What’s the Best Nutrition For Your Menstrual Cycle?

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What’s the Best Nutrition For Your Menstrual Cycle?

Food cravings, mood swings, water retention, menstrual cramps, period pain? Nutrition during your period can make that time of the month much easier.

Being a woman is a fabulous thing. That is until that time of the month comes around and all of a sudden your lively mood turns into depression, your perfect diet becomes mayhem, and your body aches in places you didn’t even know existed. 

While some people refer to their menstrual period as a “curse”, there’s actually a lot that can be done to make this essential and deeply feminine experience much more enjoyable. 

Eating a healthy diet can do wonders. However, if you really want to dial in your PMS and menstrual woes, you need to focus on foods that are specific to your cycle. That means as your hormones shift throughout the month, your diet should as well. 

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Overview of The Phases Of Your Cycle

While every woman understands that her hormones shift throughout the month, many aren’t as familiar with the intricacies of these shifts and how they impact your nutritional needs. Before we jump into nutrition for your menstrual cycle, let’s take a moment to review the different phases of your cycle.

Phase 1: Follicular Phase 

Your follicular phase begins on the first day of your menses. In fact, the follicular phase can actually be divided into two phases: menstruation and follicular. During the first few days (or week, depending on your body) of your follicular phase, you’ll be bleeding. For the purposes of this article, it’s important to differentiate between nutrition during menstruation and nutrition after. 

At the beginning of the follicular phase, both estrogen and progesterone are on the lower end; this is what instigates menstrual bleeding. After your menses subside, your estrogen will continue to increase along with follicular stimulating hormone (FSH). This results in the maturation of the follicles that hold your eggs in your ovaries[*]. 

Depending on the length of your entire cycle, the follicular phase typically lasts somewhere from 12 to 16 days. While menstruation marks the beginning of the follicular phase, ovulation marks the end. 

Phase 2: Ovulation 

Ovulation happens about halfway through your cycle. Once your follicles have matured, your ovaries release an egg into your fallopian tubes. This is an ideal time to inseminate the egg if you’re trying to get pregnant. Ovulation typically lasts anywhere between 12 and 24 hours.

Phase 3: Luteal Phase

Following ovulation, you begin the luteal phase of your cycle. During this phase, your progesterone increases, and estrogen steadily increases and then falls off. Progesterone and estrogen work together to thicken the lining of your uterus to prepare for possible fertilization. 

If your egg is not fertilized, both progesterone and estrogen levels fall, and menstruation begins. The luteal phase is when most women start to feel symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) that are associated with declining hormone levels. The luteal phase typically lasts between 11 to 17 days, depending on your cycle[*].

Nutrition For Your Menstrual Cycle

Now that you have acquainted (or reacquainted) yourself with your menstrual cycle, let’s dive into some tips that can help you optimize your nutrition throughout the month. 

Follicular Phase

During your follicular phase, your estrogen is on the rise. Most women have a love-hate relationship with estrogen — and for good reason. On the one hand, it’s crucial for your womanhood (it provides you with beautiful feminine curves) and helps keep your mood elevated through its relationship with endorphins like serotonin[*].

On the other hand, however, when it goes out of balance, it can wreak havoc on your entire hormonal system. Common symptoms like anxiety, depression, insomnia, water retention, brain fog, and more can develop when your estrogen levels remain elevated. 

That’s why your follicular phase is a time to make sure you’re balancing your estrogen levels. Luckily, one of the most effective ways to manage estrogen is through food. 

#1 Focus On Cruciferous Vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables contain compounds that research shows can induce the detoxification pathways that remove excess estrogen from your body. Studies even indicate that cruciferous vegetables may be protective against hormone-dependent cancers like breast cancer in women[*][*][*].

Some cruciferous vegetables to increase during your follicular phase include; cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, bok choy, cauliflower, collards, and kale. 

#2 Increase Fiber

Another fantastic way to balance your estrogen levels is to increase your fiber intake[*][*]. Luckily, many cruciferous vegetables are also high in fiber — two birds, one stone if you will. 

While the exact mechanism for fiber’s estrogen lowering effects haven’t been nailed down, it’s believed that changes in absorption and gut microbiome may be responsible[*]

Along with cruciferous vegetables, some other high fiber foods include; berries, chia seeds, avocados, nuts, and seeds.

#3 Phytoestrogens

Another way to combat high estrogen levels is to fight fire with fire. Consuming phytoestrogens (compounds from plants that have a similar chemical structure to estrogen) can influence estrogen metabolism in your body. 

Due to their chemical structure, phytoestrogens can dock on estrogen receptors in your body, which results in altered estrogen metabolism. These compounds not only enhance the metabolism and excretion of estrogen, but they can shift the metabolism to less biologically active versions as well.

While different types of phytoestrogens exist, research shows that lignans found in flax seeds are more effective at neutralizing estrogen than the isoflavones found in soy[*].

In addition to flax, you can find lignans in foods such as sesame seeds, kale, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and strawberries[*]. 

#4 Reduce Alcohol

While you don’t have to give up alcohol entirely, if you experience symptoms of high estrogen, it’s a good idea to cut down your alcohol intake. Anything you can do to support your liver and help it detox out excess estrogen is going to help with overall hormonal balance.

Ovulation

During ovulation, many women experience some symptoms that are associated with PMS like cravings, bloating, and breast tenderness[*][*]. On the other hand, some women don’t even notice they’re ovulating and float through this phase seamlessly.

If you fall into the category of people who experience a little pre-PMS during ovulation, there are a few steps you can take nutritionally to support yourself. 

#1 Manage Cravings 

If you know that your cravings for sweet or salty foods increase during the day or so of ovulation, you can get ahead of a face full of cake by:

  1. Managing your blood sugar levels
  2. Having some healthy but delicious snacks on hand

To manage your blood sugar, make sure that you start the day with a robust, protein-rich meal with plenty of healthy fats[*]. This could look like a protein shake or an omelette. In addition, make sure to eat regularly throughout the day. This likely isn’t the day to try a new intermittent fasting routine.  

To combat your sweet tooth, prepare some satisfying fat bombs or other blood-sugar friendly treats like keto cookies or keto brownies. If you fall into the “salty food” craving camp, make yourself some keto crackers or buy some beef jerky. 

#2 Bloating

While several factors can influence your cravings,  if you experience bloating around ovulation, you can be pretty sure that it’s hormonal. You can think of this as a little foreshadowing of your period[*].

To fight bloat during ovulation, eat foods that are high in vitamin B6. Some examples include; pork, turkey, eggs, salmon, tuna, chicken liver, and spinach[*].

Low potassium levels are also associated with bloating, so in addition to keeping your electrolytes up, you can try adding in potassium-rich foods. Some examples include; broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, and pumpkin[*].

#3 Breast Tenderness

Vitamin b6 has also been shown to reduce breast pain that’s associated with your cycle. If you experience both bloating and breast pain around ovulation, it’s time to double down on those b6 rich foods[*][*].  

Luteal Phase

During your luteal phase, you may start to experience symptoms of PMS. This is a time to get ahead of any menstrual discomfort but focusing on anti-inflammatory foods and nutrients that can ease symptoms of PMS like cramps, cravings, bloating, breast tenderness, mood swings, and more. 

#1 Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Research shows that symptoms of PMS are correlated to an increase in prostaglandins (inflammatory chemicals) in your body. This is especially true for menstrual cramps[*][*].

There are several things you can do nutritionally to keep inflammation at bay, but some of the most effective approaches are:

Eat More Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Studies show that fish oil is more effective at calming period cramps than ibuprofen. This is likely due to the high level of omega-3 fats that can be found in fish oil and fatty fish[*][*]. 

Some examples of high omega-3 fatty fish include; salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines. If you’re not a big fish eater, you can also opt to take fish oil supplements, omega-3 algae supplements, or increase your intake of grass-fed beef — which is also high in omega-3 fats[*]. 

Avoid Sugar

Sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods out there. If you suffer from PMS symptoms, avoiding sugar during this time of the month can make a big difference. In fact, research shows that the consumption of sugar-laden beverages is strongly tied to symptoms of PMS[*]. 

#2 Fight Cravings with Fiber and Protein

Research shows that as estrogen increases, so does the hormone leptin — and vice versa. Leptin is a hormone that is released from your fat cells to let your brain know that you have enough fuel so you can stop eating[*].

When leptin is low, however, your brain doesn’t get the message that you’re satisfied, so you continue to crave food even when you’re physiologically satisfied. 

During your cycle, your estrogen is at its lowest (and therefore so is leptin) at the end of the luteal phase (right before menstruation) and at the beginning of your period. It also takes a dip around ovulation. This explains why so many women experience intense cravings and urges to eat during these times in their cycle[*]. 

To combat these cravings during the luteal phase, make sure to keep your blood sugar steady. That means even if you’re following a keto diet, you should take care to eat regularly. If cravings aren’t an issue for you, then no worries — carry on as usual.

If cravings are an issue, however, take these steps to avoid a slip-up. 

  1. Eat plenty of protein with each meal[*]. 
  2. Take extra care to keep carbs low. 
  3. Have satisfying foods on hand like fat bombs, jerky, or whatever other low-carb treats put a smile on your face.
  4. Stay hydrated; many people often confuse hunger with thirst. 
  5. Consume magnesium-rich foods (see the next section).

#3 Increase Magnesium-Rich Food Consumption

Research shows that many women struggling with PMS symptoms have low levels of magnesium. This may be why you start craving magnesium-rich foods like chocolate around your menses[*].

But that chocolate is doing more than just satisfying your sweet tooth. When it comes to mood swings around your period, enhancing your magnesium intake may be the answer. 

Research shows that women who take magnesium supplements experience a reduction in premenstrual depression and anxiety. In addition, they also experience a decrease in cravings[*].

Foods high in magnesium include; chocolate (go for sugar-free dark chocolate), brazil nuts, avocado, pumpkin seeds, leafy greens, and almonds [*].

#4 Get More Vitamin B6

In addition to magnesium, vitamin B6 is an all-star when it comes to combating symptoms of PMS[*].

As mentioned earlier, B6 is fantastic for reducing breast pain and bloating associated with hormonal fluctuations[*][*]. 

In addition, B6 may also help to treat PMS related depression[*].

Foods high in vitamin B6 include; pork, turkey, eggs, salmon, tuna, chicken liver, and spinach

Menstrual Period

Menstruation marks the beginning of the follicular phase. While the recommendations listed above for the follicular phase apply during menstruation, there are some additional needs to be aware of while you bleed as well. 

#1 Red Meat

If you experience heavy bleeding, then it’s crucial to make sure you’re getting enough iron-rich foods in your diet. While research shows that taking iron supplements throughout the month is the best way to ward off anemia, during your period, it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’re getting in an extra dose of iron with some red meat consumption[*].

#2 Fatty Fish

Many women experience cramps both during PMS and at the beginning of their period. For this reason, it’s beneficial to increase omega-3 intake during menses as well. As mentioned above, research shows that fish oil works better than ibuprofen for period cramps due to omega-3s[*][*].

If you’re not a fish eater then try incorporating other omega-3 rich foods during this time like grass-fed beef, chia seeds, spirulina, hemp seeds, or flax seeds.

#3 Consume Magnesium-Rich Foods

If you tend to feel low and experience cravings during your period, there’s no better nutrient to focus on then magnesium. Several studies have shown that magnesium can reduce symptoms associated with menstruation — specifically food cravings and depression[*][*].

Foods high in magnesium include; chocolate (go for sugar-free dark chocolate), brazil nuts, avocado, pumpkin seeds, leafy greens, and almonds [*].

Nutrition For Your Menstrual Cycle

During your follicular phase, cruciferous vegetables check all the boxes when it comes to helping control estrogen levels — they’re high fiber, enhance detox pathways, and many of them are high in lignins. In addition, focusing on anti-inflammatory foods and red meat during the beginning of your follicular phase can help with symptoms of PMS and dips in energy that come with bleeding.

As you move into ovulation, be aware that you may experience some PMS symptoms like breast tenderness, cravings, and even cramping. You can get ahead of this by staving off hunger and increasing your vitamin B6 and magnesium intake. 

And finally, during your luteal phase, it’s time to do whatever you can to combat PMS symptoms. Keep your diet rich in protein, inflammatory foods, and nutrient-dense veggies that are rich in b vitamins and magnesium. 

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