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Mental Health

Can Stress Affect Early Menopause?

Oct 24, 2022

While fewer than 200,000 cases of early menopause are reported every year, it can be unexpected — and come with its own set of health challenges. (Shvets Productions/Pexels)

By this point in time, you’ve learned that life is full of twists and turns, many of which you can’t prepare for. Some changes are welcome, and some — like menopause — might feel more bittersweet. It can be stressful to anticipate a new (and rather sweaty) chapter, even if mentally you’ve come to terms with your changing body. The thing is, holding on to stress, whatever its cause, can make you feel physically and emotionally worse. Some experts think it may even contribute to early menopause. 

So what causes early menopause? Early menopause is the onset of menopause in women under the age of 45. Genetic disposition, certain medical conditions, the removal of the uterus and ovaries, chemotherapy and radiation, and habitual smoking are all known contributors to early menopause. A small body of research suggests a link between chronic stress and premature changes in sex hormones. 

While fewer than 200,000 cases of early menopause are reported every year, early menopause can be unexpected — and come with its own set of health challenges. Here’s what we know so far about the relationship between stress and early menopause. 

Stress and Sex Hormones 101

The connection between stress hormones and sex hormones, while interesting, is still not fully understood. Researchers are still trying to determine the impact of stress hormones on all systems of the body, especially the endocrine system. What do we know so far about the relationship between stress and sex hormones?

Production levels of stress hormones and sex hormones (specifically estrogen and progesterone) fluctuate depending on the phase of the menstrual cycle you’re in. Higher levels of stress hormones correlate with lower levels of estrogen (mainly estradiol), especially in younger people. 

One of the female sex hormones, progesterone, acts as a precursor to certain stress hormones during specific stages of the menstrual cycle. Studies have observed that progesterone and stress hormone levels tend to peak during specific hours of the day,  mornings being the most common. 

When stressors are introduced, both progesterone and stress hormones tend to increase. The adrenal glands produce and release more stress hormones just as more progesterone is released into the bloodstream — suggesting that as levels of sex hormones change, so does the production of stress hormones. 

Does stress directly cause early menopause?

Chronic stress can produce  many negative effects on the body, from disrupting sleep and hampering mental health to weakening immune function. Some preliminary studies suggest a possible link between chronic stress and early menopause. For example, one 2015 study out of Korea found that women who were under an immense amount of stress experienced menopause  an average of five months earlier than women who didn’t experience high stress. “But this is a solitary study, and there are other studies demonstrating no change,” clarifies Suzanne Fenske, M.D., a board-certified gynecologist and founder of TārāMD in New York City.

It’s possible that ongoing intense stress can contribute to other factors known to influence early menopause. Women with natural estrogen deficiencies, most likely from genetics, can have a higher risk for early menopause when exposed to chronic stress. This may be because chronic stress increases cortisol levels in the body, which in turn can decrease estrogen levels.  

Women with other health conditions may experience early menopause or premature ovarian failure when exposed to chronic stress, because stress hormones can negatively affect cell function. Chronic stress levels may contribute to a premature decline of sex hormones in women with endometriosis or with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. 

Can I prevent early menopause?

Depending on your individual health, medical history, and genetics, it may not be possible to control when your sex hormones start changing. But you can take steps to manage your symptoms better, and potentially reduce the risk of early menopause, by reducing stresses to your body. 

Diet tweaks

A diet that’s high in sugars, fats, and simple carbohydrates can increase stress levels. When your body takes in high quantities of sugars, your blood sugar spikes, causing an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Both higher blood pressure and high heart rate trigger the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones. This releases more stress hormones throughout the body, and the brain has more difficulty releasing mood-stabilizing hormones to combat them. (Ooo, what a little candy bar can do.)

By simply reducing the amount of refined sugars, saturated fats, and simple carbohydrates in your daily diet, you can help regulate the release of stress hormones. Instead of reaching for something sweet for breakfast or a snack, try something containing more nutrients, especially fiber. Fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient-dense food sources, so bring more fresh, colorful foods into your meals. 

Exercise

Maintaining a regular exercise routine during menopause is also beneficial in combating stress hormones. When the body engages in regular exercise, it starts to release mood-stabilizing hormones that help lower stress hormone levels. Exercise also helps improve resting metabolic rate, which aids the body in regulating blood sugar levels and fat deposition. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least four times a week, if not every day, to improve your mood, sleep, and stress levels. 

Hormone Replacement Therapy

Some doctors recommend hormonal treatments intended to decrease the risk of early menopause . And some people find that low-dose birth control helps them maintain better sex hormone levels and keeps significant hormonal declines from happening. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is another option, but it’s typically reserved for people with serious symptoms. Speak to your doctor about the side effects of HRT, as they can be significant and lead to additional health concerns. 

Stress Management

Chronic stress has been shown to impact hormones, and managing stress is an essential step toward reducing its impact on your body. If you feel your stress levels are interfering with your quality of life, talk to your general healthcare provider about what you can do to lower them. Eliminating stress is not realistic, especially during midlife, a time that encompasses many huge transitions and stressors. “Stress isn’t something we can totally eliminate from our lives, but how we react to stress is completely within our control,” says Lizellen La Follette, M.D., a board-certified OB-GYN in Marin County, California. 

Along with stress-busting practices like meditation, mindfulness, prayer, and exercise, talk therapy is an excellent support mechanism. A bonus? When the menopause process begins in earnest, you’ll have more coping tools already at your disposal. 

You deserve to stress less

Even if your efforts don’t stop menopause, taking steps to reduce your stress is a huge part of boosting your overall health — and remember, we’re made of much more than menopause.

“When it comes to early menopause, there’s conflicting data,” says Fenske. “But we know it’s still important to manage stress, because we do have evidence that it affects other aspects of physical and mental health.”


By Ashley Abramson
 
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer primarily covering health, psychology, and relationships. In addition to contributing to Adulted, she's been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. She lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband and two young sons.
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Menopause affects each of us differently, which is why we designed Stripes to be inclusive of all people who experience it. When we make space for each of our unique journeys and needs, we create a collective wisdom that strengthens, empowers, and unites us all.

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HEALTHY AGING

Menopause affects each of us differently, which is why we designed Stripes to be inclusive of all people who experience it. When we make space for each of our unique journeys and needs, we create a collective wisdom that strengthens, empowers, and unites us all.