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What is Hypothalamic Amenorrhea?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated May 17, 2024
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Hypothalamic amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation for several months due to impaired hormone production and regulation by the hypothalamus. Several behavioral and circumstantial factors may contribute to the development of this condition. Treatment is dependent on the cause for the hypothalamic dysfunction and may require dietary and lifestyle changes or the use of prescription medication to restore proper ovulation and menstruation.

Considered the main hub of communication that influences menstruation and controls reproductive function, the hypothalamus produces the hormone gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). When released, GnRH triggers the production of additional hormones essential to menstruation, namely follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), estrogen, and luteinizing hormone (LH). If the hypothalamus ceases to produce GnRH, communication shuts down, stopping ovulation and menstruation.

Hypothalamus dysfunction may result from a variety of circumstances and behaviors. Women with a low body weight for their height or those who exercise excessively may develop hypothalamic amenorrhea. Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, may also induce symptoms. Extreme emotional stress can sometimes interfere with proper hypothalamus function, causing a disruption in hormone regulation. Additional factors that may contribute to hypothalamic amenorrhea may include the presence of a tumor and thyroid malfunction.

The most common, and obvious, symptom associated with hypothalamic amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation for three or more months. Some women may experience additional symptoms that can include vision changes and persistent headache. Medical attention should be sought if menstruation fails to start by age 16 or has regularly occurred and suddenly stops.

There are several diagnostic tests that may be performed to confirm a diagnosis of hypothalamic amenorrhea. Initially, a complete medical history is taken and a pelvic examination is conducted. In some cases, a pregnancy test may also be administered. A progestin challenge test may be performed, which involves the administration of progestogen, a hormonal medication, for ten days in an attempt to provoke menstruation. If the results of a progestin challenge test do no indicate positive results, blood tests may be recommended to measure hormone levels, including human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH). Additionally, a computerized tomography (CT) scan may be ordered to evaluate the condition of the pituitary gland and rule out the presence of a tumor or other irregularity.

Treatment for a hypothalamus amenorrhea may include dietary and lifestyle changes, as well as the administration of medication. Individuals for whom the condition was precipitated by excessive exercise may be instructed to limit their workouts and pursue less strenuous routines. Diet-induced hypothalamus dysfunction may be remedied by adopting healthier eating habits and consuming a nutritionally balanced diet. Women who are diagnosed with an eating disorder may require counseling or in-patient treatment before a determination may be made that drug therapy is necessary to treat the amenorrhea. If dietary and lifestyle changes do not work, fertility or oral contraceptive medications may be prescribed to trigger hormone regulation and restore ovulation and menstruation.

Women who develop hypothalamic amenorrhea are at an increased risk for developing osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease later in life. Reduced estrogen levels associated with hypothalamic dysfunction may contribute to bone loss and impair cardiovascular function. Medications may be administered to reduce one’s risk for these secondary conditions, but should not be taken by women who are or may become pregnant.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Jan 21, 2015

It's really sad that a girl has to have her periods stop before she's willing to get help. Anytime your periods change, something is probably going on. Whether it's serious or not is questionable, but when the periods change -- especially when they stop -- something is up and probably needs to be checked out.

Obviously, if a woman is on birth control and stops, or has a miscarriage or something like that, this will affect the period, but that's a known issue. When the period just becomes irregular or stops altogether, then it's time to see a doctor unless the woman is going into menopause.

By Pippinwhite — On Jan 20, 2015

This condition is what finally got my friend into therapy. She was bulimic and anorexic. The tooth decay she had, along with constant heartburn from a damaged esophagus wasn't enough. It wasn't until her periods stopped that she thought something was really wrong. Her parents had to check her into an inpatient center to get her the help she needed. She went through three treatment cycles before it finally "took." She had a terrible problem with body image and this was her way of dealing with the issue -- just get thinner and thinner. I was very worried about her, especially since she couldn't seem to grasp how truly thin she was.

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