So, we all know what stress feels like. It’s a natural, essential, uncomfortable part of being a human being regardless of age, gender, demographics, income, race, culture or generation.
Our brain perceives a “threat” and quickly communicates with our our two adrenal glands that sit on top of our our kidney glands to secrete cortisol, epinephrine (“adrenaline”) and norepinephrine. The Sympathetic Nervous System carries out this “fight, flight or freeze” response when our body feels danger, fear, threatened, nervous, angry, shock, terror, grief, insecurity and more emotions.
This response begins the abundance of reactionary symptoms. Heart rate increases, blood vessels contract (increased blood pressure), lungs dilate to take in more oxygen, blood flow to the muscles increase, blood flow and action is diminished in the kidneys, bladder and GI Tract, core body temperature increases with sweating, blood flow to extremities (hands/feet) decreases, salivary glands decrease with mouth dryness, pupils dilate for better vision and our brains become more alert, attentive and awake to prepare for the threat at hand.
Our bodies are perfectly designed to respond to acute or short term stress, adapt, recover, then move on. Our bodies naturally want (and need) to transition back to the Parasympathetic Nervous System response – calm, relaxed, rest, repair, restore for optimal health and survival.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is an entirely different series of reactions and can have detrimental long term effects. The body is definitely not designed to sustain ongoing “danger” and stress.
Certain organs are considered vital and need to be preserved and supported during the stress response. These include the heart, the lungs, the muscles, the brain. Other “lesser” important organs, though still very important, are put on the back burner as the body prepares to defend itself against the potential threat.
For females, this includes the reproductive system, mainly the ovaries that produce and secrete estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
So when there’s a period of chronic stress over weeks, months, years (decades in some cases!) a woman’s menstrual cycle is very likely to get adversely disrupted in many ways.
For women who are pre-menopausal or in their peak reproductive years, chronic stress can lead to short term changes – irregular menstrual cycles being the most common complaint. This may include skipping periods, longer or shorter cycles in between, bleeding 2x/month, bleeding changes and sometimes more severe pre-menstrual symptoms (PMS) and/or increased cramping, pain bleeding and more. Once the stress has passed, the menstrual periods can return to normal.
For women who are Peri Menopausal (a few to several years of hormone decline until Menopause) OR Post Menopausal (no menstrual periods for 1 year or more), chronic stress can worsen the symptoms of menopausal hormone decline. Furthermore and interestingly, chronic stress symptoms can actually resemble the symptoms of peri and post menopause. Once the stress has passed, the menstrual periods may or may not return to normal. In some cases, females may undergo “earlier” menopause or premature ovarian failure.
Here’s a comparison of symptoms of chronic stress and symptoms of peri and post menopausal hormone decline. Not every female will exude these symptoms, but they are the most common and symptoms I’ve heard repeatedly in clinical practice over the years.
Chronic Stress Symptoms: Increased heart rate, arrhythmia, increased blood pressure
Peri/Post Menopause Symptoms: Heart Palpitations or heart flutter and mildly increased blood pressure
Chronic Stress Symptoms: Increased sweating and increased core heat
Peri/Post Menopause Symptoms: Increased hot flashes and night (& day) sweats – the entire body, back of neck and head
Chronic Stress Symptoms: Irregular, disrupted or different menstrual cycle: skipping periods, change in flow or cycle frequency
Peri/Post Menopause Symptoms: Irregular menstural periods, no bleeding for months, or complete cessation of bleeding, heavy bleeding, light bleeding, bleeding 2x/month, change in cycle
Chronic Stress Symptoms: Craving more sugar or other refined carbohydrates