Is Stress the Cause of Your HA?
When you think of hypothalamic amenorrhea, do you think of disordered eating, low energy availability, or excessive exercise as being the likely cause? If so, you’re definitely not alone in thinking this… But there’s another factor which may be contributing to or causing your hypothalamic amenorrhea and absent period: stress.
If you think about it, disordered eating, inadequate energy intake, and compulsive or excessive exercise are all significant stressors on your body. They can each create both physical and emotional stress, which then interferes with the functioning of your hypothalamus. This stress to your hypothalamus leads your brain to reduce or stop the production of certain reproductive hormones responsible for a regular and healthy menstrual cycle, meaning your menstruation is impacted or may stop altogether.
Eating too little, or exercising too much, is perceived as stress by your brain and your body. So it makes sense that other forms of stress, either physical or emotional, can have a similar impact on your body and menstrual cycle, and potentially lead to the development of hypothalamic amenorrhea.
So how can stress lead to HA?
Traumatic experiences or emotional stress can have a significant impact on a woman’s health and reproductive system. More and more research points to the role of trauma, stress and emotion in the body, suggesting that our mental state is intricately linked to our physical state and general health.
Stress has a physical effect on your body, causing you to release greater amounts of cortisol (a stress hormone), and adrenaline. If you’re severely stressed for long periods of time, you’re likely to produce excess amounts of these hormones. This can send your body into a chronic state of fight or flight, meaning you’re unable to wind down, absorb nutrients effectively, properly digest food, rest and repair your body, and many other bodily functions are negatively affected… Including your menstrual cycle! In fact, excessive cortisol directly interferes with reproductive function. The highly stressed state of your body can wreak havoc on your hormones, and potentially lead to HA or other unwanted health conditions.
Basically, your body can’t differentiate between stressors. Whether you’re undereating, overexercising, or extremely emotionally stressed, it’s all perceived as a threat by your body. And as a result, your body conserves energy to deal with the pressing threat by “switching off” certain functions to dedicate that energy to your survival and response to the threat… And one of the first functions to be “switched off” is your menstrual cycle and reproductive system. Hence, the development of HA.
What about the other side of the coin?
While stress can absolutely lead or contribute to hypothalamic amenorrhea, this relationship can occur in reverse too… Women who are suffering with HA often experience significant stress as a result of the condition, or the complications it can cause, including fertility problems or other health concerns.
So basically, stress can be the cause or the result of HA. Or both.
Women with HA have been shown to experience greater anxiety and depression, and have more difficulty coping with everyday stress compared to healthy people. This is owing to both their elevated cortisol levels, the common perfectionist mindset many affected females demonstrate, and the hyper-focusing on the opinions other people hold about you.
Many women with HA place more importance on their appearance, exhibit perfectionist tendencies, have a greater fear of weight gain or body changes, and are more concerned with what others think of them compared to healthy, unaffected females. In addition, they experience lower self-esteem, and feel more insecure and out of control in their lives. Each of these experiences represent a very real emotional stress, which can be either the cause or result of HA.
Overcoming stress to regain your period
While of course it’s not possible to eliminate stress from your life completely, there are definitely ways you can actively reduce or mitigate the stress you’re exposed to, as well as improving the ways you handle or respond to stress.
The most effective treatment for HA involves addressing the underlying cause of stress responsible for halting your menstrual cycle – whether that stress is undereating, overexercising, or emotional stress.
In addressing the cause of stress, you need to actively provide your body with sufficient evidence to survive and thrive, reduce your exercise and prioritise rest and recovery, and reduce all internal and external stressors where possible. Whether that looks like leaving a job in a toxic work environment, setting boundaries with family who cause you stress or turmoil, or saying “no” to invitations and expectations in order to prioritise yourself and what you need, each of these things actively work to combat the stress your body and mind are experiencing. Cognitive behavioural therapy, health coaching, and other forms of therapy, can also be hugely effective in helping reduce and work through stress.
If you need support in working through the underlying causes of your hypothalamic amenorrhea, or you’re looking for some help and tools to assist you on your recovery journey, join us for the next intake of Healing HA! Spots are open now, but there are only a few final places remaining – so get in as quickly as you can before they’re all sold out!
Ready To Improve Your Relationship with Food and Get Your Period Back?
The Healing HA program gives you the exact steps to getting your hormones, period and fertility back WITHOUT the overwhelm or loneliness of trying to do it on your own.
In just 8-weeks, you’ll learn absolutely EVERYTHING you need to know about Hypothalamic Amenorrhea Recovery, so you can get your period back AND make sure it sticks around forever while improving your relationship with food.
Click below to join the next round!
Hi future friends, I’m Sarah King, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and health coach.
Science, not trends is the foundation of my approach. By nourishing the body and mind with scientific facts we can build foundations for a life of realness, not just wellness.