Can Stress Cause a Late Period?

Updated September 6, 2022
Stressed Woman

If you're experiencing stress along with an irregular period, it's only natural to wonder if the two are related. While stress is not the only possible cause for a late or missed period, stress can definitely cause your menstrual cycle to change.

The extent to which stress affects your period depends on the level of stress, the duration, and your ability to manage it. But experts do know that stress can cause a decrease in hormones that direct your ovaries to make estrogen, and ovulate. This, in turn, affects the timing of your period.

How Stress Affects Your Period

Sudden or prolonged stress can affect your reproductive hormones. It interferes with how your ovaries function to make estrogen and progesterone. In addition to making your period late or irregular, stress can also affect your menstrual cycle in other ways.

  • Irregular periods: Your eggs grow and you make estrogen but you don't ovulate (anovulation). In this case, the lining of your uterus will break down and shed when it feels like it. Your bleeding may come early or late and you may bleed on and off. The amount of bleeding depends on the extent to which and for how long your uterine lining was stimulated by estrogen.
  • Late periods: Your eggs grow and your ovaries make some estrogen, but it takes longer for you to ovulate. The first half of your cycle will be longer and your menstrual cycle will be late (oligomenorrhea). You will bleed about 12 to 14 days after you do ovulate. This is a moderate result of the effect of stress on your reproductive hormones.
  • No periods: Your ovaries make low levels of estrogen so the lining of the uterus doesn't grow at all. You will not have a period that cycle (hypothalamic amenorrhea) because you have no uterine lining to shed. This is an extreme result of the effect of stress.
Stress and Your Period Infographic

Stress and Reproductive Hormones

Stress exerts its effect on the menstrual cycle through the hypothalamus, a small gland that sits at the base of your brain just above your pituitary gland. Together your hypothalamus and pituitary glands direct all hormonal and other functions in your body, including how your ovaries function and how you get your period.

Stress is thought to interfere with the normal, regular, timed release of a hypothalamic hormone, gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). In response to the change in the pattern of GnRH secretion, your pituitary gland in turn secretes less of its reproductive hormones, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH).

  • These two pituitary hormones are essential for your ovaries to function normally so you can have a normal, regular menstrual cycle.
  • When FSH and LH levels are low, your ovaries may not make enough estrogen to grow the lining of the uterus or to ovulate and make progesterone.
  • This can lead to changes in a person's menstrual cycle, though not everyone is affected in the same way.

Stress and the Hypothalamus

Your body responds to stress by secreting stress hormones, including cortisol from your adrenal glands. Cortisol appears to be involved in the effect of stress on the hypothalamus. One of the ways the human body adapted to conserve itself under stress is to stop or delay reproductive function. In this way, a woman is less likely to get pregnant in times of stress, be it famine, war, or modern-day stresses.

Cortisol signals your hypothalamus to slow down your body's non-vital functions, such as reproduction, while another stress hormone, adrenaline, prepares you to survive the stress. Research indicates that women with stress-related amenorrhea have increased levels of cortisol, while women with normal menstrual cycles or other forms of missed cycles do not.

Reduce Stress for Regular Periods

If stress is the cause of your late or irregular period, managing and reducing your stress can get your cycles back to normal. Any technique to reduce stress can make a difference, as long as you learn and practice it effectively and on a regular basis until your periods become regular.

Lastly, keep in mind that stress is not the only possible cause for a late or missed period. You could be pregnant or have an estrogen deficiency or another health condition. Meet with your healtcare provider or take a home pregnancy test if there is any chance you might be pregnant. If you are not pregnant, keep a record of your cycles and any other symptoms for the next three months. If your cycle continues to be abnormal, see a qualified medical professional for a preliminary evaluation which could be a simple examination and (if needed) hormone testing.

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