Is stress the reason your period’s late?

There’s nothing more stressful than a late period, but if longer cycles are caused by stress, then you’re stuck in a distressing loop. Here’s how to get out of it.  

Few scenarios are as stressful as a late period. If you’ve had penile sex, your mind might start racing through baby names or clinics. If you’ve not, then you might start freaking out about medical possibilities. When it finally comes, it’s a massive relief… until the next month, when you’re counting the extra days.

The stress of a delayed period is real. But what if stress is causing that lateness? Increasingly, it seems as though stress and sleep are being linked to hormonal health, but how much evidence is there to suggest that a stressful week at work, a bout of personal anxiety or sustained physical stress might be behind your ever-lengthening cycle?

Well, experts believe the link to be fairly conclusive. As usual, our old friend cortisol is at the heart of the matter. 

“When we’re stressed for a length of time, our body produces more cortisol [the stress hormone] as part of its natural fight-or-flight response,” explains Ashfaq Khan, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist. 

“Cortisol is known to often have an impact on other hormones – principally oestrogen and progesterone, the hormones that control menstruation – which in turn can disrupt the menstruation cycle.Women who are experiencing stress may therefore find that their periods are delayed or missed altogether.”

But that’s not all. “Stress can also affect the function of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that produces female hormone stimulators [FHS].” That, Khan explains, leads to the rationing and maintenance of female hormones [oestrogen and progesterone]. 

Dr Amit Shah, gynaecologist and co-founder of Fertility Plus, agrees that “stress can certainly play a role in delaying your period”, citing its role in disrupting the pituitary gland’s production of the hormone prolactin. “Any increase of prolactin can delay your period or cause irregularities.” 

How long does it take for stress to impact your cycle?

Knowing all of that, you might worry that a few days of intense stress will have a knock-on effect to your cycle. Generally, it’s longer episodes of chronic stress that might disrupt your cycle. Remember how the lockdowns sent a lot of our cycles haywire? 

But even short-term stress can have an impact. As Mr Khan notes: “Studies have shown that any temporary disruption causing an increase in stress levels can also have an impact in certain cases.” You might have experienced a delay when flying on holiday, for example (which is proof that stress isn’t always psychological).

How serious are delayed periods?

While annoying and often anxiety-inducing, having a period delayed by up to seven days isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, Mr Khan says.

However, Dr Shah warns that longer cycles may mean that you’ve not ovulated. “The stress-related rise in the hormone prolactin can stop or delay ovulation, so if someone is trying to conceive, it may either delay or lower the chances of conception.”

And, of course, there are other reasons for delayed periods beyond stress. If your cycle is regularly longer than 35 days, it’s a good idea to contact your GP or gynaecologist to rule out other potential causes, such as PCOS, diabetes, overactive thyroid or perimenopause. 

It’s also worth pointing out that chronic stress is also something worth getting help for. If that is something you’re dealing with, talk to your GP or chat for free with the experts at Mind or Samaritans.

Images: Getty

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