It’s no secret that stress can take a toll on your body, so it’s unsurprising that it can mess with your vaginal health too. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Another thing I have to worry about?! Trust me, I get it—sometimes you get so caught up in trying to ward off stress that you end up stressing yourself out even more because you’re stressed about not being stressed. It’s a vicious cycle and one that’s easy to fall into. That said, taking the time to learn about how stress truly affects your body can help you manage stress and its effects or help you know what signs and symptoms to look out for that your body might be trying to tell you.
A brief disclosure: If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned below, scheduling an appointment with your OB-GYN is never a bad idea. If stress is the root cause (or you feel a lot of stress, even if it’s pre-symptoms), make sure you’re also carving out time for yourself to practice self-care and using healthy outlets, such as meditating, journaling, or exercising as ways to manage stress. At the end of the day, finding what works for you and nourishing your mind, body, and soul is going to keep both you and your vagina happy and healthy. Keep scrolling to learn five major ways stress can mess with your reproductive health and how to deal accordingly, along with tips and tricks to de-stress so you can better take care of your mind and body.
1. Changes in discharge and increased risk of infection
Stress can suppress the immune system and may seriously disrupt the pH levels in the vulva. When this happens, you may notice discharge that smells funky, is thicker than usual, or darker in color. This occurs because your body’s defense mechanisms are lowered and your vagina has more difficulty weeding out bad bacteria, making it more susceptible to infection. Although discharge is totally normal and changes throughout your cycle, think of it as a window into your body’s overall health: If there’s an abrupt, drastic change in it, it’s usually a telltale sign that something more is going on.
It may be an isolated incident or an infection, like bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection. Talking to your doctor about any changes in discharge or concerns about possible infection is always a good idea as they may be able to provide you with a prescription or over-the-counter remedy. You could also talk to your doctor about trying over-the-counter supplements and vitamins like probiotics or vitamins D and C. Some types of probiotics may help the vagina maintain a healthy pH level, while vitamin D and C can help strengthen your immune system.
2. Vaginal dryness
Stress can reduce the amount of blood flow to the vagina, which in turn can reduce moisture and cause dryness. “With stress on your mind, hormone levels will begin to shift—as cortisol rises, testosterone (essential for your libido) will dip,” Dr. Alyssa Liguori, an OB/GYN based in Georgia, wrote for Northside Hospital. “Your body won’t be sending enough blood down there to increase moisture, so vaginal dryness and/or discomfort is more likely.” This dryness can also cause painful sex and an inability to orgasm—two things you definitely do not need in your life.
3. Low libido
When you have a huge work deadline looming, student loans to pay off, and a packed social calendar, sex is probably going to be the last thing on your mind. It’s normal, but it turns out there’s a medical reason for it. Because your testosterone levels dip as cortisol levels rise, you not only experience vaginal dryness but may experience low sex drive as well, since testosterone is essential for libido. However, getting it on can actually destress you: Orgasming regularly can improve your mood, release stress hormones, and keep your vagina from getting depressed (who else remembers the Sex and the City episode where Charlotte announces at lunch her vagina has depression?). Even if you’re not totally in the mood, it may be worth reaching for your vibrator to try to destress. However, if you’re experiencing zero interest or changes in sex drive, always talk to your doctor (remember that libido is an important vital sign!)
4. Changes in menstrual cycle
If you have a menstrual cycle, it’s completely run on hormones (the different changes in your cycle are due to estrogen and progesterone levels). If your stress hormones are out of whack, your menstrual cycle can become irregular, those notorious PMS symptoms can intensify, or you may skip a period altogether. This can also cause fertility issues since irregular periods can distress ovulation schedules and make getting pregnant more difficult. If you’re experiencing painful or irregular periods and have felt extra stressed, your cortisol levels could be to blame. As always, if you experience any changes in your menstrual cycle, always talk with your doctor to get to the root cause.
5. Tight pelvic floor
The pelvic floor is especially important for women with uteruses since it’s responsible for bowel and bladder movements, and provides support to the reproductive system. A strong pelvic floor makes sex more enjoyable and orgasms stronger. When we’re stressed, however, we can physically seize up (think: clenched jaw or fists) and that tension can reach our pelvic floor.
A few early signs of a tight pelvic floor are constipation, pain during sex, and lower back pain. Hip, back, abdominal, or leg pain, a feeling of heaviness as though the pelvic floor is dragging, strain with bowel movements or emptying your bladder, or inability to completely empty the bowels or bladder, and a strong urgency to run to the restroom are also signs of pelvic floor dysfunction. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, consider seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist.