How Stress Causes Late Periods

diet & lifestyle Jun 27, 2019

Having a late period?

As women we automatically start questioning, why is it late? Is something wrong? Oh god, I'm pretty sure I'm not pregnant. Am I? What does Google say?!

The irony here is that one of the most common reasons for a late period is stress!

Our daily stress levels play an integral role in our hormone health and stress has a direct influence over our monthly cycle.

Don’t think stress is the reason for your late period?

If you keep reading, you’ll probably find that it's playing a part, however here’s a list of other causes, if you’re certain it’s not due to stress.

I'm also going to assume you have ruled our pregnancy *wink*

Do you really have a late period?

It’s normal for your cycle to be a bit different from month to month. If your period is 2-3 days overdue, this is considered a normal variance rather than a late period.

In general, if your period is overdue by 5+ days, that’s when it's considered a late period. So if it was only due yesterday, just relax and be a little more patient girlfriend.

What hormones have to do with late periods

Your sex hormones follow a predictable, monthly pattern.

But it’s a delicate dance and the levels of estrogen, progesterone and various other hormones in your body need to be just right in order for ovulation and menstruation to occur.

If you're stressed, there's a bunch of different pathways in the body that are affected...and they can all cause a delay in periods.

Sex hormones 101

Your sex hormones are part of the group called steroid hormones. These are all made from cholesterol, specifically LDL which is often referred to as the ‘bad cholesterol’.

Yep, you read that right! Our sex hormones are made from something we've been taught to fear and this is one of the reasons I don't advocate a low-fat diet.

Eating healthy fat means your body has what it needs for healthy hormone production.

The steroid hormones include:

  • Pregnenolone - the Mother of all steroid hormones. This is the precursor to all of the other steroid hormones.
  • Estrogen – the beautiful hormone that builds your uterine lining, gives you those womanly curves and keeps your brain, heart and bones healthy.
  • Progesterone – the wonderful hormone that keeps you chilled and in love with your life, protects you against breast and uterine cancer and plays a very important role in maintaining pregnancy.
  • Testosterone – the amazing hormone that helps with motivation, energy, a well-functioning brain & strong bones.
  • Cortisol – the important hormone that keeps us safe during dangerous situations, wakes us up in the morning, modulates our immune cells and regulates our blood pressure & blood sugar.
  • DHEA – the underappreciated hormone that increases our memory, reduces wrinkles and increases libido.

How stress affects your hormones and causes a late period

Further down in this article I’ll explain how stress isn’t always what you think it is, but for now, just know that any form of stress leads to an increase in cortisol.

When your cortisol levels increase, this has an effect on all of your steroid hormones due to a pathway called the Pregnenolone steal.

As I mentioned above, Pregnenolone is the ‘Mother’ of the steroid hormones because it is the precursor for the rest of them. Look at it as the building block needed to create the other steroid hormones.

The issue that arises in this pathway is that when we are highly stressed, our bodies will keep producing cortisol to allow us to handle or 'deal with' this stress.  

The constant production of cortisol uses up our pregnenolone reserves.

If there isn’t enough pregnenolone to go around, the body prioritizes cortisol over the other steroid hormones.

Why does cortisol production get priority?

Due to the primal nature of the human body, stress is seen as a danger. So, if we are in ‘danger’ cortisol is produced and our body goes into fight or flight mode to increase our chances of ‘getting to safety’. This is why your heart races when you are stressed and you feel ultra alert (aka highly strung).

If you are actually in danger, making babies at that time would not be a good idea for your survival. This is why sex hormones are put to the bottom of the list - because we don’t need them for our immediate survival.

But we do need these sex hormones for our monthly cycle to be on time!

Insufficient levels of sex hormones will lead to either a delay in ovulation or anovulation (where you don’t ovulate at all) and this means your period will be late.

How high Cortisol effects Progesterone

During normal circumstances, pregnenolone (the Mother hormone) is made in the brain, adrenal glands and ovaries. Then it gets transformed into all of the different steroid hormones in the appropriate ratios.

But as soon as there is some kind of stress in your life, the production of cortisol takes priority. And cortisol is made from progesterone!

Within your body, pregnenolone is converted to progesterone and then converted to cortisol during times of stress. More cortisol means less progesterone.

Pregnenolone and progesterone sound similar but are very different hormones.

Remember that Pregnenolone is the 'Mother hormone' or the building block, and progesterone is a female sex hormone that becomes dominant after ovulation.

While low progesterone alone won't cause your period to be late, due to the way these hormones are made, it can also lead to low estrogen and that will cause your period to be late...

How high Cortisol effects Estrogen

As mentioned above, cortisol is prioritised over all other steroid hormone production. DHEA is the hormone required to be converted into estrogen and testosterone.

The catch is that pregnenolone (the building block hormone) is converted either into progesterone or DHEA.

  • If it's made into progesterone, it can then be converted into cortisol.
  • If it's made into DHEA it can then be converted into estrogen and testosterone.

So if you are living a high stress life, pregnenolone is shunted away from the path needed to make your estrogen.

In the first half of your cycle, your estrogen needs to rise to a certain level in order to stimulate your ovaries to release an egg.

If your estrogen is too low during this phase, ovulation may be delayed or not occur at all and this will result in a late period. 

How a high sugar diet causes stress

When we’re stressed we often reach for sugar to make us feel better.

Are you guilty of this? I certainly am! In the past, sugar was one of my staple go-to pick me ups.

Unfortunately, a diet high in refined carbs and sugar is another stressor for the body. And that means it leads to more cortisol being produced.

When you overindulge in sugary foods, the sudden spike in insulin causes your adrenal glands to release cortisol.

You already know the negative effects high cortisol have on your monthly cycle but it actually has a two-fold effect.

Both this study and this study explain that acute exposure to stress leads to the rapid development of insulin resistance and this study shows that long term chronic stress also contributes to the development of insulin resistance.

This all matters because insulin resistance can cause ovulation to be delayed or in the case of insulin resistant PCOS, not occur at all. If you ovulate late, your period will be late.

Why you don’t have to be chronically stressed for it to delay your period

It isn't only chronically stressed women who can have a late period due to stress.

If you experience a once-off event or something that causes stress around the time you would normally ovulate, this can delay or even prevent ovulation.

This ‘once off event’ could be an important deadline at work, a small car accident, someone verbally abusing you or a case of food poisoning.

Anything that would put your body under abnormally high stress can result in a delayed period. 

What kinds of stress can cause a late period?

Every kind.

Unfortunately, your body has no way to tell the difference between all the different stressors in your life.

To your body, it’s all the same.

Regardless of the reason you are stressed, your bodies reaction is always going to be the same. It’s going to produce cortisol and adrenaline to send your body into fight or flight mode.

Stress caused by diet and exercise

Nutrient deficiencies are stress signals to your body.

If you aren’t eating an appropriate diet with plenty of real food nutrients, this can delay your period.

An ‘appropriate diet’ starts with sufficient calorie intake. If you are undereating, your menstrual cycle will shut down.

An appropriate diet also contains, plenty of fibre, healthy fats, protein and unrefined carbohydrates. No macronutrient should be left out!

Over-exercising is another stress signal to your body.

Did you know that as a woman, you actually need a certain amount of body fat to ovulate?

If you love the gym but your periods are irregular, you might need to weigh up your goals with your need for a healthy menstrual cycle.

It's not just underweight women who can have delayed periods due to over-exercising!

Of course, exercising is a healthy form of acute stress. But overexercising can lead to chronic stress and you know what that means - late periods.

Chemical stress, toxins and endocrine disruptors

You absolutely cannot overlook chemical stress if you have a late period!

In our modern world, chemicals, environmental toxins and pharmaceuticals are everywhere. And they can all disrupt our endocrine system.

An endocrine disruptor is any chemical that can mimic our natural hormones or bind to/block the hormone receptors on our cells.

Examples of common endocrine disruptors:

  • BPA in plastic food containers
  • Phytoestrogens in soy products
  • Flame retardants in furniture fabric
  • Pesticides in our food chain
  • Phthalates in perfume and air fresheners
  • PFOA in non-stick cookware
  • Triclosan in antibacterial soaps and gels
  • Parabens in deodorant and skincare
  • Prescription medication such as statins, hormonal birth control and anti-depressants.

If you cringed a little when you read that list and realised that you're being exposed to a tonne of these, you're not alone! And the thing is, you can't do better until you know better!

There's no point stressing about it (pun intended). Just head over to the EWG Skin Deep Database for some amazing information on cleaning up the toxin load in your home.

When is it 'too much stress'?

Stress is a normal part of living, and so is our physiological response to it.

Our body is primal and the response to stress is hardwired into all of us. The fight or flight response is evolution’s way of keeping us alive and safe.

But this response to stress was only ever meant to happen for brief periods of time.

The problem arises when cortisol production is not turned back off quickly or if the stress response occurs too often.

If your body is starting to show the negative side effects of a high-stress lifestyle (such as late periods) you really need to address it.

Chronic stress is very unhealthy and will lead to health issues if left untreated or unmanaged.

How to fix your stress-induced late period

Click here to read my detailed article on stress relief for women.

In that article, I talk about proven techniques for instant, in the moment stress relief, how to support your body so it can handle stress more effectively and I also cover some practical long term anti-stress approaches.

One of the most important pieces of information in your late-period puzzle is when (and if) you ovulated.

The luteal phase of your cycle won't be any longer than 16 days... unless of course, you're pregnant.

I use the Daysy fertility tracker to confirm I've ovulated but other options include the Fertility Awareness Method (click here for my course) or an ovulation test from the chemist, although these aren't always accurate.

What now?

Are you wondering why there isn't a list of natural remedies to help bring on your period?

For starters, this is very hard to address in a blog post because your individual needs will determine the best path of action.

It depends if you actually ovulated, if there is a chance you could be pregnant and if you are suffering from a hormone imbalance, which hormones are too high or low etc.

A relaxing hot bath with magnesium salts and a proper nights sleep are two remedies that will go a long way, but the key take away from this post should be that if you are having late periods due to stress, you need to address the stress!

Sorry, I know it's not the quick fix you might have been looking for, but addressing the root cause is always the best approach.

Start here if you need further direction for lowering stress.



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