We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: how stress can affect your reproductive system.
Q: I started a new job a few months ago and it’s super high stress. This, plus some intense stuff going on with my family, has made me feel way more stressed out than usual. At the same time, I’m feeling out of whack physically — I’ve already gotten two yeast infections and my period has gotten irregular. I’m guessing these symptoms could be tied to my new stressed life. Is that possible? What else should I be worried about stress doing to my body?
When you encounter a stressful situation, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode (which you may remember learning about in eighth grade biology class). It releases two powerful hormones: epinephrine, which you probably know as adrenaline; and cortisol, which is like adrenaline that lasts way longer. If your body doesn’t stop releasing these hormones because the perceived threat doesn’t go away, you can end up with chronic stress. This is when your body is always in fight-or-flight mode and never goes into relaxation mode.
These stress hormones upset the balance of your other hormones, some of which orchestrate your reproductive system. They also can cause other parts of your body that are less relevant to immediate survival (like the parts that make babies) to be placed on the back-burner while your body deals with the stressful threat. So basically, if you get into it, stress affects pretty much every facet of the reproductive system.
Here are eight ways stress can mess with your reproductive system.
1. It Can Make Your Period Irregular
Stress is the most common reason for irregular periods. Cortisol impacts how much estrogen and progesterone your body makes. These are two of the main hormones that dictate your menstrual cycle, so if you’re stressed and as a result have lots of cortisol in your system, this can cause your period to come late or even be skipped.
Having an irregular period isn't inherently a bad thing (unless you're one of those people who loses their mind every month because they think they're pregnant). However, if you are noticing that this is happening often, it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor about it because it could actually be due to something more medically serious.
2. It Can Make Your Periods More Painful
New research has found that stress can cause your menstrual cramps to be even more painful. Specifically, if you have stress earlier in your cycle, your next period is likely to feel worse — both leading up to and during menstruation. This research is pretty new and researchers still don't know exactly why this happens, only that it does. All the more reason to do your best to take care of yourself emotionally and physically.
3. It Can Give You Worse PMS
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is already pretty stressful for a lot of us, but stress can make it even worse. Symptoms of PMS like cramping, bloating, mood swings, and feeling down can be more difficult to deal with when you’re already stressed out. Of course, the PMS symptoms themselves can also cause stress. Researchers theorize that stress hormones could be altering the normal hormonal levels that contribute to PMS, or that the hormones themselves could exacerbate PMS symptoms.
4. It Can Mess With Your Libido
Feeling stressed can make it hard to focus on feeling good, because your brain is thinking about the things that are causing the stress in the first place. In addition, the elevated levels of hormones that you experience when you’re stressed can actually interfere with the hormones that orchestrate your sexual response (mostly testosterone, which everyone has, even if you have a female reproductive system).
5. It Can Increase Your Vaginal Discharge
Vaginal discharge is a totally normal part of having a vagina. It’s your vaginal cleaning mechanism, and it's also one of the ways your body informs you that something is going on — by changing the color, smell, or in this instance, volume. The amount of vaginal discharge can change based on things like ovulation, pregnancy, being turned on — and stress. Stress hormones are to blame for this heavier discharge due to the hormonal imbalance they can cause.
6. It Can Make Your Vagina Dry During Sex
On the flip-side, stress can also contribute to vaginal dryness during sex. This makes sense, because as we’ve already discussed, when you’re stressed out, it can be more difficult to concentrate on getting excited. Your head needs to be in the game for your pussy to follow. Seriously, if you're too stressed out or anxious, your body won't provide enough blood flow to be able to lubricate.
7. It Can Bring On pH Imbalance
The vagina is in many ways quite badass, but its pH balance is actually pretty delicate. When this balance gets out of whack, all manner of unfortunate problems can follow.
High stress levels can cause yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis by lowering your immune system. To understand how this works, think of your vaginal climate as less of a balance and more of a constant battle between a bunch of different types of totally healthy, normal bacteria that are always inside you. Your immune system is one of the key players in maintaining the peace, so when it's lowered because you're stressed out, vaginal imbalance and infection may follow.
8. It Can Make It Harder To Get Pregnant
Remember how I mentioned that when our bodies are in fight-or-flight mode, they stop paying attention to non-essential functions? Well, the ability to get pregnant is one of those functions that gets put on the back-burner (because you don’t need to get pregnant when you’re running away from a lion, I guess). Stress can mess with sperm count, ovulation, and as we’ve already discussed, the ability to get excited about sex to begin with. All of this makes stress a natural contraceptive in a sense (although please don’t just stress yourself out instead of taking your pill or using a condom. It doesn’t work that well).
The Bottom Line
Experiencing any of these reproductive health challenges can be stressful in and of itself. Stress can cause health problems, which can then cause more stress as you try to fix or deal with them, in a cruel feedback loop. So even if you’re not currently experiencing any of these issues, it’s a good idea to start thinking about how you can minimize stress in your life. Your body will thank you.