By this point in time, you’ve learned that life is full of twists and turns, some of which are welcome, and some — like menopause — which might feel more bittersweet. And even if you’ve mentally come to terms with your changing body, it can be stressful to anticipate a new (and rather sweaty) chapter of your life. But while some stress in life is inevitable, a lot of stress can make you feel physically and emotionally worse. Some experts think it may even contribute to early menopause.
What causes early menopause?
Menopause is considered early when it is experienced by 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. Additionally, 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.
What's the relationship between stress and sex hormones?
The connection between stress hormones and sex hormones is still not fully understood, as researchers are still trying to determine the impact of stress hormones on all systems of the body, especially the endocrine system.
But here's what we do know: Production levels of stress hormones and sex hormones (specifically estrogen and progesterone) fluctuate throughout the month, depending on phases of the menstrual cycle. 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 levels 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 have many negative effects on the body, from disrupting sleep and hampering mental health to weakening immune function — and some studies suggest a possible link between chronic stress and early menopause. 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.
But while stress may not be directly responsible for early menopause, it’s possible that ongoing intense stress can contribute to other factors that are known to influence early menopause. Women with natural estrogen deficiencies (typically due to genetic factors) 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 some other health conditions, including endometriosis or autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, may also experience early menopause or premature ovarian failure when exposed to chronic stress, because stress hormones can negatively affect cell function.
Can I prevent early menopause?
Depending on your individual 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.
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 cause the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones, which are released throughout the body. The brain then 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.
Maintaining a regular exercise routine 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 for women at especially high risk for it. 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. If you feel that you're at risk for early menopause, speak to your doctor — and make sure to ask about the side effects of HRT, as they can be significant and lead to additional health concerns.
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 GP about what you can do to lower them. Of course, getting rid of all the stresses in your life is not realistic, especially during midlife — a time when family, career and other responsibilities are often taking center stage. “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
“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.”
Even if your efforts don’t prevent early menopause, taking steps to reduce your stress is a huge part of boosting your overall health — and remember, our lives are made of much more than menopause.