When it comes to the female cycle, most women think most about what happens around “that time of the month” and all of the symptoms that may come along with it. Unless you’re trying to conceive (or using the fertility awareness method as an approach to avoid conception), you may not have ever thought about the other parts of your cycle and what your cycle says about your health.
But here’s the thing, ladies: your cycle (and any symptoms that come along with it) may actually tell you a lot more than you think. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists even refer to the female menstrual cycle as a vital sign and use it to assess overall health in adolescents. And what and how much you eat can impact both the regularity of your cycle and the symptoms you experience throughout it.
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A normal cycle is anywhere from 21-35 days and consists of 4 phases:
“Ovulation is not just about having a baby,” says Jillian Graves, M.P.H., RD, LDN, dietitian at Jillian Greaves Functional Nutrition and Wellness. “Ovarian hormones estrogen and progesterone may support many aspects of a woman’s health including bone health, cardiovascular health, thyroid function, breast health, mood, cognition, and more,” she adds. “One of my biggest concerns if you’re not ovulating is that your body is only getting exposed to estrogen with no progesterone to balance it out. This can increase risk for estrogen-dependent cancers like breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers,” notes Melissa Groves Azzaro, RDN, LD, owner of The Hormone Dietitian.
Don’t worry too much about the occasional off cycle. “Most women will have an occasional cycle that’s out of whack, especially if stress is high. If you’ve had 3 cycles in a row that have been out of the norm, that’s a good indication that it’s time to get checked out,” says Azzaro.
Even if you have a regular cycle, it’s still helpful to monitor any symptoms that you experience throughout your cycle. “I think we’ve been led to believe that PMS symptoms and painful periods are normal, but just because they’re common, it doesn’t make them normal,” says Azzaro. Symptoms like acne, bloating, mood changes, significant energy changes, heavy bleeding, and debilitating pain can be a sign of hormone imbalance. These may be related to “nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar imbalances, poor gut health, inflammation, stress, lack of sleep, or too much exercise,” notes Greaves. With some nutrition and lifestyle changes, it is possible to have symptom-free cycles!
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Emphasizing whole foods is a great place to start. Greaves recommends “incorporating a mix of fiber-rich carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats at all meals.” Eating enough is just as, if not more, important than what you eat. “Under eating is closely linked to cycle disturbances,” says Greaves. Eating too few carbs can negatively impact your cycle too. While low-carb diets may be popular, they could actually be doing more harm than good. One small studyfound that 45% of female adolescents following a ketogenic diet for six months experienced disturbances in their menstrual cycles. (Here are some other not-so-sexy keto side effects.)
Once you’ve set a strong foundation with a balanced diet, emphasize these foods for additional support:
Fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can support hormonal health. They are also a good source of fiber, which plays an important role in digestive health and the gut microbiome is closely linked to estrogen levels in women. “The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in hormone balance including removing excess hormones from the body, regulating estrogen levels and more,” says Greaves. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts may be particularly beneficial. (Here are 10 more health benefits of vegetables, according to a dietitian.)
Fat and cholesterol are essential for sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone – both of which play a role in the menstrual cycle. Azzaro recommends adding “fatty fish for omega-3s, which can combat inflammation may help with some hormonal symptoms.” Along with salmon, albacore tuna, and sardines, eating plant-based sources of omega-3s like ground flax, chia seeds, and walnuts may also be beneficial. Try these healthy salmon recipes for dinner inspiration.
Fermented foodscontain probiotics that help support a healthy gut, and in turn, hormonal health. Aim to incorporate foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt that contains live and active cultures (check the label!), kefir, and miso. Try these 7 healthy fermented foods.
While all foods can be part of a healthy diet, Azzaro does recommend limiting processed foods and added sugars. These foods provide few beneficial nutrients and may crowd out fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, all of which can all have a positive impact on your gut and hormones. But don’t let following a healthy diet become stressful since stress can negatively impact your hormones,too. (Learn more abouthormone-balancing foods and how your diet impacts your hormones.)
If you’ve ever felt like you can’t stop eating in the days leading up to your period or crave certain foods at different times of the month, you’re not crazy! Hormonal shifts throughout the month can influence your body’s needs. For example, “in the one to two weeks leading up to your period (luteal phase), your energy needs are higher and you may notice an increase in hunger,” says Greaves. Additionally, “sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone can play a role in insulin sensitivity, which fluctuates throughout the menstrual cycle.” This can affect how your body responds to certain foods, especially carbohydrates.
Some functional medicine practitioners recommend a concept known as cycle synching. It’s meant to “optimize hormone balance for improved mood, better energy and digestion, and overall health,” says Greaves.
During the menstrual phase, Greaves recommends “focusing on replacing nutrients lost during menstruation and lowering inflammation.” This may include iron-rich foods like beef, turkey, beans, and dark leafy greens. Omega-3-rich fatty fish is linked to lower inflammation and, along with antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, may be helpful during this time of the month.
“Estrogen levels rise and the body is preparing for ovulation,” notes Greaves. She recommends incorporating foods to support healthy estrogen metabolism such as ground flaxseed and pumpkin seeds as well as fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut.
“Estrogen levels peak and energy levels are generally high around days 15-17,” says Greaves. Similar to the follicular phase, emphasizing foods to support gut health and therefore estrogen metabolism can be beneficial. Cruciferous vegetables as well as fiber-rich plant foods like berries, non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes all support regular elimination and therefore a healthy gut.
“Progesterone rises and PMS symptoms are most likely to develop during this time,” notes Greaves. She also adds that “energy needs increase and changes in progesterone cause the body to me more sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar.” The fluctuation in hormones, including changes in serotonin, that occur during the luteal phase may be why you crave carbs and sugar right before you get your period.
“One of the biggest things I see women doing wrong is going too low carb during the luteal phase,” says Greaves. Instead, she recommends incorporating fiber-rich carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, quinoa, and squash. Azzaro also suggests adding “more healthy carbs the week before your period (like sweet potato, quinoa, or oats) to help you avoid the processed carbs like chips and ice cream,” that you may be craving.
If this sounds complicated and a little out there to you, you’re not alone. Azzaro notes that there really is “no scientific evidence that eating specific foods at specific points in your cycle makes any difference, and it’s difficult to follow.” But some people like Greaves are seeing some benefit with clients. “I’ve seen tremendous benefits with my clients in-terms of how they feel, their sleep, mood, energy, digestion, and PMS symptoms when they make supportive changes throughout their cycle. But cycle synching should never be treated like a rigid diet,” notes Greaves. That’s why seeking help from a dietitian who specializes in hormones can be helpful, instead of following generic guidelines.
Hormonal health is closely linked to what and how much we eat. While there may be some benefits to eating certain foods during specific phases of your cycle, eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods, balanced meals that support stable blood sugar, and enough energy will make the most difference in your hormonal health.