"It's that time of the month," but it doesn't have to be all that bad.
When we think of our menstrual cycle, our minds might jump to cramps, bloating, cravings, and low energy. But there's actually a lot more going on during the rest of the month too.
As a woman, you know that your monthly cycle may impact on many aspects of your life, including your nutrition, fitness, and metabolism. So what if you could understand more about your monthly cycle and use this knowledge to work in sync with your hormones?
The good news is, you can! By understanding your cycle and making some simple adjustments, you can optimize your health and achieve your fitness goals.
In this article, Brea Lofton, RD and Nutritionist, and Lumen's team of metabolic coaches will guide you through how to balance your nutrition and fitness with your monthly cycle to maximize your metabolism, maintain high energy, and overall health.
Every woman is different, every metabolism is unique, and every cycle can change. A woman’s metabolism changes throughout the month during distinct phases. During each phase of your cycle, your body may respond differently to food and exercise. When you track these changes, you're better prepared to help your mind and body adjust to your biology.
For example, the two most significant hormones in a woman's monthly cycle are estrogen and progesterone. They both have a big effect on metabolic fuel as they influence insulin sensitivity.
Hormones play a crucial role in regulating metabolism, and the menstrual cycle can affect how efficiently your body burns calories.
For example, during the follicular phase, estrogen levels increase, which can boost your metabolism and energy levels; and during the luteal phase, progesterone levels increase, which might make it harder to burn calories.
The relationship between the menstrual cycle and metabolic flexibility is deeply rooted in the physiological changes that take place in a woman's body during different phases of the cycle, particularly in the hormonal changes during the month.
To optimize your metabolism during the menstrual cycle, you should try to focus on eating a balanced diet with plenty of whole foods and staying active throughout the month.
For example, high-intensity interval training and strength training can be especially effective during the follicular phase, while gentle exercise, such as yoga or walking, can be more beneficial during the luteal phase.
Before we dive into the details of nutrition and fitness, it is important to have a basic understanding of the monthly cycle. The monthly cycle is a complex process that involves the release of hormones, the growth of follicles in the ovaries, and the shedding of the uterine lining.
The cycle typically lasts 28-32 days and can be divided into four phases: the menstrual phase, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Different hormonal changes and physiological responses in the body characterize each phase.
The menstrual phase is the first phase of the menstrual cycle and lasts about 3-7 days. During this phase, the uterus sheds its lining, which results in bleeding. Hormone levels, specifically estrogen, and progesterone, are low during this phase.
What physiology says
During phase 1 of a woman’s monthly cycle, both progesterone and estrogen are at their lowest, which means there’s no significant impact on what her body chooses for fuel.
However, in this phase, it’s possible she may experience higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, as well as inflammation, which could stimulate her body to use more carbs as fuel.
During this time of the month, Lumen's metabolic coaches recommend focusing on slow-absorption carbs to ensure that you stay full for longer.
You can complement this with foods that can restore iron levels, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory foods to improve period symptoms.
Here are nutrition tips to keep in mind:
Try incorporating movement into your daily routine. This could be low-intensity workouts, like a walk, or stretching to alleviate menstrual cramps.
Gentle exercises, such as yoga or walking, can help alleviate cramps and improve mood.
During phase two of a woman’s monthly cycle, days 7 through 13, her body is more efficient at burning body fat (due to increased insulin sensitivity) and tends to use more fat for energy. Your body also slightly decreases the amount of energy it needs, meaning fewer calories are burned.
What physiology says
Days 7-13 of a woman's monthly cycle are post-period. During these days, progesterone is still low, while estrogen increases which can affect your metabolism and energy levels in a good way.
When estrogen levels are higher, the body tends to rely more on carbohydrates as a primary energy source. This is partly due to estrogen's effect on enhancing glycolytic enzyme activity, which promotes the breakdown of glucose to produce energy. You may also experience increased energy and motivation.
This phase is also an opportunity to eat more carbs due to the improvements in insulin sensitivity, which helps your body to process carbs more efficiently and be less likely to convert them into fat.
Now can be a good time to turn up the intensity if you were doing low intensity, now can be the time to look at medium intensity.
Carbohydrates provide energy for your workouts, while protein helps to build and repair muscle tissue.
You may also benefit from incorporating more high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training into your exercise routine to take advantage of your increased energy levels.
Ovulation is the third phase of the menstrual cycle and typically occurs around day 14. This is when the mature follicle releases an egg, which can be fertilized by sperm. During ovulation, hormone levels, especially luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), peak.
During ovulation, it can be more challenging to burn fat efficiently, and the body tends to burn more carbs for fuel due to a decrease in insulin sensitivity.
At this time, fat cells also release more Adipsin on this day. Adipsin is a hormone that promotes body fat from the food she eats. This means women might gain fat more easily during this phase when they eat more carbs than the body needs.
Focus on eating a balanced diet: include plenty of complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
Consuming slow-absorption carbs: like rolled oats, whole grains, quinoa, barley, lentils, and beans, can help prevent insulin spikes and reduce hunger cues during ovulation.
Increase your intake of antioxidants: You may also benefit from increasing your intake of foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, to support your immune system.
Exercise during this phase can also be more intense and should focus on activities that challenge your cardiovascular and muscular systems.
You can start doing higher intensity when you see higher Lumen Levels. It will help you use your carbs more efficiently.
The luteal phase is the final phase of the menstrual cycle and lasts from days 15-28. During this phase, the follicle that released the egg becomes the corpus luteum, which produces progesterone. Progesterone levels increase during this phase and can affect your mood and energy levels.
Lumen's metabolic coaches share their recommendations on how to adapt your nutrition during this phase.
You can use this time to preserve lean muscle mass, strength training, and use weights or body weight for exercises like squats, push-ups, lunges, or core work is ideal. It's important to keep your energy levels up and be sensitive to yourself. While high estrogen levels are great for building muscles, they can also weaken ligaments, so be mindful of how much you push yourself.
During the end of a woman’s monthly cycle, days 24 through 28, your body will find it hard to burn fat efficiently and tend to burn more carbs for fuel at an accelerated pace.
Your body will also increase the amount of energy it needs.
In this phase, your body is burning somewhere along the lines of 100-500 more calories than usual, so you might experience an increase in hunger and feel more stressed.
What the physiology says
During the final phase of a woman’s monthly cycle, days 24-28, both progesterone and estrogen decrease. This means women will find it hard to burn fat efficiently and will tend to burn more carbs for fuel due to a decrease in insulin sensitivity (higher insulin resistance).
Your body will also release Cortisol, a stress hormone. The increase in this stress hormone makes her body less efficient at burning fat for fuel, and might further induce insulin resistance, causing increased appetite and food cravings.
Improve your mood and sleep: Serotonin, a hormone involved in sleep, appetite, and mood regulation, decreases in this phase.
Eat foods rich in tryptophan, like turkey, sesame seeds, bananas, milk, and spirulina can help you balance this hormone’s levels and sleep better.
Ease mood swings by: eating serotonin boosters like leafy greens, tofu, eggs, cashews, almonds and pumpkin seeds.
Reduce stress: The stress hormone, cortisol, increases during this phase. This can impair your body’s ability to shift to fat-burn mode during fasting. Avoid extending your fasting periods and make sure you eat every 3-4 hours to fuel your body’s need for energy.
Focus on non-processed foods: You might experience an increase in cravings for processed foods. For reducing cravings to processed foods, increase your consumption of whole foods, especially vegetables and fruits.
Manage appetite and reduce cravings: Spiking hormones may trigger hunger cues. Try small, frequent meals during the day to stay in control. Drink plenty of water and choose protein found in low-fat cheese, yogurt, edamame, peanuts, and chia pudding.
Max your magnesium: Fight fatigue and lift a low libido with extra magnesium from dark chocolate, spinach, pumpkin seeds and bananas.
Fight PMS: Getting more B vitamins can help ward off PMS. Opt for leafy greens, seafood, whole grains, beans and lentils. In addition, research shows that iron-rich diets boost serotonin and fight PMS. Reach for lean meats, legumes and leafy greens during your pre-menstrual phase.
Pay attention to your body. If you're feeling tired, take the time to rest or focus your fitness on reducing stress - whether through yoga, pilates, running, or another exercise style of your choice. The more you align with your body's needs and let it rest and recover, the better it will serve you in through the other phases of your cycle.
As a woman, your menstrual cycle can affect many aspects of your life, including your nutrition, fitness, and metabolism. By understanding the different phases of your cycle and making simple adjustments to your diet and exercise routine, you can optimize your health and achieve your fitness goals.
The Lumen cycle tracking leverages every cycle phase to make your metabolism work for you. You'll find uplifting and personalized recommendations for each day suited for your phase and physiology.
Brea has a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition & a Master’s degree in Nutrition & Food from Texas Women’s University. She has been a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for 4 years thus far. She is very passionate about uplifting others by empowering them with information regarding well-rounded nutritional intake and lifestyle practices and how they can impact overall health & wellness. She is currently a Nutritionist in the Customer Experience department at Lumen the world’s first metabolic tracking device through the breath. She has experience in a variety of nutrition-related matters, including nutrition counseling and developing community nutritional initiatives.