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The Effects of Stress on Female Sexual and Reproductive Health

Stress and anxiety are likely to affect your physical and mental health. Often the first symptoms appear in the reproductive system. Prolonged or chronic stress can confuse the body and therefore hormone production, causing irregular periods, difficulty con-ceiving, and even low libido.

Stress is a natural part of our lives. Positive stress helps us deal with challenges and dangers. The body produces a surge of adrenaline, which increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and boosts your energy supply. However, chronic stress can be debilitating, often negatively impacting the female body, especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. A healthy lifestyle and proper stress management are important for all of our systems to function properly.

The effects of chronic stress on the body

Stress is the body's natural reaction to dangerous or challenging situations. Stress helps us rec-ognise problems and protect ourselves from danger. In the past, the fight or flight instinct made it possible for humans to survive. Today, however, we experience stress and anxiety, even though most of us aren't facing life or death situations. Pressure accumulates at work, in social situations, and in our family lives. When we can't regularly relieve ourselves from stress, it can develop into a chronic condition.

When we feel stressed, our brains release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for sweaty palms, a pounding heart, and shortness of breath. Chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high, and the body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal. In turn, this causes a range of unpleasant symptoms, including irritability, headaches, heartburn, insomnia, and fatigue.

If chronic stress remains unchecked, it can cause problems such as:

  • high blood pressure and blood-sugar levels 
  • intestinal problems
  • increased risks of depression
  • heart attacks
  • increased inflammation
  • decreased fertility

Women who suffer from chronic stress report greater difficulty conceiving, irregular periods/ovulation, or amenorrhea—the absence of periods. Stress-induced high cortisol levels are known to be libido killers in women.

Stress and the menstrual cycle

Stress hormones can interfere with the reproductive hormones the female body produces during the menstrual cycle. A hormone imbalance can also mess with your cycle in various ways, mak-ing it longer, shorter, irregular, or absent, causing even more stress.

Stress can also intensify PMS symptoms. You might experience stronger cramps and more se-vere mood swings. Cortisol affects your appetite. Stress combined with PMS may make you feel hungrier and crave foods high in sugar and fat.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all of us. The spread of this new and potentially danger-ous virus is a stressful event. Many women have reported changes in their cycles during the pandemic.

Pregnancy, breastfeeding, and stress

During pregnancy, a woman's body experiences many changes, both physical and mental. This already causes some stress, which is compounded by keeping up with day-to-day tasks and preparing to welcome a tiny human into the world. While the body is prepared to handle acute, short-term stress, which is unlikely to affect the pregnancy, chronic stress can trigger premature birth and, in severe cases, impair an infant's development.

Amniotic fluid surrounds and protects the fetus while it is in the womb. Sustained high levels of cortisol in the amniotic fluid can lead to premature birth or congenital defects. A study done at the University of Zurich demonstrated that if a mother experiences chronic stress during preg-nancy, her child is more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and cardiovascular disease later in life

Stress is also linked to changes in the consistency of breast milk and reduced milk supply. Breastfed infants have been shown to have higher levels of cortisol in their blood than infants fed with formula. This indicates that cortisol can be passed through breastmilk. Chronically higher cortisol levels in infants can lead to elevated stress responses throughout life, such as high blood pressure and rapid heart rate.

Stress and sexuality

It is easy for responsibilities at work and home to overtake our lives. When things are tough, sex is usually the first to go. And this is not simply due to stress-induced exhaustion—loss of libido is a side effect of high cortisol levels. People who experience a lot of stress also are at greater risk of depression. Medication used to counter depression can also affect your libido.

As mentioned above, stress wreaks havoc with your hormones. Anxiety eats up your energy, making it less likely that you will feel interested in sex. In addition, tension makes it difficult to relax, and stress can cause women to experience 'dry-spells'—trouble producing natural lubrica-tion—which also makes sex less pleasurable.

As with most things concerning sex, the problem is rarely straight-forward, and the solution isn't either. However, taking some responsibilities off your plate and making sure you get enough sleep are good places to start.

Coping with stress

Stress doesn't have to control your life. There are some simple things you can do to make your-self feel better. Health, including sexual health, isn't just about not being sick, it's about feeling good. Below are a few methods that can help you cope with stressful situations.

Limit stimuli. Find a quiet place to sit down and think about what makes you stressed and why? What makes your heart pound faster, and your stomach turn? Public speaking? Social events? Bad news about the current economic situation? Remember that you can't control what happens in the world at large, but only you can take steps to ensure your wellbeing. Removing some of the things that trigger stress in your life can have an immediate, positive effect.

For example, if bad news triggers you, try blocking news sites or set a time every day when you turn off all of your devices. There are many activities you can do to take the place of reading headlines or scrolling through Facebook. You probably have some in mind right now.

If your trigger is social situations—slow down. People who suffer from social anxiety feel like they are always being watched and judged, but most people are much more concerned with themselves than they are with you. Journaling can help you identify situations that cause you stress. Once you have identified your triggers, you can choose to avoid them or find proactive coping methods.

Establish a healthy diet. Cortisol stimulates your appetite, which is why we have comfort foods. After a long day at work, you don't usually crave salad. People who are under pressure often struggle with weight gain and poor general health. Stress can cause you to turn to alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. It's important to remember that both stimulants and depressants may make you feel better in the moment, but in the long term, reduce your ability to cope with stress.

A healthy, nutritious diet improves your ability to cope with life's many challenges. Foods that help alleviate stress include avocados, fatty fish, nuts, citrus fruits, and dark chocolate. Avoca-dos and fatty fish, such as salmon, contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to improve one's mood and balance hormones. Citrus fruits are rich in Vitamin C, which has been shown to support the immune system.

Move your body. Physical activities not only help clear your mind but also have a positive im-pact on your nervous system, all while building strength and increasing energy levels. As you move, your brain releases' happiness hormones' such as serotonin and dopamine.

Chronically high cortisol levels tax your mental health and increase your risk of developing de-pression or anxiety disorders. Engaging in activities that increase serotonin and dopamine pro-duction in your brain will lower cortisol levels and make you feel better.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Physical health is only one side of self-care. If stress is tak-ing over your life and making simple tasks increasingly difficult, it's time to ask for help. Friends and family can offer support, but there is no shame in turning to a professional. It's what they're there for, after all.

Our reactions to certain stimuli often come from past trauma. By tackling the deeper issues, you can reduce stress and start building healthier habits. This is easier said than done and can take more time than you'd like, but it is well worth the effort.

Enjoy a relaxing massage. If your neck and shoulders are tense from long hours at the com-puter, or your muscles ache from physical labour, treat yourself to a few hours at a spa or ask your partner to give you a gentle massage. Along with reducing stress, it's a great way to build intimacy. Even a simple back rub has been shown to release tension and lower cortisol levels.

Keep a steady sleeping schedule. Stress is known to cause insomnia and other sleep prob-lems. But sleep is essential when dealing with stress. Do yourself a favour—take the time to establish a sleep routine so that your body knows when it will be allowed to relax and replenish itself.

People who sleep less than 6 hours a night or have irregular sleeping schedules have increased cortisol levels.

Try mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness practices such as meditation, mindful breathing, and yoga can work wonders for stress management and emotional stability. Even a simple 5-minute mindful breathing session will help you cope.

Mindfulness techniques can also relax your body during sex so that you can experience pleas-ure more intensely. Tantric yoga provides a set of practices to enhance sexual pleasure.

There is more happening in the world than any one person can understand or digest. It is im-portant to distinguish between what you can influence and what is beyond your control. We need to take care of ourselves before taking care of others, and we need each other to get us through the tough times.

Women's sexual and reproductive health is important not only to each woman herself but also to the health of children and families. Take the time to tend to those things that give you strength and joy, and you will be doing the world a favour.

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