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Embracing the Ebb and Flow: Nutrition Advice for Every Phase of Your Menstrual Cycle

Woman walking on the seashore among foaming waves
Monthly hormonal fluctuations can have a huge impact on a woman’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing

As women, our bodies undergo a rhythmic dance of hormonal changes throughout the menstrual cycle. And these fluctuations have a huge impact on how we feel throughout the month. Our hormones are so complex and potent that even the smallest amount can cause a huge change in cells, affecting your well-being on a physical, mental and emotional level. Of course, your body is amazing and is designed to cope with hormonal ebb and flow. But are you aware of what goes on throughout your cycle and why perhaps you feel really productive and energetic some weeks and other weeks you have an irresistible urge to indulge in uninterrupted sleep and eat chocolate non-stop?

Embracing the unique needs of each phase through mindful nutrition and lifestyle practices can empower us to navigate this natural ebb and flow with greater ease. In this article, we'll explore how targeted nutritional choices can support the various stages of your menstrual cycle and help you navigate these fluctuations with greater ease.

What’s “normal” for you is what’s “normal”

You’ve probably noticed, that different phases of your cycle feel different. And I don’t just mean the difference between bleeding or not bleeding. We are all very different and unique, so what’s normal for you won’t be the same for your sister, or friend. A 28 day cycle is far from “normal” for most, but for the sake of this article we’re going to break it down into four one week periods (‘scuse the pun).

Diagram of the 4 phases of the menstrua cycle
There are 4 phases to the menstrual cycle the length of which can vary among individuals

Week 1

Examples of iron rich foods inlcuding res meat, nuts, broccoli, avocado
During menstruation, women can experience a significant loss of blood and consequently iron so consuming iron rich foods during this time is important

You’re on your period. You might start off feeling a little low if you’re getting cramps or headaches but, since your oestrogen levels are on the up, this generally has you feeling brighter and more positive. You can expect to be more patient, more energetic, sociable, focussed, curious and more creative in the next few days.

If you’re feeling a bit “bleugh” at the start of your period, you might fancy more comfort foods but that will soon pass and you’ll be happier with lighter, more balanced meals.

If you’re a fan of fasting, once bleeding and any discomfort has passed, you might find it easy to fast longer in the first half of your cycle than at other times.

Be sure to include iron rich foods like meat, fish, egg yolks, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds as you will be losing iron during your bleed.

Week 2

You’re likely to be in a good mood more often than not. You might be more open, tolerant and hopeful as oestrogen levels climb. Oestrogen stimulates the happy brain chemicals like serotonin, acetylcholine and oxytocin. You might notice your sleep is great, too.

Your libido starts to reach a peak as a result of high oestrogen and testosterone. Unlike men who produce testosterone constantly, we get a surge of testosterone only 5 days out of the month. This will also have an impact on how assertive, ambitious and competitive you feel.  This is the time that you can lift heavier in the gym and are more likely to build muscle.

When it comes to food, your hormone balance makes eating healthily easy.  If you enjoy intermittent fasting, again this is a good week for it.

Week 3

During the first few days of this week, your mood may dip and you may become irritable as oestrogen starts to fall away and progesterone comes in with its typical sedating effect.

You’ll start to become quieter, more tired, subdued, doubtful, cautious and more emotionally sensitive as progesterone starts to rise. Your libido also definitely takes a hit thanks to diminishing oestrogen and testosterone. Some women are more sensitive than others to the change in progesterone levels. If this is you, you could notice a dip in your mood, making you feel a little sluggish, sad or irritable. 

You may experience blood sugar imbalances this week, making you feel a little more hungry. Some women get a little constipated, water retention and experience breast tenderness due to the rising levels of progesterone. Progesterone needs carbs so ensure that you choose your smart carb foods like wholegrain breads, rye, oats, quinoa, brown rice, fruits and veg.

If you feel bloated or constipated during this time, up your fibrous foods to get those bowels moving and to help to clear excess hormones. Think berries, apples, pears, kiwi, chia seeds, oats, lentils, beans, broccoli, cauliflower and root vegetables and hydrate with water or herbal teas.  Dandelion is great or green tea is always a winner.

Week 4

Woman sitting on yoga mat stretching forward
Gentle exercise can help calm the body during the premenstrual phase

Your moods are a little more unpredictable in your premenstrual week as both oestrogen and progesterone drop so you could be happy one moment, then angry or sad the next. This drop in oestrogen can trigger PMS, bringing with it mood swings and irritability depending on your sensitivity to changing hormones.

You might find you have a bit more energy than you did last week but sleep is trickier thanks to the lower levels of oestrogen. If you incorporate fasting into your daily routine, you’ll want to scale this back during the run-up to your period.

Your body will naturally crave more starchy, comforting foods, and restricting your eating window will feel like an uphill climb.

Go easy on yourself, keep your exercise gentle, get some early nights, don’t over commit yourself, it’s ok to say no to social obligations. This is your rest week so that you can power up again for the rest of your cycle.

Focus here on supporting your gut microbiome as the bacteria in our gut help to break down and clear ‘used’ oestrogen and progesterone.  Try some fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha or kimchi and try to work in those polyphenolic foods to ensure diversity in your microbiome. Some of the higher polyphenolic foods include berries, herbs and spices as a whole, green and oolong tea, spinach, cherries, black beans, red cabbage, olive and red onion.

Go easy on the booze as your liver will be working hard at this time.

Monitoring your cycle

I’m a big fan of data. The more you know about your own body, the more you start to understand how you uniquely work and the greater chance of spotting something ‘wrong’ that you want to seek medical advice for.

This is true of your menstrual cycle, too. Monitoring your monthlies is never a bad thing and there is a variety of smartphone apps to help you do that. These include Clue, Cycles, Flo Health, and Period Tracker. There’s also a tracker for your Apple Watch if that’s your bag.

Whichever you choose, these apps will help you monitor your cycle effectively. When you count which day of your cycle you are on, you will count day 1 as the first day of your period.

Additional Tips for Menstrual Wellness

Woman refusing processed sugar food and choosing healthy salads and fruit instead
Mindful eating helps provide your body with varying nutritional needs during the 4 phases of your menstrual cycle

  1. Stay Hydrated: Proper hydration supports all bodily functions, including hormone regulation. Aim to drink around a couple of litres.

  2. Limit Refined Sugar and Ultra-processed foods: Excessive consumption of these can really mess with your hunger signals and your microbiome. Aim for as much of your food as you can to be as close to nature as possible.

  3. Include Anti-Inflammatory Foods: Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, chia seeds, avocado and walnuts, can help reduce inflammation and alleviate menstrual discomfort.

  4. Mindful Eating: Pay attention to your body's hunger and fullness cues. Eating mindfully can help you make healthier food choices and better connect with your body's needs.

  5. Double down on your sleep – Lack of sleep is bad news for your hormones so look at your daily and evening routine and see what you could do to get to bed earlier particularly on weeks 3 and 4 of your cycle.

By aligning your nutrition and lifestyle choices with the natural rhythms of your menstrual cycle, you can cultivate a harmonious relationship with your body. Embrace the diversity of each phase, recognising that self-care is not one-size-fits-all. Incorporate these suggestions gradually, and remember that consistency over time fosters the most significant impact.

In the journey towards menstrual wellness, a holistic approach that combines mindful nutrition, lifestyle adjustments, and self-compassion can contribute to a healthier, happier menstrual experience.

My advice is get to know your body and just flow with it ladies!




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