The last few weeks I’ve been talking a little more about stress and anxiety, since so many of us have been experiencing an uptick.
For some of us, anxiety and stress already seem elevated before our periods. If you have PCOS, PMS or PMDD, anxiety is among the symptoms we experience within the 2 weeks leading up to our periods, also known as the luteal phase, which would normally follow ovulation. I know this is true for me, with my symptoms affecting how I work, my image of myself, how I interact – or don’t – with other people.
But as our periods can affect our anxiety and stress levels, the inverse is also true. Being under chronic stress also affects our periods. And there is no short supply on stress or anxiety these days.
We know that chronic stress affects our cortisol levels – our stress response hormone. This hormone is made by our adrenals, which work really hard to keep up with our bodies’ hormonal needs. The adrenals are also responsible for other steroid hormones, which includes our sex hormones. When we’re under large amounts of stress – and our bodies are sensitive things – the adrenals kind of put their focus on cortisol and more or less scrap non-essential production, part of the fight or flight survival response, which means they put a pin in sex hormone production. It’s thought that progesterone levels affect our mood as well, with levels dropping after ovulation also associated with malaise and premenstrual depression.
Impaired (or overworked) adrenal function also affects thyroid function, which also plays a role in experiencing anxiety.
So we have this whole cascade effect from cortisol affecting our sex hormones. And right now, our whole lives have been thrown into disarray, and we have this constant influx of scary information and situations, so of course many of us are experiencing what’s come to be called quarantine periods.
Stress causes our periods to be late, early, or absent altogether. I normally have a very regular 28-day cycle, and the last 2 have been early by 3-4 days. And it can amplify our “normal” symptoms before and during our periods. I’ve definitely felt an intensifying of my premenstrual symptoms, including anxiety, stress response, sadness, listlessness, sleeplessness, and appetite. I’ve also found cramping harder to bear, especially on my day 2 – which also happens to be today (as of drafting this).
So we know we need to manage stress. We know we need to take care of our cycles. How can we do both?
Well first, do whatever you can to reduce the overall outside stressors. So information overload – setting limits on social media, but especially exposure to scary news – as important as it is to know and acknowledge what’s happening, refreshing your feed constantly also feeds the anxiety. Last week I also talked about adapting your food habits to your stress by hacking food prep and taking shortcuts, so review that video for more on that. If you’re working from home and do all your work, hobbies, Zoom calls etc from only one place in the house, if it’s available to you to change it up so you have at least an illusion of separation between activities – so for example, I play games and watch TV in our basement or on my living room couch, I work in my office downstairs or like this on the other end of the coffee table. Do what you can to adapt, reduce, or even eliminate outside sources of stress.
Then we need to nourish our bodies so it has the resources it needs to get the cascade under control. This includes setting and sticking to a regular bedtime and waketime as much as possible, and working on sleep hygiene and routines. This helps our body reset its circadian rhythms, which is another player in cortisol regulation.
We also want to make sure we’re getting enough B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin C. Major sources of all of the above include dark leafy green and cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are also great for sex hormone balancing, containing an antioxidant that helps our bodies metabolize excess estrogen, and they’re also high in pre- and probiotic fiber that we need to regulate digestion so that we can then excrete those estrogen metabolites.
We can also look at adaptogens, but it’s important to note that if you’re taking medications, some may be contraindicated with them. Adaptogens are foods or herbs that help your body adapt to stress. These include maca, ashwagandha, and reishi, which are also great for sex hormone balance. I generally suggest adding the powder forms to recipes, particularly smoothies where it’s easy to throw a bunch of stuff into one big one.
Finally, as a cycle-specific practice, we can look at seed cycling. This practice entails consuming a Tbsp of each of particular seeds for their benefits for different hormones throughout the cycle. So during follicular phase, or days 1-14, one would take 1 Tbsp each of ground flax and pumpkin seeds, then in luteal phase days 15-28, switch to 1 Tbsp each of sesame and sunflower seeds. All the seeds are high in omega fats, which are anti-inflammatory (great for cramps), and help signal and form our sex hormones. They’re also good sources of magnesium, calcium, and zinc, which all support good mood, stress response, and general mental health.
It’s important to recognize that even if we don’t necessarily think we’re overstressed, our bodies will tell us, and among the first signs – especially if we’re otherwise healthy – is a messed-up period. Also important is that the body may not get back to its version of normal right away. It may take a few cycles before things get back to normal, so be patient but consistent.
As always, if you have more questions, drop them in the comments or email me via my Contact form. Let me know if you’ve noticed a difference in your periods since quarantine, or what your favourite seed cycling recipe is!