How Stress Causes PMS, Period Pain & Other Period Problems

Category: Hormones

Most women have come to believe that period problems, PMS, heavy bleeding, irregular cycles, period pain, anger, moodiness, irritability, depression, are all normal parts of the menstrual cycle.

But the truth is they’re not normal parts of the menstrual cycle.

So in this post I’m going to reveal how stress is the underlying cause of these problems. And how it is possible for your period and menstrual cycle to be problem free every month.

Because your period should come and go each month without any real issues.

Now stress, as I mentioned, is the cause of hormonal imbalance. And when I say stress I mean any sort of stress such as…

Emotional and psychological stress, i.e. the things that worry you

  • Relationship problems
  • Financial problems
  • Kids, family and all the other sorts of things that come into your life

Then there’s dietary stress from the modern diet because it’s loaded with refined and processed foods, chemicals, sugar and rancid processed fats which are all highly reactive in your body.

They trigger inflammation and inflammation is a physical stress.

Then on top of that there may be pain and hidden inflammation.

If you have arthritis or some sort of chronic injury or autoimmune disease your body has to deal with this day in, day out, and this becomes a stress on your system.

Life unfortunately just tends to be full of stress and over time this has a profoundly negative effect on your hormones. Especially your stress hormone cortisol.

Now speaking of cortisol you might have come across this term…

Adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion.

This when your adrenal glands, which are your stress glands, become (conceptually) tired.

Adrenal fatigue isn’t a disease. It’s a state. So if you go to the doctor and say, “I think I’ve got adrenal fatigue, or my cortisol levels aren’t any good,” the doctor will run a test which will most likely come back normal.

And you’ll be told “You’re fine. Don’t worry about it!”

But you’re not fine and your adrenal function isn’t normal. It’s just that you don’t have an adrenal disease. But what’s going on is your body’s suffering from the increased demand for cortisol modern life causes.

Your body suffers because cortisol affects (as you might have already heard) your metabolism and your energy levels. But what you might not have heard is that it also affects your main female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. Please let me explain…

When you were young, like when you’re a child, your cortisol levels were normal because all you had to worry about was playing with your friends, going to school and those sorts of things. But as you got older stress in your life started increasing…

  • Maybe you did your HSC or
  • You left school and started work or
  • You got into relationships or
  • You did tertiary studies or
  • You went out a lot or
  • You started a family

But whatever it was, when you were younger you found you could cope with all those extra demands.

You could burn the candle at both ends and you could just push through any challenge that was there.

But over the months or years, if you were really pushing yourself hard, what you found was it started taking you longer to recover. You would get to the beginning of a week and you’d already feel tired.

So if you had a big weekend with the kids, or you had sleepless nights during the week because one of your kids was sick, or if you were going out and enjoying yourself too much… you’d find that come Monday morning you were a wreck and you were tired before the week started.

Now this happens because, initially, your body can just make extra cortisol for the extra stress that comes into your life. But if you keep pushing and pushing and pushing, your body just can’t keep making extra cortisol.

Eventually you max out (the top of the peak in the diagram below) and then your output starts drop. And this is Adrenal Fatigue.

Your adrenal system fatigues from the constant and increasing stress.

And as your cortisol output starts to diminish you find you don’t cope with stress as well as you did before.

So you start to feel tired and you feel burnt out, which is basically what adrenal fatigue is…


And in extreme cases it turns into chronic fatigue.

Now besides making you feel tired adrenal fatigue also affects your mood. As your cortisol output starts to drop you find that you don’t tolerate stress as well. So if your kids are up all night sick, you’re just totally wrecked the next morning. If you have a lot of functions on a weekend, you’re tired come Monday morning, because you just can’t cope with stress as well. And so you get overwhelmed more easily.

Now if that’s not bad enough chronic stress also affects your female hormone output. Which further affects your mood and your energy levels.

If you look at the diagram below the reason for this is Cortisol affects your reproductive hormones.

Adrenal Hormone Production

If you follow the hormone pathway in the diagram above, into your adrenal glands come B vitamins and cholesterol and they make a hormone called pregnenolone (which is why cholesterol is very important and you don’t want it too low).

Pregnenolone is then turned into progesterone, and then progesterone turned into cortisol.

So as you can see, one of your major female hormones, progesterone, is the building block of your stress hormone cortisol.

Now the reason progesterone is such an important hormone is because it is for gestation (pregnancy).

When you want to have a successful pregnancy you need progesterone because it maintains the pregnancy (pro-gestation). Progesterone keeps the lining of your uterus in place so the placenta can attach and prevents the lining shedding (a period) during the pregnancy.

Insufficient progesterone during pregnancy will result in a miscarriage because the uterine lining won’t hold in place.

Now when you encounter stress your body increases cortisol output to cope with the stress. To make the extra cortisol your uses your progesterone.

Your body does this because way back in the past (when we were hunter gatherers) a common stress was a famine. So to help you survive the famine your body needed to tap into your fat stores. And it did this by releasing cortisol because cortisol mobilises energy. Cortisol would break down the fat stores and release the fat into your bloodstream to be used by your cells.

And as I mentioned earlier the cortisol would be made from your progesterone. Now this was crucial because by lowering your progesterone levels it meant you couldn’t maintain a pregnancy. So if you were pregnant during a famine you’d abort the pregnancy. Or you’d have a miscarriage because you weren’t able to hold onto a new pregnancy.

Which were all very appropriate responses if there was a famine. You wouldn’t be able to have a successful pregnancy until food access improved and you didn’t need to make extra cortisol.

However when we come forward to modern times, the problem you face is that stress is unrelenting.

In the past you were either alive or dead after stressful event. If you were alive, the stress was gone and everything would move back to normal balance. But in modern times, the stress never stops and so you get stuck feeding progesterone to make cortisol.

And so your progesterone levels get low and stay low.

Now if you are still getting a period then low progesterone levels are what cause premenstrual mood fluctuations like moodiness, teariness, anger, irritability and anxiousness.

And if you are peri or post-menopausal low progesterone is what’s caused your shift in mood if you now feel cranky and irritable all the time.

But low progesterone levels are also what cause period problems like tender breasts, cravings, period pain, heavy periods, long periods and miscarriages. Because the progesterone level is insufficient your uterine ling sheds too fast making the period painful, heavy and possibly long. Or if you have conceived the embryo won’t hold in place.

Now if all that isn’t bad enough chronic increased need for cortisol also affects your oestrogen levels too. See the diagram below…

Stress shuts down hormone production

What happens is your brain thinks times are tough (like a famine) and it’s not a good time to have a baby. So it cuts back on the oestrogen production so you don’t ovulate. This way you won’t get pregnant during the ‘famine’.

Which was great during famines.

However there isn’t a famine

So as the oestrogen levels get low problems start.

For women wanting to fall pregnant they may struggle because ovulation might shut down.

And for peri/post-menopausal women the drop off in oestrogen can trigger hot flushes, loss of muscle mass, extra wrinkles and low moods

So this is where all the menopause symptoms come from. They just don’t start because your ovaries stopped working (this is a normal process) but because stress stops you making oestrogen elsewhere in your body.

Now as you can see stress, oestrogen and progesterone are intimately linked and it’s stress that’s at the heart of your hormonal problems.

So what I do with my patients free them from PMS, period problems and menopause symptoms is I look at not just what’s going on with their oestrogen and progesterone levels but I look at what’s going on with their stress hormones too.

And I do this by getting my patients to do a special saliva test for cortisol, oestrogen and progesterone. I don’t use the regular blood tests because these tests are designed to identify pathology (disease) and you most likely have a disease.

You have a dysfunction so you need a test that assesses dysfunction.

Then once I get your results back I’m able to put together a natural treatment plan to…

  1. Balance your oestrogen and progesterone levels to eliminate your PMS, period problems or menopause symptoms.
  2. Repair your adrenal glands and reset your cortisol levels to stop it depleting your female hormones.

So if you need help with your periods or menopause symptoms then contact my clinic (Happy and Healthy Wellbeing Centre) by email or phone 61 2 9524 2471 today.

If you’re not local in Sydney, that’s okay because I do online consultations with women all around the world. The beauty of the internet and technology is you and I can consult no matter where you are.

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Comments 3

  1. Kim Tomasa

    I notice during ovulation and when I’m on my period I have high levels of anxiety, have trouble concentrating, low energy, headaches, and brain fog. Of course my doctors say I have PMS and want me to go on birth control but it is not something I want to do. After so many months of this happening I end up having a panic attack, which is really scary, and thank my body resets. It’s weird. I also feel like my body can’t break down sugar during these times so my heart rate is high and BP is a little high as well during this time. My Chiropractor suggested it could be my adrenal glands. I’m only 43 but I am Very scared to go through menopause. I feel this our hormones is why women have heart disease bi feel that is where I’m headed to.

    1. Post
      Hayden Keys

      Hi Kim, I’ve had many women your age describe similar experiences. The good news is by balancing your adrenal and reproductive hormones you can feel ‘normal’ again. We can help you get back into hormonal balance, all you need to do is either call (61 2 9524 2471) or email ( the clinic and one of my admin team will find a time for you to talk with a naturopath (myself or Margaret). No matter where you are we can help you as we consult over ZOOM. Healthy regards, Hayden Keys

  2. Asmae

    Such an amazing article! I’ve always thought that stress (cortisol) increases estrogen, now it turned out to be the total opposite.

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