Understanding how stress can affect your period may help you rule out potential causes of menstrual cycle irregularity.

Stress is often spoken about negatively, but it isn’t inherently bad for you. It’s the natural experience of being faced with mental or physical challenges. In response to stress, your body initiates a number of processes, all intended to increase your ability to overcome the adversity you’re facing.

Hormone fluctuations are one of the many components of the body’s stress response, but when your hormones remain imbalanced for long enough, hormone-driven functions like reproduction are often affected.

Stress can affect the menstrual cycle in many ways. Not only does it alter your hormone levels, but it may reduce the energy you have available for menstruation.

The reason stress can mess up your period is primarily due to how stress affects your hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis (your reproductive axis) and your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

The HPA axis is responsible for adjusting the balance of hormones in response to stress. During a stress response, a part of your brain known as the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).

The production of CRH then triggers your HPA axis stress response, leading to the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

Because stress alters HPA axis activity, it inadvertently alters HPG axis activity since the two systems share the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. This is why when CRH and cortisol are released, it then affects the release of other hormones essential to ovary stimulation, which can mess up your period.

However, because stress can fluctuate, be acute, or be chronic, shifting hormone levels can result in a variety of menstrual changes.

Energy availability may also play a role in how stress can mess up your period.

Cortisol plays an important part in your stress response when it comes to energy consumption. When you’re stressed or facing a challenge, your body wants to have a ready supply of energy.

Elevated levels of cortisol from your stress response increase the availability of blood glucose to the brain, and your body prioritizes energy to vital functions over other processes, like menstruation.

Despite this and the many ways stress can impact your period, not all people experience menstrual changes when they’re under stress.

Your natural hormone levels vary depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. How stress affects your period can depend on when the stress response activates in your cycle and how long you experience stress.

Common ways stress can affect your period include:

Can stress make your period longer?

Stress can even make your period last longer. Cortisol is just one of the hormones involved in the body’s stress response. Progesterone is also crucial because it is necessary for cortisol production.

Progesterone is also an essential part of the luteal phase of your menstrual cycle. It cues the lining of the uterus to thicken, and if there’s no embryonic implantation, dropping progesterone levels cues the shedding of the uterine lining.

When you’re under stress, progesterone levels in your body may fluctuate, which can cause the luteal phase of your menstruation cycle to vary.

Stress-related delays in ovulation from the HPA and HPG axis crossover may also contribute to a prolonged period, as the luteal phase and other phases of the menstrual cycle are influenced by ovary function in addition to hormone levels.

The only way to know for certain if stress is the cause of period irregularity is to speak with your gynecologist.

Many other reproductive health concerns can present as changes in your cycle or period. Some may pose serious health complications.

Abnormal vaginal bleeding is the most common — and sometimes only — symptom of endometrial cancer, for example.

Speaking with your gynecologist can help you rule out other potential causes, including weight changes, disordered eating, endometriosis, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

When to see a doctor for a delayed period

There’s never a wrong time to speak with your gynecologist about a change in your menstrual cycle.

Sometimes delayed periods are expected, like with a new pregnancy. Unusual delays in your cycle, however, could be signs of underlying health conditions.

Speaking with your doctor as soon as you miss a period can help them detect certain conditions as early as possible, which may improve treatment outcomes.

While you can’t always control your stress response or your hormones, you can give your reproductive system the best chance for regularity by:

  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • eating a balanced diet
  • drinking plenty of water
  • practicing relaxation techniques
  • getting quality sleep
  • track and monitor your cycles to help identify patterns
  • practicing menstrual hygiene
  • keeping up-to-date on visits with your gynecologist

Because stress can affect your period, learning how to cope with stress may have a positive effect on your menstrual health.

Stress management strategies include:

Hormone shifts lie at the heart of the relationship between your reproductive cycle and stress.

When you’re under stress, hormone changes intended to help you respond to adversity can alter hormone processes related to your menstrual cycle.

Knowing how stress can mess up your period doesn’t mean you should skip a visit to the gynecologist when your cycle is irregular, however. You may be stressed, but you may also be experiencing an underlying medical condition like endometriosis, endometrial cancer, or PCOS.

A gynecologist can help you determine if stress is the cause of irregular periods or if something else is going on.