How Cortisol Affects Women's Health and the Menstrual Cycle

a woman highly stressed

Introduction to cortisol and how it can affect the menstrual cycle

Check out our article on Menstrual Cycle Phases, Hormones and their functions to learn more about the Menstrual cycle.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” and regulates a wide range of vital processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has a very important role in helping the body respond to stress.

Understanding cortisol and its effect on the body will help you balance your hormones.

What does cortisol do?

Cortisol is a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.

  • Raises blood sugar (to feed muscles so you can run away)
  • Raises blood pressure (so you can get out of a threatening situation)
  • Lowers immune function (as well as shuts down digestion and reproductive organs – basically any bodily function that isn’t necessary to survive).
what does cortisol, the stress hormone do - chart

How does cortisol affect the menstrual cycle?

Stress can make your periods heavier, show up late, or stop altogether.

The main reason why stress affects your menstrual cycle is because of hormones. The release of stress hormones, or cortisol, can suppress normal levels of reproductive hormones, potentially leading to abnormal ovulation, anovulation, or amenorrhea.

How do hormones affect our mental and emotional wellbeing? Click here to learn more

Does cortisol increase during periods?

The level of cortisol usually increases during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle. Cortisol might not increase during periods, but an increase in cortisol could result in anovulation and longer cycles.

High cortisol levels over a prolonged time can also cause a lack of sex drive and, periods can become irregular, less frequent, or stop altogether.

how does the cortisol hormone work

How does cortisol affect female hormones?

Aside from affecting the menstrual cycle, abnormal levels of CRH in reproductive tissue have been associated with negative pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth. (reference).

Cortisol actually increases the cravings for sweets.

High cortisol lowers oestrogen levels, which can result in the deposition of fat, often in the middle section of the body. When oestrogen is lowered from continuous stress and cortisol production, all the female hormone imbalance symptoms such as night sweats, sleep problems, and mood swings can get worse.

If not managed, high cortisol can cause many other important hormones to become out of balance.

What is a normal cortisol level for a woman?

Normal values for a blood sample taken at 8 in the morning are 5 to 25 mcg/dL or 140 to 690 nmol/L.

Higher-than-normal cortisol levels may also be an indicator of:

  • Tumor or excess growth of the pituitary gland
  • Tumor in your adrenal gland
  • Tumor elsewhere in your body that’s involved in cortisol production

Lower-than-normal cortisol levels may indicate that:

  • Addison’s disease
  • Hypopituitarism

What does too much cortisol feel like?

General signs and symptoms of too much cortisol include:

  • weight gain, mostly around the midsection and upper back
  • weight gain and rounding of the face
  • acne
  • thinning skin
  • easy bruising
  • flushed face
  • slowed healing
  • muscle weakness
  • severe fatigue
  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • high blood pressure
  • headache
Why is period tracking important, and what is the best app for it? Click here to learn more
a woman highly pressureised by work

How does cortisol affect estrogen levels?

Cortisol abnormality creates a domino effect on feedback loops involving an interactive neuroendocrine unit comprising the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. In this scenario, estrogen becomes elevated, thyroid hormone becomes bound, and B and T cells become deregulated.

What Is Cushing syndrome?

Cushing syndrome occurs when your body is exposed to high levels of the hormone cortisol for a long time. Cushing syndrome, sometimes called hypercortisolism, may be caused by the use of oral corticosteroid medication. The condition can also occur when your body makes too much cortisol on its own.

What is the treatment for high cortisol?

There are many natural ways to reduce your cortisol level. Some of them include

  • Getting the right amount of sleep
  • Exercise, but Not Too Much
  • Learn to Recognize Stressful Thinking
  • Learn to Relax
  • Have Fun
  • Maintain Healthy Relationships
  • Take Care of a Pet
  • Be Your Best Self.
  • Tend to Your Spirituality
  • Eat Healthy Foods

Over time, high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. The simple lifestyle tips mentioned above could lower your cortisol levels, increase your energy and improve your health.

How can I test my cortisol levels at home?

There is a simple at-home test that can be done known as the saliva cortisol test. The test kit has to be ordered. Saliva for cortisol testing is usually collected by inserting a swab into the mouth and waiting a few minutes while the swab becomes saturated with saliva. Obtaining more than one sample allows the health practitioner to evaluate the daily pattern of cortisol secretion. Most results take 1-2 days, but some take longer. See the test description for an estimate on how long your results might take.

a woman looking into the distance depressed


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