As you may have experienced in your own life, what we eat can directly affect and support our menstrual cycle. For women of all ages, you can achieve physical benefits if you tailor your food choices and overall nutrition to support your cycle. For many, it is an unfamiliar concept: eating in accordance with your menstrual cycle. But it is 100% true: being intentional about eating nutrient dense foods to support each specific stage of your cycle can provide nutritional and energetic benefits.
Your menstrual cycle involves much more than when you have your period. Each month, women experience consistent and predictable hormone fluctuations. These hormonal fluctuations occur naturally… but if you listen to your body, you realize that each phase of your cycle can directly affect your mood, thoughts, and dietary choices.
What are the phases and what can you focus on that relates to diet and exercise?
Menstrual Phase (period, 3-7 days)
Menstruation can hit the body hard, so focus on nutrient dense foods that provide high-quality macro and micronutrients. Consider adding fiber and antioxidants by eating fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats. Also focus on iron rich foods, as your body loses iron from the blood loss during menstruation (think sea vegetables, legumes, red meat, dark leafy greens). Some research shows that an anti-inflammatory diet can also help alleviate menstrual symptoms. Soups, stews, porridges, and other easily digestible meals are a great way to give your digestive system a rest during this intense phase.
Foods that can support: kale, mushrooms, kelp, beets, seafood
Exercise: because your energy will be the lowest in this phase, it is okay to relax with exercise. Consider going for a light walk or jog, slow flow yoga, or a recovery ride on a bike.
Recipe: White Bean and Kale Soup
Follicular Phase (before ovulation, after period, 7-10 days)
The follicular phase is when many women feel their best. In this phase, you often have high levels of energy, confidence, creativity, and openness to try new things. This phase is a week to set new intentions and work on the goals you may not have had the energy to focus in during the menstrual phase.
Don’t be afraid to load up on protein and complex carbohydrates to maintain your energy and pep during this busy time. To optimize your energy levels, eat fresh and light foods such as water-dense vegetables (celery, cucumber, lettuce) and lean protein (chicken, turkey, white fish).
Foods that can support: artichoke, kimchi, broccoli, sprouted beans, parsley, green peas, zucchini, string beans
Exercise: this is your time to try something new, maybe that kickboxing class that looks fun or step out of your comfort zone by hitting a Zumba or dance cardio class.
Recipe: Cucumber Salad
Ovulatory Phase (when ovulating, 3-5 days)
With the rise in your estrogen levels during the ovulatory phase, your energy will likely be high, and your mood tends to be stable. Because of your high estrogen levels, it is important to eat leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (brussels sprouts, cabbage broccoli, cauliflower) to help metabolize additional estrogen. Focus on lighter starches such as corn, quinoa, and sweet potatoes.
Foods that can support: brussels sprouts, chard, asparagus, escarole, spinach, scallion
Exercise: with the extra energy, focus on the harder, high-impact workouts and don’t be afraid to get your sweat on.
Luteal Phase (before period, 10-14 days)
The Luteal Phase is the time between ovulation and menstruation. During this phase, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone reach their highest levels and then begin to decrease.
For the first part of this phase, utilize your higher energy levels because you may begin to feel a bit lethargic as your body prepares for menstruation (including possible PMS symptoms). The Luteal Phase is often the time when cravings hit for carbs, sugar, fatty foods, etc.
To combat those potential sugar cravings, focus on foods rich in B vitamins. Adding in foods rich in calcium and magnesium (ex. dark leafy greens, broccoli, and beans) can assist progesterone production and help alleviate mood swings, cramps, and breast tenderness. Prioritize eating nutrient-dense foods like root vegetables and healthy fats to satisfy cravings and optimize feelings of fullness.
Foods that can support: collard greens, carrot, onion, cauliflower, radish, parsnip, squash, sweet potato
Exercise: utilize your energy in the beginning of this phase with your preferred form of fitness then consider tapering back to something a bit slower or restorative as your energy levels begin to reduce.
Eating in accordance with your cycle may not solve all your menstrual troubles…but, it might solve some! Remember that everyone’s body is different, so pay attention to what makes you feel your best and consider tracking your cycle (there’s many apps out there that can help) to get in sync with your own monthly biological clock. Your body will thank you for paying attention, fueling, and moving it in lockstep with the phases of your cycle.