During our reproductive years, eating, training and working in accordance with the different phases of the menstrual cycle will help you to optimise not only your hormone health but also your weight, energy, mood and physical performance.
Our reproductive hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone aren’t only for making babies! They have far reaching effects inside the body and can impact:
- Sleep quality and quantity
- Mood and motivation
- Appetite and cravings
- Weight and weight distribution
- Muscle gain, risk of injury and dexterity
- Thermoregulation and breathing rate.
By understanding what’s happening to your hormones in each phase of the menstrual cycle, you’ll be able to tweak your diet, exercise and even work life to optimise how you feel and maximise your performance both in the gym and the office.
A quick recap of the menstrual cycle
Day 1 of your cycle is considered the first day of your period, when you experience full flow. A healthy menstrual cycle is anywhere from 21 to 34 days’ long, with the average being 29 days.
The menstrual cycle is split into two phases, the follicular phase and the luteal phase, separated by ovulation in the middle. Follicular phases and luteal phases vary in length but typically last around 2 weeks each in a 29 day cycle.
Let’s look at these phases in more detail and learn how to optimise each phase by adjusting your diet, productivity and exercise routine.
The Follicular Phase
The follicular phase is defined as your first day of bleeding up until ovulation.
Hormonal changes in the follicular phase
After our period ends, our hormones start low and steadily increase, bringing with them increased energy and motivation.
Estrogen takes center stage in this phase, increasing our energy levels and generally making us feel bright, vibrant and sexy. And testosterone is also reaching its peak. Testosterone brings with it increased energy, motivation and libido.
Physical changes in the follicular phase
You can expect a variety of positive changes in your follicular phase!
Your brain gets a boost in the follicular phase. Changing hormone levels can increase motor learning performance gains, and rising estradiol (one of the main estrogens) has been shown to correlate with increased verbal fluency.
You’ll feel physically stronger too. Increases in muscle diameter and muscle strength have been shown to occur more in the follicular phase relative to the luteal phase. You’re also less likely to get injured, although as your hormones rise towards the end of your follicular phase you may become more injury prone – muscle and tendon injuries are likely to occur twice as often in the late follicular phase. Therefore focusing on recovery and stretching after your workouts during this time is vital.
How to optimise the follicular phase
Appetite & Diet
Estrogen is an appetite-suppressing hormone so your appetite is likely to be lower during this phase. This is a good time to increase healthy salads and vegetables as cravings for sugar and carbs will be lower.
To support healthy detoxification of rising estrogen, try to increase fibre with plenty of organic fruit and vegetables and add in nutrients to help support the liver like B12, folate, zinc through a varied diet of vegetables and lean meat. Cruciferous vegetables like kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower will also help support healthy estrogen detoxification.
With higher energy levels, this is a great time to try out cardio or HIIT. Remember to keep your high-intensity exercise to under 30 minutes in order to support your hormone health (longer cardio can spike cortisol, our stress hormone). This is also a great time for weight-lifting since you’ll make bigger gains in muscle strength and muscle diameter.
With greater brain power comes greater productivity and creativity! Make the most of this phase by brainstorming, planning for the month ahead and starting new projects.
Ovulation occurs roughly halfway through your cycle, although it can vary. Ovulation is the real star of the menstrual cycle and involves the release of an egg from the dominant ovarian follicle into the fallopian tube.
Hormonal changes around ovulation
At this stage, estrogen and testosterone are at their highest levels and energy and motivation are likely to be high too.
Physical changes around ovulation
There are some key changes that occur with the body during ovulation. For example, muscular stiffness decreases in the ovulatory phase in comparison to the follicular phase. And general neuromuscular coordination was enhanced during ovulation too.
How to optimise the ovulatory phase
Appetite & Diet
Appetite is still likely to be low due to high estrogen and testosterone levels peaking.
One of the best ways to enhance your diet during this time is to increase healthy fats to support progesterone production for the next phase of the cycle. This is the time to increase lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, chia seeds, avocados, and olive oil.
This is still a time to get sweaty still as estrogen is at its peak, as is testosterone, providing you with energy and stamina. Endurance may be higher during this time, although research shows that 30 minutes of moderate exercise supports ovulation whereas over 60 minutes can negatively impact ovulation and in turn impact hormone balance.
We are more likely to be social during this time so it is a good time to schedule important meetings and socialise with colleagues and friends.
The Luteal Phase
The luteal phase is from ovulation to the first day of bleeding again. It typically lasts 13-15 days although it varies from woman to woman.
Hormonal changes in the Luteal phase
This phase is when the body prepares for possible pregnancy and the hormone progesterone takes centre stage. Estrogen has its second peak before finally falling away.
Physical changes in the Luteal phase
This phase is considered a high hormone phase which can negatively impact your physical performance in a variety of ways.
How to optimise the Luteal phase
Appetite & Diet
Appetite increases during this time due to the drop in estrogen and increase in the hormone progesterone. Progesterone increases metabolic rate and stimulates your appetite hormone called ghrelin which makes you hungry (which is why body temperature increases during this time too).
- Increase calories, but only slightly. Cravings increase during this time – estrogen is insulin protective and when it drops sugar cravings are likely to increase. Research shows that at rest women expend more energy during the luteal phase. Therefore they need roughly 100-300 more calories daily during this time.
- Shift your focus to complex carbohydrates. Because estrogen increases our sensitivity to insulin, we really need to focus on blood sugar balance during this phase. It is time to focus on complex carbohydrates such as vegetables and starches like sweet potato, rather than simple carbohydrates like white rice, cakes, pastries and white bread.
- Increase your protein intake. It is extra important to have protein in the luteal phase as progesterone promotes protein catabolism (breakdown) while estrogen suppresses protein catabolism. Aim for roughly 0.8-1.5g per kg (for example if you weigh 60kg then roughly 60g protein a day is needed). Protein will help stabilise blood sugar, build muscle, improve brain function, reduce cravings, support appetite, and support hormone health. Increase lean meats, nuts, tofu, hemp, fish, chia seeds and eggs.
The first few days of the luteal phase may still be high in energy but then energy is generally lower during this phase (due to increased metabolic rate at rest) and many women will not feel like exercising but it is important to focus on lower intensity exercise like pilates, yoga, swimming, light cardio (shorter time), walking and weights to support insulin sensitivity. Ensure you take time to rest when needed to.
You won’t be at your most sparkly, but this is a great phase for focusing on the details, ticking off your to-do list and closing out any administrative tasks you’ve been putting off.
Menstruation is defined as the time from the first day of bleeding until the last day of bleeding. Day 1 is the first day of full bleeding, not spotting. This bleeding is the shedding of the lining of the uterus which consists of blood, cervical mucus and endometrial tissue.
Hormonal changes during menstruation
At this stage estrogen, progesterone and testosterone have all dropped.
Physical changes during menstruation
Interestingly, at this time because our hormone levels are at their lowest, our physical abilities are actually most like a man’s. The body is no longer preparing for a pregnancy so you are able to divert more energy towards exertion. You also won’t feel muscle pain as much and you’ll recover faster. Paula Radcliff broke the world record at the Chicago Marathon in 2002 when she was on her period.
However, many women experience cramping and low energy around their period so if you don’t feel like running a marathon, that’s ok too.
How to support the menstrual phase
Appetite & Diet
Appetite can be at its highest in the week leading up to the period due to high progesterone. But cravings for carbohydrates can also increase during this time as estrogen has dropped. Estrogen has a direct relationship to our neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is our happy and feel-good neurotransmitter but as estrogen drops so too does serotonin and this can create carbohydrate or sugar cravings.
During your period, it’s a great idea to eat foods high in iron and other minerals such as zinc, to replenish what is being lost. This is especially important if you have heavier periods.
- Iron: It is time to increase foods like lean meats, fish, spinach, kale, tofu, lentils and legumes as these are all high in iron. In order to increase the absorption of iron in the body, it is helpful to add some fresh vitamin C like a squeeze of lemon to boost the absorption of iron too.
- Zinc: Foods high in zinc include seafood, nuts and seeds This can help with the overall mood and hormone balance.
- Magnesium: Foods high in magnesium include all green leafy vegetables. This will help with mood, sleep, blood sugar balance, period pain and recovery from exercise too.Research shows that decreased magnesium (and serotonin) during this time lead to increased cravings. Supporting the body with magnesium, deep breathing, rest, proper nutrition and complex carbohydrates will help.
During menstruation, it is advised to limit exercise to low intensity or even a few rest days. Yoga, stretching and walking may be best here.
Menstruation is a great time for reflection. Think back on the previous month and consider what went well and what you’d like to improve on for the next cycle.
I’m on the OCP, will I still notice these fluctuations?
If you are on the OCP, or other types of hormonal contraception, you will not experience the same fluctuations as mentioned above. This is due to the fact that the pill prevents the body from making its own natural hormones and prevents ovulation from occurring.
In fact, the pill may result in overall inferior exercise performance in comparison to those with natural cycles according to research. Research has even suggested that women on the contraceptive pill had delayed strength recovery after exercise in comparison to women with natural cycles.