The Connection Between Adrenal Health and the Menstrual Cycle

Ever think about how stress might be affecting your period? Or do you just throw a heating pad on it and bear the pain each month?

As Lara Briden says, your period is a monthly report card for your health. And boy is that true. Your period can inform you if something is off with your hormones, your gut functioning, or your organs. Our bodies speak to us and give us the opportunity to make adjustments for better health. It’s time to listen up rather than ignore our body’s wisdom.

What Does Adrenal Health Mean?

Our adrenal glands are small but mighty. We have two of them and they sit on top of the kidneys like little hats. They release the hormones pregnenalone, DHEA, cortisol, aldosterone, adrenaline, noradrenaline, small amounts of dopamine, and sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.

The adrenal hormones play a role in blood sugar health, inflammation, regulation of salt and water, the fight or flight stress response, pregnancy, and sexual maturation (1). See? Mighty.

A popular term you might have heard is “adrenal fatigue.” This is sort of a misnomer because the symptoms experienced by chronic stress don’t result form the adrenal glands becoming weak, but rather a cascade effect through what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Isn’t it more fun to say? The HPA axis governs the stress response by releasing hormones like cortisol. Nowadays, people are stressed out, stretched thin, overworked, and, in my opinion, over-exposed to electronics (which is stressful for our brain, throws off our circadian rhythm, and can easily become a rabbit hole which sucks us into a never-ending scroll).

Chronic stress can lead to HPA axis dysregulation, resulting in symptoms such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Feeling wired but tired
  • Low stamina
  • Lowered immunity
  • Low libido
  • Sugar cravings
  • High blood sugar levels
  • Abdominal fat (also known as “cortisol belly”)
  • Anxiety, depression, inability to focus
  • Brain fog
  • Thyroid dysfunction

Cortisol: The Key Player

So how does stress affect our period? Cortisol is the hormone released by the adrenal glands when we experience a stressor. Our caveman ancestors used to experience stress that would come and go. Nowadays, we experience a constant slew of stress (job stress, family stress, financial stress, relationship stress, electronics which trigger cortisol, oy!), which means we might have more cortisol output than the body is equipped to handle.

Cortisol is not a bad guy. It helps us react and respond to stress by dilating our pupils for sharper vision, inhibiting digestion (don’t want to have to stop and use the bathroom when we need to run from a woolly mammoth), accelerating the heart rate to pump more blood, supplying energy to the muscles, and repressing the immune system (which is why we tend to get sick on vacation when we are finally able to relax!).

Cortisol also increases glucose levels in the blood stream and decreases the ability of the muscles and fat to absorb glucose (insulin resistance), which is why stress can lead to weight loss resistance, even if you are working you’re a$$ off in the gym. A lot of my clients ask me why it is so hard to lose weight in the belly and then I ask them about their stress levels.

But, even though the stress response is a survival technique, we don’t want to be in this state for too long or for most of the time. Many of us are stressed out too often (too much work, not enough massages!). What can happen is we begin to experience poor blood sugar control, poor blood pressure, sleep deprivation, low libido, and irregular or painful menstruation.

The Pregnenolone Steal

Sounds like a mystery novel (oooh!). While our periods can sometimes seem like a mystery, this is a pretty simple case of x+y=z. This phenomenon occurs when our body uses sex hormones to make more cortisol. Pregnenolone is known as the “mother hormone” because it produces progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, and estrogen. It helps us sleep better, reduces PMS, and can help improve mood. Normally, the body makes cortisol from cholesterol. But when we are stressed and the body is in need of more cortisol than the body can keep up with, it steals pregnenolone to make more cortisol instead of making sex hormones like progesterone. This is why you are rarely “in the mood” when you’re stressed out, and also why your menstrual cycle doesn’t make you as happy as the girls in the tampon commercials.

Progesterone helps repair the nervous system, promoting sleep, easing anxiety, and helping us feel calm. It also helps prepare the lining of the uterus. When we have low progesterone, we may experience the following symptoms:

  • PMS
  • Infertility
  • Menstrual migraines
  • Heavy, irregular and/or frequent periods
  • Breast pain
  • Bloating

My Favorite Stress Busters

So now that you know how important adrenal health is for our periods, it’s time to talk about how to improve our response to stress.

I’m a big fan of supplementation for stress, but I also believe it is important to have a routine practice in place to build up our tolerance for stress. Invest time in the zen! Here are some ideas for bringing about more peace in your life:

  • Incorporate a nourishing diet full of antioxidant rich foods like veggies and berries and quality proteins to stabilize blood sugar.
  • Minimize sugar, alcohol, and caffeine.
  • Have a curfew for your laptop, phone, TV, and other electronics. Screens emit blue light, which increases cortisol levels.
  • Sleep. ‘Nuff said.
  • Move daily. Get out in nature when possible, especially barefoot! Walks in nature are extremely soothing, reduce cortisol levels, and help with sleep (2,3).
  • Dance to your favorite music.
  • Paint, color, craft – working with your hands can be a nice break from an overactive mind.
  • Practice saying no to things that deplete you. Like your mother-in-law.
  • Minimize your precious time spent with people that stress you out. Like your mother-in-law.
  • Limit your to-do list. Be realistic with what you can pack into one day!
  • Try gratitude journaling, especially in the morning as it can set the tone for the day.

Need some ideas for how to actually carry out your self-care routine? I got you.

My Favorite Supplements

  • Magnesium glycinate – 500-600mg at night. Magnesium also helps ease menstrual cramps.
  • Ashwagandha – one of my favorite herbs to take for stress! Ashwagandha helps the body adapt to stress and lowers cortisol. Research shows it may improve stamina and endurance, reduce inflammation, and help improve energy levels (4,5)
  • Holy basil or Tulsi tea regulates blood sugar and blood pressure, fights stress.
  • GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps reduce anxiety and buffer against the effects of stress (6)

Re-Frame Stress

Before you start stressing out about stress, it’s important to remember that stress is part of being human – stress helps us adapt and react better to future threats. Stress can also be a cue for us to book more massages, relax on the couch, do nothing! In my opinion, everyone should be dedicating time each day to unwind.

Healing your adrenals will help improve symptoms of PMS, menstrual migraines and painful periods. It will help regulate your cycle, plus you’ll be more zen and have more energy to do the things you love. Now, go book that massage, dance in your kitchen, or grab a walking buddy for some fresh air!

 

I want to hear from you! Leave me a comment below and let me know your favorite way to relax or unwind!

Showing 2 comments
  • Holly
    Reply

    Hi Katie,

    Thanks so much for this post on stress. Seems like it’s the bubonic plague of the 21st century sometimes! Do you have any tips on how to stick with a self-care routine? I have the best of intentions when it comes to self-care (yoga, hiking, going to bed early, taking baths, etc.), but I struggle so much to actually make it a part of my day. Any suggestions? Maybe a future blog post!? 🙂 Thanks again for your words of wisdom!

    Take care,
    Holly

    • Katie Dwaileebe
      Reply

      Hi Holly! Thank you so much for your comment! I agree – stress seems to be THE THING nowadays. That’s a great question! I have a strict evening schedule where I shut off electronics and stop working by 8:30pm. And then I do the things I enjoy in the evening. But scheduling it in my calendar helps – I do actually write down each day what my plan for self care is going to be and what time I’m going to do it. I think a lot of us struggle to prioritize the things we enjoy but it is so vital for our overall health and sometimes we just need a reminder (scheduling out massages, using a sticky note on your bathroom mirror, setting a calendar reminder) and we need to treat it as an essential part of our day like brushing our teeth, even if it’s just 10 minutes of sitting quietly or a walk around the block. Great idea for a future blog post!!!

      xoxo, Katie

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