One of the sad facts about the Covid19 pandemic is that we haven’t been able to meet up face-to-face with other women for months. If we had done, one prominent topic for discussion may well have been how much our menstrual cycles are out of whack.
This isn’t thought to be due to the virus itself but is instead due to the stress and disruption the pandemic and lockdown measures have had on our physical and mental health.
Stress and luteinising hormone
The link between stress and your cycle had been understood for some time before the pandemic hit: who experiencing infertility hasn’t been told to ‘relax and let it happen’? However, the reasons why stress may affect your cycle are actually much more nuanced than many realise.
The hormone behind the link is cortisol. It is a stress hormone produced mainly in the adrenal gland and plays an important role in your metabolism and immune response.
It is present in the body at low levels at all times, and these naturally change throughout the day, being highest in the morning. Problems occur when it is present at levels that are too high, for too long. This may happen if you face physical or emotional stress, and as we have learned recently if you are facing an unprecedented global pandemic!
One of the problems known to be caused by too much cortisol is its impact on luteinising hormone, also known as LH. Luteinising hormone is needed for ovulation. In fact, it surges 24-36 hours before ovulation, which is why it is the hormone measured in ovulation kits. If you can detect the LH surge, then you have a better idea of when ovulation is going to happen, as MyLotus can help you do.
Unfortunately, cortisol can suppress LH, which means that ovulation may be delayed or not occur at all if cortisol levels are higher than they should be.
Of course, high levels of cortisol could mess with both parts of your cycle, making it hard to pinpoint exactly what is going on. Or, you may have had a completely normal cycle and not noticed anything different. This is fine too.
What can cause stress?
The phrase ‘stress’ can be misunderstood, so let’s go over how the Covid19 pandemic and its impact could have caused stress on your body.
- Emotional stress. What many mean when they talk about stress can also have a physical toll on the body causing increases in cortisol that are unhelpful. Anxiety inducing situations, such as job insecurity, family issues and an international global health crisis (!) can all cause emotional stress.
- Too much or too little food can cause physical stress the body, and changing your eating patterns can often be a response to emotional stress. Eating foods you are sensitive too or allergic to as you may have been unable to get your usual alternatives can also cause problems.
- Exercising too much, particularly a new exercise regime or when you aren’t receiving adequate nutrition to support it can stress the body. If you were a couch potato who threw yourself into Joe Wicks and has been experiencing problems with your cycle ever since maybe tone it down? Or up your calories.
- Cortisol is circadian and should follow a 24-hour cycle. Your circadian cycle is disrupted if you don’t get exposed to sunlight during the day, which strict lockdown regimes may hinder.
- Regular and adequate sleep is also crucial to ensuring cortisol levels behave normally. Many people have reported poor sleep during the pandemic, potentially caused by stress itself as well as changes to routine.
- Routine disruption can cause stress to the body as it struggles to adapt its normal circadian rhythm to a new pattern. If you have been feeling a bit jet-lagged at times, this may be why.
What should I do?
Understanding why you may have seen some irregularities in your cycle in recent months should reassure you that what you are experiencing is normal. What it should not do is stress you out further, or make you beat yourself up about not having managed to maintain a perfect cycle throughout lockdown. These are unprecedented times.
Focus on reducing stress for the sake of self-care, and wait for your cycle to rectify itself while keeping an eye on it. Now is the time for healing above all else.
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