any underlying issue, it can help you get your cycle back on track.

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