#5: Irregular periods.
It’s no secret that unmanaged stress can affect your physical health over time. Chronic stress can put the immune system into overdrive, leading to mild inflammation that can spawn a wide range of problems.
There are some health effects of stress that are universal—low libido, fatigue, and acne, to name a few—but cisgender women may face particular health effects that men don’t, or they may be impacted by certain ailments more commonly or severely than men are.
To make it worse, women are also more likely to report higher levels of daily stress, according to the American Psychological Association. It’s possible that cisgender men and women process stress hormones differently, but it’s also clear that women are more likely to face certain stressors that men don’t: domestic violence, gender discrimination, balancing work and childcare, etc.
Here are the ways stress can uniquely affect women’s health:
1. Headaches + migraines
Headaches are a common result of stress regardless of gender, but women experience tension headaches and migraines in higher numbers than men. After puberty, migraines are three times more common in women than men, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
2. Irritable bowel syndrome
IBS is a digestive problem that causes stomach pain, bloating, constipation, and/or diarrhea, and it’s twice as common in women than men. Diet, stress, and the menstrual cycle can all play a role in triggering IBS attacks, so the latter two makes women more vulnerable to IBS symptoms.
3. Pregnancy problems
This is a cruel cycle: High levels of stress may make getting pregnant more difficult, but struggling to get pregnant may increase stress levels, according to the American Institute of Stress. Notably, this phenomenon has been weaponized against feminist movements throughout history to discourage career-driven women.
However, researchers don’t know exactly how much influence stress has on fertility, or why. In some cases, it may simply be because stress reduces your libido (see #6).
4. Mental illness
Women are twice as likely to experience depression than men, and they’re also more likely to have anxiety disorders, according to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health. Plus, there are also mental illnesses that are unique to women, such as:
- Postpartum depression, or a period of depression after childbirth
- Perimenopausal depression, or a period of depression during the transition into menopause
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), or a condition that causes depressive symptoms, bloating, body aches, and mood swings in the weeks prior to menstruation.
The three conditions above are all linked to hormonal changes that are unique to women, and one theory is that some women are more sensitive to these hormonal changes than others.
5. Problems with the menstrual cycle
The menstrual cycle is regulated by hormones from your hypothalamus and pituitary gland. When under stress, the increase of the stress hormone cortisol may suppress the hypothalamic and pituitary functions. If they don’t release those hormones, you don’t ovulate—leading to no period (or amenorrhea). Here are other possible reasons your period is MIA.
Alternatively, higher stress levels may cause more severe symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, or PMS.
6. Libido problems
Women under stress tend to have lower sex drives, which can affect their relationships and increase stress further. Additionally, they may experience sexual dysfunction, such as dryness, struggling to get aroused, or trouble reaching orgasm. (Learn more causes of low sex drive in women here.)
If you’re still struggling with stress, speak up: Your doctor can guide you to the right resources to improve your mental (and physical) health.
- Depression in women: 5 things you should know. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)
- Does stress actually affect fertility? Weatherford, TX: American Institute of Stress, 2019. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)
- Gender and stress. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)
- Irritable bowel syndrome. Washington, DC: U.S. Office on Women’s Health. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)
- Liu YZ, Wang YZ, Jiang CL. Inflammation: the common pathway of stress-related diseases. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:316.
- Period problems. Washington, DC: U.S. Office on Women’s Health. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, 2019. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)
- Stress and your health. Washington, DC: U.S. Office on Women’s Health. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)
- Women and migraine. Mount Royal, NJ: American Migraine Foundation, 2015. (Accessed on June 16, 2020)