Having a better understanding of the hormonal changes during our cycle can help us adapt and accept that we can’t, and shouldn’t expect to, feel damn good all the time or perform to our best every day.
Throughout the cycle, the primary sex hormones, estrogen, and progesterone are continuously fluctuating. The food we eat throughout our cycle dictates how we function. Fueling your body with the right nutrients can positively affect how you feel and perform during each phase.
When it comes to women's cycle, we women all know, they are sometimes running wild and it may start to as though nothing you do is helping to temper the symptoms. Mood swings, cramps set in, fatigue rage on, hunger levels jump, and the only action you may think about is to stay in your bed with a pack of chocolates.
Nutrition and workout programming for men and women is in general quite the same. Both need a certain level of protein each day to optimize their program, both genders should be doing a few key lifts in their program to make maximum progress, and both genders need to be choosing from a similar group of healthy foods.
But one thing is heavily different for each gender - HORMONES. Not just that they vary from men to women but just women go through different stages through the month. Some women are educated in this personal field, some not. Me as a fitness and nutrition coach, and as someone who suffered from hormonal issues for a long time, I have to know this not just because of me but because of female clients I work with to maximize their training and diet routine.
Hormones That Plan A Key Role In Menstrual Cycle
Oestrogen tends to have a bad reputation in the fitness world but this isn’t necessarily justified. Contrary to common belief, in females, the estrogen hormones do positive things, such as reduce appetite, increase fat burning, and help with performance. (We referred to hormones, plural because estrogen is the title given to a group of female sex hormones. The one we’re actually referring to is oestradiol but to keep things simple we’ll just be referring to the hormones collectively as estrogen in this article).
Progesterone is another hormone that is secreted during the menstrual cycle and is what causes increased hunger and cravings – especially for carbs and sugars – lethargy, strength loss, and generally making women feel terrible during menstruation.
Essential Nutrients for Women
ZINC – Women often don’t have enough zinc in their diet. Zinc helps to support the immune system and is essential for hormone synthesis, recovery, adaptation, and repair. Some food sources of Zinc: whole grains, chickpeas.
PROTEIN – It is important to hit your daily protein requirements as protein is essential to help with recovery and adaptation to training. Some food sources of protein: lean meat, fish, eggs, beans.
B VITAMINS – These are essential for maintaining health, supporting metabolism, regulating menstrual flow, growth, and development as well as red blood cell development. Some food sources of B vitamins: fish, avocados, bananas.
IRON – Women often eat less iron than men and lose iron through menstruation, increasing their susceptibility to iron deficiency. Iron is essential for red blood cell development and many other factors involved in health and wellbeing. Some food sources of iron: red meats, beans, lentils, spinach.
VITAMIN D - Can help with the regulation of insulin flow and balance blood sugar, allowing the body's natural hormone cycles to function more effectively. It also provides bone-building nutrients, which are even more important because hyperthyroidism is known to cause bone loss. Vitamin D is found in milk, eggs, dairy, mushrooms, and fatty fish, such as salmon.
CALCIUM – A key mineral that helps with bone health and muscle contraction. It should be consumed alongside vitamin D. Some food sources of calcium: broccoli, milk.
MAGNESIUM - Promotes healthy estrogen clearance, helps with bone density, enhances exercise performance, may reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, may help reducing blood sugar and improve insulin resistance, fights inflammation, and relieves cramps. Good sources of magnesium can be spinach, dark choco, quinoa, nuts and seeds, black beans, or fish.
Week 1 is the week of your menstruation. Your estrogen level starts out at its lowest point and begins to rise. The low level of estrogen in combination with the period can be responsible for fatigue that you may feel. However, as estrogen rises throughout this cycle week, this hormone will be boosting your mood, energy, and patience and ratcheting up your desire for adventure and to socialize. This process varies from woman to woman and depends on personal sensitivity to hormone fluctuations.
Rising estrogen has a slight appetite-suppressing effect, so it may feel easier for you to eat a smaller portion, or do smart and healthier choices for example. But your body will be more sensitive to insulin at this point (which means your body will utilize glycogen/carbs a lot better), so don't be afraid to get some extra carbs. However, choose healthy sources such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, beans, along with fruits and vegetables. A lack of iron caused by blood loss can make us feel fatigued, particularly during this phase. Eating iron-rich foods such as red meat, green vegetables, lentils, and seeds can support iron production.
As I already mentioned, Iron plays an important role for women. Females need 14-15 mg per day but Iron requirements can be higher during menstruation if the client experiences heavy blood loss (up to 18mg). Iron deficiency can cause:
Physiological - Athletic training & strenuous exercise = increased iron turnover in tissue and increase in iron loss from exercise-associated mechanisms = increased iron requirements
Growth spurts (adolescents and children)
Menstruation is not normally a major causal factor of iron deficiency in athletes except those with heavy or frequent blood loss
Low energy diets that don’t provide enough iron-rich foods
Iron – beef, chicken, turkey, dried beans, leafy greens, egg yolks, fortified cereals
Vitamin C – citrus fruits, kiwi, pineapple, cantaloupe, kale, yellow peppers, broccoli
B12 – clams, salmon, tuna, fortified cereals, fortified plant-milks, and some fortified soy products
B6 – turkey, fish, potatoes, starchy vegetables, non-citrus fruits
Anti-inflammatory foods, herbs, and spices – ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cilantro, garlic, parsley, broccoli, cabbage, beetroot,
Antioxidants - rich smoothies with dark berries (blackberries and blueberries), kale, and flaxseed (wonderful for hormone balancing and anti-inflammation) are also great options
Avoid coffee and caffeinated teas, such as green tea and black tea - they have an antioxidant substance called polyphenols which can decrease the amount of iron the body absorbs. The other potential downside to caffeine is that it’s a vasoconstrictor, which means it makes the blood vessels in your body constrict. A lot of people find that this constriction can make their period cramps even worse, so for that reason, it might be best to stick to herbal tea on those first few days or spread the caffeine out at least an hour before or after your iron-rich meal to help maximize the absorption of iron.
During this phase a woman's body prepares for ovulation, FSH rises to tell the ovaries to prepare to release an egg, and estrogen rises. While these hormones are beginning to rev up for the month, they are still at their lowest point, and simultaneously, a woman’s overall energy levels tend to be at their lowest. Higher estrogen levels reduce hunger and cravings for fatty, sugary foods, improve insulin sensitivity, and stabilize blood sugar levels.
The menstrual phase, we were talking about before, is considered as a follicular. So diet would be quite the same. Focus on a normal balanced diet, nourishing food, and Just to enjoy your complex carbs, eat fresh and colorful foods. Also, you may include some boost probiotic-rich foods in this phase to support gut balance by complementing well-balanced meals with probiotic-rich fermented and pickled veggies, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
The shortest phase of the cycle is ovulation, which typically lasts between 1-2 days. But more hormonal changes happen in this phase as your FSH continues to rise, LH levels increase, estrogen levels reach their peak, and testosterone surges.
Progesterone has you craving favorite comfort foods that are high in fat and calories. Your appetite is also greater and you’re hungrier more often, so you tend to eat more at meals and snack more frequently. All this is because your body thinks you might have gotten pregnant during ovulation, so progesterone wants you to eat enough for two. If you eat too little during this phase, you may be experiencing mood swings that lead you to feel angry or sad. It is caused by your level of sensitivity to drops in blood sugar during this cycle week. So eating regularly during the day can help to keep your blood sugar level stable as well as your mood. It also can help with constipation that slows down digestion as a way to help your body absorb more nutrients from food in case you got pregnant. And, it prompts water retention, causing temporary bloating.
As your energy levels are high, your metabolic rate increases too. Don't be afraid to add 100-200 calories to your day and support your workouts from a healthy mix of nutrients. Your insulin sensitivity isn’t quite as high at this point as it was during the follicular phase, and your body is more efficient at using fat for fuel.
Overall, hunger and craving are higher than normal this is a time to get ready for those cravings, eating enough protein for satiety, prefer a higher intake of healthy fats while reducing a carb intake and, balance micronutrients intake.
Be prepared for these hormonal shifts by getting plenty of healthy and easy snacks, plenty of fiber to prevent bloating and ensure bowel regularity, and anti-inflammatory foods that have incredible health benefits, including anti-aging properties and protection from environmental toxins, which are known to have an impact on your hormones.
Fermented Foods - help promote gut health, bowel regularity, and fluid balance, so consider incorporating kombucha, kefir, yogurt, or raw apple cider vinegar into your daily regimen
Fiber - fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans (real foods are always preferred over fiber-supplements)
Healthy sweet fixes - dark chocolate, fresh, in-season fruits, greek yogurts, dates, apple chips
This is the worst phase of the cycle for most women. We usually experience body changes such as increased body temperature, fatigue, water retention, muscle and joints aches, low concentration and focus, cravings, and hunger. All in all, you won't be feeling quite like yourself and you definitely won’t feel like hitting the gym for a workout. However, one positive thing can be your increased metabolic rate. By adding an extra approx. 200 calories can help you handle PMS, and prevent overeating. Sometimes a little damage control by adding a few more calories keeps everything under control.
Descending estrogen and progesterone are responsible for those craving and hunger level, that may be crazy. The reason? As the level of this hormone drops, it drags down levels of mood-moderating serotonin in the brain—and carbohydrates help replenish it, so your body pushes you to eat more of them.
When we talk about serotonin, its level decreasing as well and is responsible for slightly different brain chemistry. Your brain may not be making as much serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that puts you in a 'feel-good state', boost your mood, calms your mind, and helps you enjoy yourself. So include food rich in serotonin and tryptophan will do the trick.
To support your gut, continue to include plenty of fiber and keep hydration levels up. If you experience bloating, and water retention, avoid foods high in salt. It is also a good time to minimize caffeine and stimulants as they can worsen PMS, trigger anxiety and mood shifts.
B-complex or adaptogens such as ashwagandha can be helpful to manage stress.
Omega-3 fatty acids – coconut oils, olive oils, grass-fed butter and beef, salmon, leafy greens, avocados, walnuts
Serotonin and Tryptophan foods - eggs, cheese, tomatoes, tofu, salmon, nuts and seeds, turkey, bananas, kiwi, pineapple
The most important and the best thing you can do is to listen to understand the hormones and listen to your body. You will be much more aware of what is happening in your body and you will be able to nourish and navigate your natural and cyclical energy patterns. So it doesn't count only in relation to the menstrual cycle but with your overall nutrition-fitness-wellbeing aspect of life. To be in touch with your body means being able to read your own personal energy and to support these processes and relationships you have to take care of your body, mind, and soul, utilize regular stress management techniques, consume high-quality whole foods, ensure adequate nightly sleep and your chances of achieving optimal hormonal balance become all the more likely. ♥