Years ago, I would always stay home from work and school anytime my period started. I didn’t have a choice – my period cramps were incredibly painful, the brain fog was awful, and my emotions were so all over the place that I had to stay in bed. I remember having to call out of my shifts in the middle of work whenever I was menstruating. Looking back now, I realize that those times were some of the most stressful periods of my life, and I suffered the worst PMS symptoms because of it. The pressure of college exams, the lack of sleep, and the long work hours took a toll on my body. At the time, I didn’t realize that stress was causing so many of my period irregularities. I thought painful periods were normal, so I opted for the pill (which didn’t help).
Today, I’m pill-free and I no longer live with the stress and anxiety I dealt with daily. Each cycle, I usually encounter brain fog and mild cramps for about three days, and that’s it! I don’t have to rely on taking two Pamprin pills every four hours or depend on birth control to halt my cycles. However, if I go through any kind of long-term stress, the awful PMS symptoms return without fail. One of our readers reached out to us about her friend who had the same experience.
“She said when she was working on her graduate dissertation, she skipped her period for the months leading up to the defense. Then after graduating, she had a period that lasted three weeks.” Like her friend, she also had terrible period symptoms. But when she went to the doctor, all she got was a recommendation to go on the pill. “This doc wanted me to get on the pill just to anticipate regulating stress-induced crazy period symptoms (I, too, am in grad school) because she sees it so often among us.”
How Stress Affects Our Bodies
The hypothalamus creates and controls many of the hormones in your body. The hypothalamus sends chemicals to the pituitary gland to stimulate your ovary, which releases the necessary hormones (estrogen and progesterone) to induce your period. But the hypothalamus is incredibly sensitive to external factors like work, stress, sleep, and more. "When under stress, your body produces cortisol. Depending on how your body tolerates stress, the cortisol may lead to delayed or light periods — or no period at all,” said Dr. Swapna Kollikonda, Ob/Gyn. “If stress continues, you can go without a period for a long time.”
Women who experienced stress at the beginning of their cycles faced severe PMS symptoms later in their cycle.
Dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) has also been found to be linked to women who had taxing jobs, and women who experienced stress at the beginning of their cycles faced severe PMS symptoms leading up to their period weeks later. So, while doctors are busily prescribing us pills, they’re not actually addressing the root causes of PMS symptoms. Luckily, there are many ways to combat the cramps and period delays – here are some of the ways we can lower our stress levels and relieve pain!
Dong Quai root, also known as “female ginseng,” is prescribed by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners to alleviate cramps and irregular menstrual cycles. Current research suggests the root may relieve pain and improve circulation. So next time you’re suffering from PMS symptoms, take the more natural route and opt for Dong Quai.
Did you know that magnesium can help you relax during your period? Perhaps the rising rates of anxiety and depression in the U.S. are partly due to 50% of Americans being deficient in this mineral. Magnesium deficiency can lead to fibromyalgia, audiogenic and cold stress, chronic fatigue syndrome, headaches, and more. Magnesium blocks the activity of stimulating neurotransmitters and instead binds to calming receptors, resulting in relaxation. Low levels of magnesium may also be the reason for cramps and muscle contractions. You can supplement with magnesium or incorporate foods that are naturally rich in this mineral like greens, nuts, legumes, and dark chocolate.
Low levels of magnesium may be the reason for cramps and muscle contractions.
Incorporating meditation into your daily routine can do wonders for your stress levels. Meditating relaxes your mind and thus lowers cortisol levels in your body. Meditation has also been found to reduce your risk of contracting stress-induced diseases like stomach ulcers, migraine, and mental disorders.
The hardest part about meditation is getting started and making it a routine. I recommend having a daily alarm to remind you that it’s time to meditate. Find a quiet place, close your eyes, focus on your breath, and allow yourself to observe your mind. In increasing awareness during your daily meditation sessions, you’re training yourself to be more aware when you start to feel stressed out, which helps you to manage difficult situations in the future.
Can you handle needles? If so, you can try out acupuncture! Acupuncture can help with irregular periods by reducing stress and improving blood flow in the pelvic area. Acupuncture is believed to stimulate the body’s central nervous system, which helps release chemicals to the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These changes result in the alleviation of pain and reduction of stress.
How often do we forget to breathe? When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes shallow, and we reduce our oxygen intake. Low oxygen can induce a "fight or flight" state, which is not good for our bodies if we're in it for too long. By doing breathwork, we can slow our breathing down to bring more oxygen into our bodies and reduce stress. Slowing down and deepening your breath stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which can calm down some of the pain signals in your body that are causing period cramps. Next time you’re feeling debilitating cramps or anxiety, go on YouTube and search for “breathwork” or “guided breathwork.”
There could be many reasons for PMS symptoms and period irregularities, like poor nutrition, lack of sleep, stress, and deficiencies. But there’s no doubt that stress is a huge contributing factor to cycle irregularities. Instead of going against your body’s natural rhythm, listen to it, honor it, and try your best to nurture yourself.
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