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How to Eat for Your Menstrual Cycle

The menstrual cycle is a series of hormonal changes the body goes through, partly in preparing for the possibility of getting pregnant.

Everyone’s cycle is different.

This can be a cause for a lot of anxiety as there is no ‘normal’ to compare yourself to!

The constant changes and uncertainties can be draining and a little embarrassing if you are caught by surprise!

In this article, we are going to discuss why it is important for you to know what your typical cycle looks like and how you can use your nutrition to support yourself through the different phases.

What is the Menstrual Cycle?

The menstrual cycle is the time from the first day of a period, until the day before the next period and how long this is, varies for everyone.

The average length is 28 days, however, anything from 21-40 days is considered ‘normal’ by the NHS.

Dr Georgie Brunviels is a lead scientist behind ‘FitrWomen’ and has worked with countless athletes in a bid to help them feel empowered by their period and train in the most effective way.

She champions the idea that there are four phases to a menstrual cycle.

Phase 1 – when menstruation occurs (the bleed), usually 3-8 days long.

Phase 2 – when you are likely to feel your best, most confident self!

Phase 3 – The start of the second half of your menstrual cycle.

Phase 4 – when the uterus lining is being prepared to be released.

Just a reminder, everyone is different so the length of each of these phases will differ from person to person.

How Does a Menstrual Cycle Work?

This cycle is controlled by hormones – these are substances we produce to stimulate specific cells or tissues into action.

In each cycle, rising levels of oestrogen result in the ovary developing and releasing an egg (ovulation). Oestrogen is responsible for promoting the development and maintenance of female characteristics of the body so is also known as ‘the female sex hormone’.

The other key hormone is progesterone, which helps the womb to prepare for the implantation of a developing embryo.

The egg that has been released travels down the fallopian tubes to the womb and if pregnancy doesn’t occur, gets reabsorbed into the body.

This causes oestrogen and progesterone to fall, resulting in the womb lining coming away – this is what is known as the ‘period’ aka the bleed.

The most important thing you can do is to understand your cycle.

Keep track of how long your cycle is on average, what are your normal symptoms, how do you feel at different stages, so that spotting abnormalities becomes a lot easier.

Although having a period can feel like an inconvenience at times, you need to remember it is a sign of a healthy and happy hormonal system which is vital to health.

Celebrate your period! 

The Phases of a Cycle and How that May Impact Your Journey

Do you find some days you could drop a pen and just burst into tears?

And on another, you could be wearing a bin bag but feel like Beyonce strutting her stuff on stage?

One day are you in the gym and feel as though nothing can stop you?

Then the next even walking to and from the toilet can feel like running a marathon?

Please know, you are not alone in feeling this way. 

With the fluctuation of oestrogen and progestogen, your energy levels, water retention, pain threshold, mood, tolerance (which is especially low for that tractor you’re stuck behind as you try to get to The Barn Bootcamp on time) are also going to fluctuate.

Here are some tips based on Dr Brunivels research on how nutrition can reduce your symptoms. 

Don’t worry if you can’t incorporate specific foods during each phase, but perhaps test a few methods/meals to see if cycle syncing helps to manage some of your more unpleasant symptoms:

Phase 1:

Oestrogen and Progesterone are fluctuating at this stage, after falling in the previous phase.

With this bleed, there is an associated inflammatory response, which travels around your body through the blood and is the cause of many symptoms experienced at this time.

·   Eating high anti-inflammatory foods might help e.g. berries, turmeric and avocados

·   Insulin levels change, which can cause an influx of cravings. Fuelling more regularly can help suppress some extreme cravings, so rather than 3 meals a day, could you have 4/5 smaller meals more regularly to help keep your insulin levels more stable?

·   Processed foods might increase the severity of some symptoms, so although you might be craving lots of refined sugars and greasy food, it might be making things much worse!

·   Due to blood loss, iron-containing foods (or supplements if necessary) should be prioritised.

Phase 2:

Oestrogen increases and this is associated with an increased release of serotonin and dopamine (the happy hormones – woohoo!)

During this phase, you are often going to feel your best! 

Confident, self-assured, energetic and like you can take on the world! 

Use this to your advantage, not just in your training, but in everyday life!

·   Some experience a decrease in appetite, so make sure you are eating nutrient-dense foods to properly fuel yourself for the amount of exercise you are doing.

·       Vitamin C rich foods can help with muscle, tendon and ligament recovery.

·       Dehydration can be more prone during this phase due to the high levels of the hormone, so make sure you are drinking plenty!

Phase 3:

This is considered the ‘high hormone phase’ as both oestrogen and progesterone rise.

There is a possible increase in body temperature here, which needs to be considered when training in hot conditions and when looking at sleeping arrangements (a cooler room may help reduce disruption to sleep).

Some research shows that BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), which is the amount of energy our bodies use when we are at rest, increases slightly during this phase and the next. It has been found to be relatively small, by around 100-150 kcals per day, but this would explain when you may be hungrier during these times.

If you think you would benefit from an increase in energy during this phase, speak to your trainer about ways to manage this in line with your goals.

·   Some cravings may begin due to the higher levels of progesterone, which can impact insulin sensitivity. Make sure you are fueling with protein and carbohydrates pre-exercise to mitigate that drop in energy and increase in cravings (likely sugar cravings).

·   Some research shows that it is more important for those going through the menstrual cycle to get their protein in immediately post-session (roughly 30 mins after), far more so than men and at other phases of the cycle, so maybe give this a try and see how it impacts your recovery. 

Phase 4

 Hormones start to drop off here to bring about the release of the uterus lining (the bleed).

Some find it harder to fall asleep and wake up more frequently during the night – this can affect alertness, concentration and performance in everyday life tasks, as well as the gym.

Bloating, heightened emotions, more sensitivity to pain and sore breasts are some common symptoms here – this can be the worst phase for some!

·       Possibly where your BMR is its highest, so again, a slight increase in consumption might be needed here.

·       If you find you have digestive issues during this phase, an increase in fibre might help (beans, broccoli, apples etc).

·       Eating more processed foods than normal due to cravings might increase the severity of your symptoms again here, so try to satisfy cravings with more natural options.

·       Magnesium-rich foods (or supplements) can help reduce headaches and sleep-related issues – e.g. pumpkin seeds and spinach.

·       Focus on those anti-inflammatory foods again to help reduce premenstrual symptoms (PMS).

Before you begin to take supplements, please consult your doctor to check if this is necessary.

The Loss of your Period

If you’ve started to exercise a lot more and drastically reduce your calorie intake and this is paired with a loss of your period, please know this is not normal.

Secondary Amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation for 3 months (for those with regular cycles) or 6 months (for those with irregular cycles).

Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea is caused by low energy intake (calories), excessive exercise, weight loss, stress or a combination of all these factors. 

This is something as trainers working with people every day must be very aware of, and so should you.

Let’s look at a few myths surrounding Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea:

Myth 1: Is it normal to stop menstruating during phases of heavy training

Stopping menstruating is never normal (under ‘normal’ circumstances aka no introduction of contraception or falling pregnant). Amenorrhea is a red flag that the body is not functioning to its full potential and should be addressed. 

Myth 2: Amenorrhea only happens to high-level athletes or endurance athletes

Wrong. Amenorrhea can happen to anyone, at any level, in any sport or fitness field. This includes those that exercise for health/fitness/enjoyment.

Myth 3: Amenorrhea is nothing to worry about

Incorrect. It is estimated that for every year without a menstrual cycle, more than 2% of bone density can be lost. This bone loss can be irreversible. It is also linked with problems with pregnancy and potential infertility.

If you are ever concerned about your cycle, consult your doctor and speak to your trainer so they are aware and can make appropriate changes to your programme. 

Tracking your menstrual cycle not only helps you to avoid any unexpected visits from mother nature but is empowering beyond belief.

Internalised feelings of disappointment and frustration when you have an ‘off’ session or week can be externalised by understanding that at a certain point in your cycle, you maybe don’t feel your best.

You can begin to work on how to get the most out of training based on your cycle and leave every session feeling great.

Understanding your regular symptoms and being able to spot abnormalities is also indispensable when it comes to potentially spotting early signs of deeper health issues.

If you begin to notice an absence of a period or suddenly things have turned very irregular, please consult your doctor. 

Ready to start your journey with a trainer who understands you and your needs? Click ‘Enquire Now to speak with a member of our team. 

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