by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
I’m going to tell you a secret … your hormones can make you feel wacky! Ok, well, that may not be a secret or surprise, but the way your hormones fluctuate over the course of a month impacts your brain function, cognition, emotional status, and appetite. There is a lot happening in your body over 28 days and I’m going to break it down for you here.
There are 4 phases of a woman’s cycle: menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation, and luteal phase. To be honest, I never learned about these until I was in my higher-level anatomy/physiology classes in college. I’m going to err on the side of you having little knowledge as well 😊.
It all starts in your endocrine system; this is where your hormones are made and will determine when you get your period, the amount of menstrual flow, and what happens to your reproductive organs. Your hormones talk to your body through the hypothalamus by way of your pituitary gland. Still with me? We are just warming up.
Think of your cycle like dominoes — every action pushes the next action into gear. Your cycle technically starts on your first day of menstruation, for most women this lasts 3 – 7 days. At the same time, your follicular phase is kicking into gear and ends with ovulation around day 10 – 14.
During this follicular phase your body is developing follicles and causing a rise in estrogen in the body. Basically, your body is saying “ok, let’s get this womb ready for a baby.” Your estrogen levels start to rise, and your hypothalamus takes notice hitting the next domino to activate gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH then tells the pituitary gland to increase the levels of luteinizing hormone and follicular stimulating hormone. All these work together to have those follicles start maturing eggs.
About two days after these hormones are kicked into action, your body ovulates. The egg is released from the follicle and that follicle transforms into the corpus luteum. Of course, this starts its own hormonal domino effect. The corpus luteum is made, which releases progesterone and a small amount of estrogen. It is now that the uterus is preparing for implantation of a fertilized egg.
If the egg goes unfertilized, it passes through the uterus. However, that isn’t the main source of bleeding during your cycle. Instead, your corpus luteum is expecting to help implant an egg and when that doesn’t happen it withers and sheds. This leads back to menstruation.
So that’s the quick version of it, but just from that overview you can see your body is going through a lot.
I will start with some of the research that makes me giggle (mainly because anyone who has had a period didn’t need funded research to tell you these things).
On to things that may be new news. Women who have more intense PMS symptoms tend to have more extreme cravings for carbohydrates. This all goes back to your hormones, as you may be pre-set to have more powerful symptoms, heavier periods, and shorter or longer cycles. The good news is there are a few things you can do to help support your body as it is going through each phase, including syncing your fitness program and your diet to your cycle.
The first step you should take is to track your cycle. This will help you become more familiar with how your body works and when each phase is happening for you. There are many apps available to help with this. It’s pretty obvious when your cycle starts (menstruation begins), but there are also physical signs of ovulation that you can watch for. It can take up to 3 months to get it down, but it will help in the long run.
While each phase has small differences in the foods you can focus on, you should continue to choose whole foods throughout your cycle, eat at regular intervals to help manage blood sugar levels and avoid cortisol spikes.
Starting with your menstrual phase. Your body is experiencing a lot of inflammation during this time so it’s important to choose nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods.
Since your body is losing blood, you need more vitamin C, B vitamins, and iron to help promote red blood cell production and prevent anemia. Dial in on foods like beef, chicken, citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli, fortified cereals (for both iron and B12), ginger, turmeric, and garlic. Things to avoid include sugar and highly processed foods which can increase inflammation.
While your menstrual phase and follicular phase overlap, it is noted in much of the research that women feel best during this phase. During (normally) days 7 – 12, continue those anti-inflammatory foods but a simple, well-balanced diet during these days will do the trick.
For about 24 – 48 hours after your follicular phase, you are in ovulation. This is where your progesterone is increasing, and you are getting an extra boost of estrogen as well. You may notice a boost of energy and/or libido during this phase, but it can also boost your sugar cravings. Be prepared with healthy sweet foods like fruit, Greek yogurt, dates, apple chips, and dark chocolate.
Quickly after ovulation you are heading into the luteal phase, and this is where you may start to notice some premenstrual symptoms. During this phase your hormones are in overdrive while you are also having decreases in that feel-good hormone serotonin.
I mentioned earlier that the intensity of the cravings and PMS that you experience can be completely hormonal, but there is some evidence showing increasing your intake of omega-3s during this time can reduce your pain and cramping. This is because women with higher levels of prostaglandins (the chemical that breaks down the corpus luteum) have been found to have lower intake of omega-3 and higher intake of omega-6s. So, during this 14 days stretch aim for at least four servings of salmon or foods like coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, and walnuts.
Another common symptom during this phase is bloating. Some is due to those food cravings we discussed earlier, but also because you are producing more estradiol and leptin during this time. Avoiding salty and processed foods can naturally decrease your bloating, but you also want to make sure you are drinking plenty of water — at least 80 – 100 ounces each day. Remember it just needs to be sugar-free, caffeine-free liquid. Don’t be afraid to add a little excitement with flavors as well.
Finally you may notice you are having more difficulty sleeping as your menstruation phase approaches. Add magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, leafy greens, avocados, and bananas to get a natural sleep boost.
Of course, once the luteal phase is complete, we are back at day 1.
Our hope is that as you understand your cycle and make small changes in your diet based on your symptoms and the ideas above, you will start to experience fewer symptoms and feel fewer peaks and valleys throughout the 28-day period.
For tons of delicious, healthy, nutrient-dense recipes, check out the Moms Into Fitness recipe box.
Every woman’s cycle varies, with more or less energy in different phases. It is beneficial to get to know your cycle so your expectations can meet your body’s needs. We’ve developed a cycle-based fitness program that takes into account the ups and downs of your cycle. The research varies, but generally these are the best workouts for each phase: