Stress and Exercise
What is Stress?
Any severe mental or physical strain on the body that overwhelms the body could be termed as stress. Unlike other known disorders, the effects of stress may vary across individuals. Mental anguish could stem from sudden catastrophic events including loss of a loved one, war, exposure to trauma; physical stress could occur in the form of prolonged strenuous exercise, and as a result of accidents/ injuries.
How much stress is bad?
Some degree of stress is a part of life be it work-life balance, interpersonal dynamics, or the occasional tight deadline. Likewise, physical exercise is important to keep the body healthy and functioning well.
However, beyond a certain threshold increased stress begins to affect the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the gland in the body responsible for producing cortisol and CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone), hormones that are produced to try and control the body’s response to stress. High levels of cortisol and CRH, for as little as 3 menstrual cycles, are found to suppress the reproductive cycles causing very light or even skipped periods.
This internal threshold is different for every person, and amenorrhea due to rigorous exercise is commonly observed in athletes. Epidemiological studies also show that women in urban areas are far more prone to irregular periods, presumably because of the high stress work environments prevailing. The same effect is observed in aggregated patient data from periods of wars and prolonged civil unrest.
What can I do?
If you have recently experienced significant mental stress or committed to a new exercise routine, irregular periods could be your body’s signal that all is not well.
- Find a support group, whether it’s family, friends, or even forums online. Being able to talk about your experiences is considered a key way to diffuse stress;
- Meditation is a good way to alleviate daily stress and prevent the body from getting overwhelmed;
- Food is the body’s fuel. Exercise must be balanced with sufficient energy intake to meet the demands placed on the body. Emphasize healthy eating and good portion sizes for a sustainable lifestyle.