Work-related stress, also known as burnout, can impact a great many things. Your career can suffer along with your social life and even your mental health. But burnout can also affect your period in a number of ways, according to experts.
As the NHS reports, the average menstrual cycle is around 28 days long. However, it is possible to have a slightly shorter or longer cycle, ranging from between 21 to 40 days. A lot of people experience irregularities that can delay or prolong their period. And burnout can be one of the causes, says Dr. Nitu Bajekal, senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist and the founder of Women for Women's Health.
"This usually makes periods infrequent," she notes, adding that, in some cases, they can stop altogether. It is also possible, she says, for periods to "be prolonged or occur more frequently, although missing periods is more common with stress."
So how does this happen? "Menstrual cycles are regulated by a complex relationship between the higher centres of the brain and the ovaries that produce oestrogen and progesterone," says Dr. Bajekal. "Stress, burnout, anxiety, and traumatic events can all upset the delicate hormonal balance in a woman's body, causing the brain to send signals to the ovaries to go to sleep."
And, as period-tracking app Clue explains, it's the stress hormone, cortisol, that has the ability to suppress reproductive hormones. When levels of oestrogen and progesterone are abnormal, menstrual irregularities are a potential occurrence.
Studies examining the effects of work-related stress on the menstrual cycle go back decades. In 1999, a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health found a link between longer cycles and work stress in nurses. Those who were "assigned to high-stress units" and those who reported high stress levels or "strenuous work activity" had an increased risk of a long cycle.
As well as those dealing with a stressful job, Dr. Bajekal states that people who are in stressful personal situations or who have disturbed sleep, an eating disorder, or poor dietary patterns can also be prone to period-related irregularities.
But thanks to an increasingly pressurised world, burnout is something that needs more attention. Thankfully, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently included it in the International Classification of Diseases. Classifying it as an "occupational phenomenon" rather than a medical condition, it is described as a syndrome "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
According to the WHO, symptoms that doctors have been advised to look out for are as follows:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
If you believe burnout is affecting your period, experts say there are methods that can help. Although Dr. Bajekal says there are "no proven ways," she recommends managing stress levels by exercising and meditation as well as eating a healthy plant-based anti-inflammatory diet.
Alexandra Pope, co-founder of women's wellbeing organisation Red School and co-author of Wild Power notes that "reducing stress is absolutely crucial for healing menstrual problems." She says Red School has found an "interesting" discovery in that "when a woman practises menstrual cycle awareness (MCA) as an ongoing process, she naturally reduces stress and can heal and prevent burnout."
To try MCA, you can download an app or a menstrual chart via Red School. Record which day of your cycle you're on (day one is marked as the first day of bleeding) and note your emotions and energy levels at the end of each day. This is designed to help you understand your cycle and live in harmony, rather than in conflict, with it.
However, if your feelings of burnout are becoming too much to handle or your periods have been disrupted for a long period of time, it's always best to book a doctor's appointment.