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Your body is quite amazing.
Each cycle it goes through a complicated dance of hormonal signaling and response that orchestrates ovulation and menstruation.
The hormones that govern your cycle are stress-sensitive and so your menstrual cycle reflects back your bodies well-being and can tell you when things aren't quite right.
Long cycles, short cycles, delayed ovulation and irregular bleeding can all be signs of stress.
Stress is part of our bodies survival programming, and it’s a very useful thing.
You know the story - you’re camping in the woods and you hear a twig snap, the leaves rustle - your ears prick up... 'Is that a bear?!'
Your body floods with cortisol and adrenaline, gearing up to fight, run or play dead.
Moments later a cute bunny bounds into the clearing. .. 'Phew!’
And you let out a big belly-laugh or a cry of relief, releasing the tension and completing the stress cycle so your body can return to equilibrium.
But what happens if you never see the bunny?
Stress causes menstrual cycle problems when your body perceives constant threats 'It’s a bear - it’s a bear - it’s a bear!'or when you don’t complete the stress cycle that lets you process the feelings that arise during the stress (1).
Stress and cycles
When your body perceives a threat your sympathetic nervous system switches on allowing you to ‘fight, flight or freeze.’
Your hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis HPA secretes corticotrophin-releasing hormone CRH in your brain.
CRH inhibits the release of Gonadotrophin releasing hormone GnRH which is needed for the secretion of lutenising hormone LH, ovarian estrogen and progesterone (2) - the hormones that govern your cycle.
In other words, if your body perceives a threat it shuts down the hormones in charge of ovulation.
Which makes sound biological sense, threatened by bear = not a good time for procreation.
Acute stress and long cycles
In an acutely stressful situation like suddenly losing your job in a pandemic, ovulation can be delayed, which ends up looking like an unusually long cycle.
This is the classic "My period is late!" anxiety.
It can be due to a one-off acutely stressful event, illness or fever.
In the case of acute stress your period is late because your ovulation is late.
Now, if the stress doesn’t go away because you can’t find work during a pandemic or your stress isn’t being effectively dealt with, it can lead to chronic cycle irregularity.
If you are charting you may notice that your body goes through 'multiple attempts at ovulation'.
This is when your cervix secretes peak-type fertile mucus multiple times throughout your cycle before actually ovulating.
This happens when your body is trying to ovulate but unable to make it happen.
Long cycle chart - multiple attempts at ovulation. Chart by Kindara.
1. Follicular phase. 2. First attempt at ovulation 3. Second attempt at ovulation 4. Luteal phase
What about short cycles?
Short cycles are often caused by a decreased luteal length.
The first half of your cycle from menstruation to ovulation is called the follicular phase.
The second half of your cycle ovulation to menstruation is called the luteal phase.
Your luteal phase needs to be 11-17days in order for a fertilized embryo to implant (3).
From cycle-cycle your luteal phase length is relatively steady.
If you are charting you will know how long a healthy luteal phase is for you.
Stress impacts luteal phase length by secreting CRH and decreasing progesterone - the hormone that governs the luteal phase and is needed for pregnancy.
If your luteal phase is shorter than 10 days, it means a pregnancy can't be maintained and can be the cause of infertility.
Short cycle chart - Six day luteal phase. Chart by Kindara.
Other causes of cycle stress
What else tells the HPA to secrete CRH?
Excessive exercise, weight loss, undernourishment and emotional or psychological trauma are all potential stressors on the HPA - and can affect cycle regularity.
Finding the root cause and processing your feelings!
Herbs or medications that seek to 'balance your hormones' won’t be effective in the long term if you’re not addressing the root cause of cycle stress.
Getting to the root of the stress is the key for long term healing.
But it's not always easy.
To reduce the stress we have to address the threat - the difficult relationship or job situation AND find a way to process the feelings that situation has brought up (4).
Effectively dealing with both the threat and the feelings that come up as part of the threat - is called completing the stress cycle.
But what if the root cause of our stress is systemic racism, unaffordable housing, a global pandemic or food insecurity?
How do we cycle well when the world we live in is the cause of cycle distress?
Meaningful self care for stress reduction
Here are some reminders for meaningful - and effective stress reduction.
1. Complete the Stress cycle - deal with the feelings the stress has brought up (as well as the threat). Outlets include: laughing, crying, physical contact with a friend, physical movement and exercise, deep breathing.
2. Sleep / wake cycles - regular, consistent sleep is the easiest way to restore your nervous system.
3. Media fasting - Be mindful of what you consume and when - set limits and take days off.
4. Screen limits - Add screen timers to your devices, avoid screens in the morning and late at night.
5. Prioritize rest - Whenever you can, especially during menstruation.
6. Water - Hydrate - you know t's important for all your body systems - 8cups a day.
7. Nourishment - Nourishing whole organic foods as much as possible.
Avoid sugary snacks, junk food, sodas, alcohol. Include high protein foods at every meal (eggs, cheese, beans, meat, nuts) and ferments (yoghurt, miso, saurkrat) regularly.
8. Get outside - Walks in nature and gardening can release oxytocin.
9. Orgasm - Releases oxytocin - a hormone that counters cortisol (5).
In our ‘camping in the woods scenario’ we laugh when we see the bunny and the stress passes quickly.
In the current climate of our day to day, the stress is everywhere (running late for work, difficult phone call, aggressive driver on the road) and we need to intentionally have outlets to release the stress - or else they build up.
So factor those stress reduction tips into your everyday routine.
Herbs for stress
When choosing herbal allies for stress - really think about what systems of your body are experiencing the stress and how you might best support them.
Nervines can support our nervous system, down regulating anxiety and nervous energy and aiding relaxation. Adaptogens help our bodies to cope with stress, especially that is chronic or on-going.
There are lots of plant allies that can support your body - and I always like to start with ones that are restorative and easy to grow or access - here are just a few ideas;
Milky Oats - Avena sativa.
Nervine, trophorestorative, nutritive.
Oats is one of my favorite herbs for steady adrenal support.
Oats are a gentle background building force, safe for long-term use and can be used alone or in a mix with other herbs. You can add milky oats to bone broths and stock to make super nourishing soups and stews. Oats make a tasty and light herbal infusion, I like to steep mine covered overnight.
Avoid - if you have a known grasses allergy.
Nettles -Urtica dioca
Nettles have tonifying effect on the bladder and kidneys, they’re mineral rich and strengthening. Nettles help restore the kidneys and the blood and I find them to be very energizing for depleted states, especially when there has been undernourishment or difficult absorption.
Be mindful -Nettles are a diuretic, you may notice increased urination.
I most enjoy fresh nettles in the spring in soups and with eggs or in herbal infusions.
Ashwagandha - Withania somnifera
Withania is often used to encourage vitality and to help the body deal with stress.
Withania is energising, restoring and has a building quality, it is often used as part of a cycle-balancing mix. You can purchase tincture, or dried root and simmer in decoctions.
Adaptogenic herbs are not recommended in pregnancy.
Motherwort - Leonarus cardiaca
Motherwort has a special place in my heart - a nervine that helps calm anxious thoughts and settle an unsteady heart. Motherwort is bitter in tea - but in a way I kind of like - and is a very useful ally especially for pms. Motherwort is also an emmenagogue - encourages menstrual flow, and so is not recommended in pregnancy.
Sustainable herbalism and threatened plants
A note on Rhodiola and American Ginseng - both of these herbs may show up in a search for ‘adaptogens’ and both are in serious danger of over-harvesting.
Rhodiola - Rhodiola rosea only grows in arctic areas of Europe, Asia and North America - making it susceptible to environment loss due to climate change. In some countries it is listed as threatened -Russian federation, Czech Republic and Slovakia and is critically endangered in Bulgaria.
There are some farming operations across Europe trying to grow cultivated Rhodiola, but so far global demand exceeds supply (6).
American Ginseng - Panax quinquefolius is endangered in Maine and Rhode Island, vulnerable in Pennsylvania, NY and threatened in MI and NH. (7)
I encourage you to avoid using these herbs - there are so many ways to help our bodies cope with stress, we don’t need to further stress our ecosystems by using threatened plants.
For acute energy boost
Instead of coffee and tea - that further upregulate the adrenals - think about Ginger - Zingiber officinale and Peppermint, uncaffienated chai and other herbs that give you a zing and help you feel energised.
Cacao is a lovely coffee alternative too -but limit to one cup per day because it can be very stimulating.
Your menstrual cycle always reflects your bodies balance, it's a vital sign - like a steady heart beat, are you cycling regularly, if not, why not?
If you’re struggling with irregular cycles - remember to give yourself outlets to deal with the day-to-day build up of regular stress.
Have a laugh and a cry and make meaningful changes to the way you rest, move, nourish and consume media.
If you are still struggling with stress and cycle irregularities work with a herbalist in your area and learn to chart your cycle so you can see what’s going on.
You deserve to cycle well even in this stressful world.
Gabrielle is a holistic reproductive health practitioner who wants you to feel at home in your body.
She offers 1:1 sessions and classes on healing menstrual irregularities, understanding your fertility and feeling empowered in your cycle.
Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Emily Nagoski - On completing the stress cycle: Come as You Are and Burnout.
Messen & Young (2015) Progesterone and the luteal phase. Obstet Gynecol Clin North Am.
Dr. Emily Nagoski how to complete the stress cycle.
United Plant Savers - American Ginseng. Accessed January 2020.