Is stress stealing your progesterone?

Have you ever missed a period or experienced a change in your menstrual cycle when you were under a lot of stress? Women’s hormones are directly affected by stress. 

Often when women are under a lot of stress, their period may become scanty, shorter in duration (2-3 days), or delayed. 

Stress can also exacerbate symptoms of PMS, increasing your sense of irritability and moodiness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and sleeping. It can also affect your body, worsening symptoms like sore breasts, constipation, changes in appetite, and feelings of overall lousiness. 

Some of these symptoms (breast tenderness, insomnia and moodiness) are common in oestrogen dominance syndrome. 

If you were concerned and had these symptoms checked by your doctor, you were perhaps told there was nothing to worry about and everything was normal.

Then, as soon as there is a time when you can finally relax, you get your period and your symptoms ease.

So, what could possibly be going on here?

In today’s fast-paced society, when the female body senses but is unable to cope with the stress, it shuts down the reproductive pathway. 

Stress could come in many forms: an unexpected event, change of job or home, emotional distress, insomnia, fasting, or even holiday travels.

When under high stress, there is an increased demand for cortisol, so our body stays alert and can deal with the source of stress. 

When the demand exceeds the amount that our adrenal glands are able to produce, the body shifts from supporting reproductive function (relaxation mode) to fight and flight (combative mode). 

In the process, progesterone (a key hormone in the menstrual cycle) gets shunted and pregnenolone, which would normally help create progesterone, gets converted to cortisol to support stress levels.

During stressful times, female progesterone levels are lower than normal due to this progesterone steal, which causes anovulation and change in your period patterns.

Progesterone is known as a neurosteroid hormone that binds to the GABA receptor providing a calming effect. It also has diuretic action to prevent excess water retention. So, when progesterone is low, symptoms like irritability and bloating are common.  

When this happens chronically, you may not only have issues with weight gain and fertility, but as your body becomes more oestrogen dominant, there’s an increased risk for oestrogen-dependent diseases.

 What can you do to encourage change?

  1. Make sure you have enough B vitamins, specifically Vitamin B3, B5, B6, B9, and B12. These nutrients are critical for supporting stress-induced cortisol response. The methylated form is preferred as around one third of the population has an MTHFR SNP mutation which means they cannot utilise B vitamins unless in their methylated (also known as active) form.
  2. Exercise. It does not need to be a full 30 min or 1-hour session, brisk walks or weight lifting can also help with stress reduction.
  3. Water. There are a number of studies showing a drop in depression and anxiety levels in the body when it is adequately hydrated.
  4. When your period arrives, try to honour the slow, downward energy of your cycle at this time. Life is busy and doesn’t often allow time for this, but taking some time to wind down (particularly on the first and second days of your period) can help replenish your energy levels and reduce stress for the next cycle to come.

If you are looking for temporary stress support, western herbal extracts such as ashwagandha, siberian ginseng, passionflower, lemon balm, oat seeds, and rhodiola can help regulate the lopsided cortisol response. 

If you’ve tried all of the above and your stress levels are still high, then we recommend you seek further support from your healthcare practitioner.

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