How understanding the phases of your menstrual cycle can help you find ease
I’m pretty sure you’ve noticed that your mood, energy and body changes a week or so before your period starts; the dreaded PMS. We are ravenous. We’re angry, blue or both. We can’t seem to sleep through the night. Our boobs hurt. We feel bloated. We’re tired and dragging our heels. And over the years, we’ve come to accept this week of hell as a normal part of our month.
Have you ever noticed though that at different times of the month, you actually have more energy, feel more sexy, can’t wait for a night out on the town, want to shop more, or feel more nurturing? Perhaps you have, but what you haven’t noticed is that these other feelings, attitudes and actions are also happening at a specific time each month, in a regular cycle.
You’ve likely heard about circadian rhythms before. The 24 hour naturally occurring cycle or rhythm of our bodies that are running the background every day and directing our energy, moods and behaviours. A really basic overview is that our circadian rhythm works our hormones throughout the day gently nudges us awake in the morning (cortisol), makes our tummy grumble at meal times reminding us to eat (ghrelin) and turns down our energy at night as it gets dark, encouraging us to go to bed (melatonin).
Both men and women have daily circadian rhythms that are part of our bodies natural biological clock. For men, their hormones are relatively the same day after day, week after week, and so they are predominately governed by their circadian rhythm. Just to make things interesting and unpredictable for women, however, our hormones don’t just run on the 24 hour circadian clock, they also fluctuate throughout the month on an infradian rhythm.
What are infradian rhythms?
Basically, infradian rhythms are regular biological cycles that are longer than 24 hours, the most common of these is our menstrual cycles. When most women think of their menstrual cycle they think of the three to seven day period of bleeding, however this is just one of the four phases of our menstrual cycle. Understanding what’s happening to our hormone levels during each menstrual phase can help us unlock a whole new appreciation for the changes in our moods, sleep, bodies, energy levels, and appetites throughout the month. Let’s take a look.
Phases of the menstrual cycle
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “A menstrual cycle begins when you get your period or menstruate. This is when you shed the lining of your uterus. Reality is that our menstrual cycle actually is actually much longer, a typical cycle lasts between 24 and 38 days.”+ and includes a whole lot of hormone fluctuations as our body prepares for a possible pregnancy. In fact menstrual cycle is actually four distinct phases, including:
The Menses Phase
Starts on the first day of your bleed and usually lasts 4 to 6 days. This is when we shed the lining of our uterus if a pregnancy has not occurred. +
If you had to compare this phase to a season, this would be our winter. During the menses phase you can expect to feel tired, have low energy levels, and you may experience back aches, headaches/migraines, cramps and achy joints. You might feel emotionally vulnerable and withdrawn, introspective and intuitive.
The Follicular Phase
This phase of the menstrual cycle typically takes place from days six to 14. During this time, the level of the hormone estrogen rises, which causes the lining of your uterus (the endometrium) to grow and thicken. In addition, another hormone — follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) — causes follicles in your ovaries to grow.
During days 10 to 14, one of the developing follicles will form a fully mature egg (ovum). + During the follicular phase your energy levels increase, brain fog reduces and you may feel more confident, powerful and sexy (hello, is that you libido?). Your skin looks softer and clearer. The surge in estrogen levels suppresses your appetite and also helps to reduce insulin sensitivity so you burn more fat. This is the spring of your menstrual cycle. A time when you feel alive and ready to take on the world. Look out Beyonce.
Ovulation – just one day
This menstrual phase occurs roughly at about day 14 in a 28-day menstrual cycle. A sudden increase in another hormone — luteinizing hormone (LH) — causes your ovary to release its egg. This event is ovulation. Estrogen peaks a day before ovulation. +
Just like Ontario in August, the summer of your cycle is HOT! With the peak in estrogen levels, women often find themselves feeling energetic, flirty and even sexy. You may find yourself craving more feminine clothing, taking more care with your grooming and may even find your smell changes due to pheromone changes. Subconsciously, your body is working hard to find sperm to fertilize your egg.
The Luteal Phase
This phase of your menstrual cycle lasts from about day 15 to day 28. Your egg leaves your ovary and begins to travel through your fallopian tubes to your uterus. The hormone levels of progesterone rises to help prepare your uterine lining for pregnancy. If the egg becomes fertilized by sperm and attaches itself to your uterine wall (implantation), you become pregnant. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, estrogen and progesterone levels drop and the thick lining of your uterus sheds during your period. +
This is the autumn of our cycle; all that beautiful energy we experienced in the summer and spring have dropped dramatically and we are left feeling sluggish, tired, detached, grumpy and agitated. We start to retain water, our metabolism slows and our cravings increase – how’s that for a trifecta?
Cycle syncing 101
Now that you have a basic understanding the four phases of your menstrual cycle, you need to learn about cycle synching – it will change your life. Cycle syncing is a way of adjusting the way you eat, exercise, fast and even work and socialize, depending on where you are in your cycle. Although there isn’t any scientific evidence to validate the benefits of cycle syncing; scientists have studied hormonal fluctuations throughout the month, and studies are starting to emerge that draw the connection between these hormones and our sleep, mood, hunger and energy. Functional practitioners, nutritionists and exercise specialists have developed cycle syncing nutrition and fasting plans and exercise routines to maximize our energy levels and mental health every week of our menstrual cycle.
The benefits of cycle syncing
Through cycle syncing, women can harness the power of our hormones to help optimize our energy, balance our mood swings and maximize our workouts. It’s a way of eating, fasting, exercising and resting so that we can feel like our best selves each and every day.
How to cycle sync
The best way to begin cycle syncing is to start tracking your menstrual cycle. You can use your calendar or one of the many free apps available on your phone. It’s important to keep track your cycle so you will know which menstrual phase you are in and therefore the best foods to eat or exercise routine to follow to help you feel your best.
Cycle syncing for each phase
Here’s an easy to follow overview of each menstrual phase and an overview on cycle syncing your fitness, nutrition and even sex:
The Menses Phase (winter)
- Mood: low energy, malaise, feeling emotionally vulnerable and withdrawn, introspective and intuitive.
- Body: you may experience back aches, headaches/migraines, cramps and achy joints – because of a sharpe drop in hormone levels there is a lot of inflammation in our bodies.
- Exercise: We are naturally more tired and achy during this phase, so it’s a great time for slow movement and stretching. Think yoga, long walks outside, and even long baths and lots of rest.
- Food: Now is the time to focus on water rich fruits and vegetables and foods rich in iron and zinc. To balance the inflammation try to include foods like nuts, ginger, turmeric and extra virgin olive oil. A diet that is higher in healthy fats, moderate protein, slow absorption carbs is ideal (eat foods like eggs, avocado, and berries). Don’t forget to take those Omegas and B12 to help with your lagging energy.
- Time Restricted Eating: This isn’t necessary, but for those of you that follow Intermittent Fasting or Time Restricted Eating, now is a good time to fast or shorten your eating window. Most women can handle 16-22 hours of fasting with a 2-8 hour eating window during this menstrual cycle phase.
- Sex: Not a great time … for so many reasons.
The Follicular Phase (spring)
- Mood: increased energy levels, confidence, motivation, brain cognition and libido make you feel powerful and sexy. You are more inclined to take risks or accept social invitations during the follicular phase. It’s a great time to attend networking events or to schedule that review meeting with your boss. Go ahead, ask for that big raise.
- Body: The surge in estrogen suppresses your appetite and also helps to reduce insulin sensitivity so your body burns more fat. Your skin looks softer and clearer.
- Exercise: With estrogen high, our ligaments get looser and our tendons become tighter making this is a great time for lifting heavier weights in shorter reps (8-10). Although you have lots of energy, it’s not a great time for burpees or jumping squats as you are more prone to ligament injury.
- Food: Because we are lifting heavy and building muscles, this is the time to eat high proteins, moderate fats, and medium to low carbs, like whole grains. It’s also a great time to incorporate fermented and sprouted food. Adding daily carb before dinner is a great way to enhance this fat-burning part of our cycle (due to increased insulin sensitivity).
- Time Restricted Eating: No aggressive fasting this week because our focus is on building muscle. A 12-14 hour fasting window is best during this time.
- Sex: Your libido is picking up so go for it. Be flirty if you’re feeling frisky. Just remember that you are approaching ovulation and if you have intercourse on the five days leading up to ovulation (or the day you ovulate), you could get pregnant.
- Mood: You may find yourself feeling energetic, social, flirty and even sexy. Your energy and focus are high so you are conquering that To Do List. This is the time to take lead on a new project at work, or to volunteer to bake 10 dozen cookies for the school bake sale. You can handle almost anything!
- Body: During this menstrual phase, you might find that it’s harder to burn fat and that you are more likely notice water retention. By tomorrow, that sexy feeling will likely be a distant memory.
- Exercise: Maximize your energy surge; go ahead and try to drain the tank in a Spin, HIIT, Dance or Crossfit class. Now is the time for steady state cardio to improve your endurance and burn some fat.
- Food: It is really important during this menstrual phase to double down on nutrient dense fiber like dark, leafy greens, broccoli, berries and beans and to take it easy on simple carbs like flour, rice and bread.
- Time Restricted Eating: This is not a great time to fast; it will only lead to more cravings. Most women will only be able to handle a 12-14 hour fasting window during this phase.
- Sex: Your libido will be at it’s highest as your body is working hard to find sperm to fertilize your egg.
The Luteal Phase (autumn)
- Mood: We are likely feeling sluggish, tired, detached, grumpy, anxious and agitated.
- Body: We are more likely to retain water, our metabolism slows and our cravings increase. Our cortisol levels are higher leading to more inflammation and insulin resistance. No wonder we are feeling grumpy, anxious and agitated.
- Exercise: Now is a great time to get grounded and avoid intense exercise; instead focus on yoga, pilates and walking. If you do want to pump some iron, opt for moderate weights with more reps (10-15) or better yet, body resistance training.
- Food: Increase all your macros by about 10-15% (150 calories) to reduce cravings. Add extra fibre (leafy greens) to help fill you up. To help with cravings, eat clean (slow absorption) carbs (starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes, parsnips), legumes & grains (chickpeas, white rice, quinoa), and higher fructose fruits (apples, grapes).
- Time Restricted Eating: With cravings high, this is not the time for fasting. Minimize your fasting window to 10-12 hours.
- Sex: Chances are you’re not feeling overly affectionate, let alone frisky.
The moon’s phases
Already post menopausal, or so deep in the throes of perimenopause that you can’t track your menstrual cycle, there is a solution, but it’s about to get woo-woo (apologize in advance to all you science nerds) Simply use the moon as your cycle syncing guide. Here’s what it looks like:
New moon – Menses phase
Waxing moon – Follicular phase
Full moon – Ovulation
Waning moon – Luteal phase
It’s as easy as that
So there you have it; cycle syncing all laid out and tied up with a pretty pink bow.
What do you think? Pretty easy, right? And actually kind of intuitive. Track your cycle, listen to your body, work with its natural rhythm and fluctuating hormones and follow these recommendations. Do this for two or three cycles and you will start to see marked improvement in your your mood swings, energy levels and physical symptoms.
Not only that, with this simple hack, you can to amplify your power days, maximize the productive ones and enjoy the tranquil days guilt free. You’re welcome.
+ Cleveland Clinic – https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10132-menstrual-cycle
* The Betty Body by Dr. Stephanie Estima
* Fast Like a Girl by Dr. Mindy Pelz
* Jenn Pike’s Synced Program