Hello friends! Today I invited Nutritionist Marina O’Connor to write a guest post about hormonal health, and what we can do to nutritionally support our body throughout each stage in our cycle.
Understanding Your Menstrual Cycle
By: Marina O’Connor, B.A., CNP
How well do you know your feminine cycle? For a very long time, the only thing I knew or cared about my cycle was when I was going to menstruate (crossing fingers it did not land on an important event or vacation!). Unfortunately, basic health class does not prepare us with the specific and thorough knowledge to navigate our fertility and hormonal cycles. We are not taught that our bodies are eloquently and continuously adapting to these changes without us even realizing. This is most certainly not a criticism against our education system! Instead, this post is intended to educate and empower women about the way their cycle moves. I hope you will come away from this post knowing three things: 1) how to adapt to your energy levels as hormones fluctuate, 2) how to balance your cycle with appropriate food choices, and 3) learn to appreciate the function and strength of your body.
Here’s a look at the four phases of the menstrual cycle:
Duration: 3-5 Days Average
The follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) is released slowly by the pituitary gland right before menstruation when estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest. FSH is responsible for developing the dozen or so follicles in the ovary that will later race for ovulation (Weschler, 2015, p.408). Immediately before and during menstruation, melatonin levels peak (responsible for regulating blood pressure, sleep and wakefulness, immune system, and the coordination of other hormonal shifts).
This is the perfect time for a woman to rest, spend time alone, and practice positive affirmations. This time of the month shows an increase in creativity, contemplation, intuition and spirituality (Kaur, 2005, p.76). Take time to self-reflect and journal during this phase, particularly on the emotions that are overwhelming (and completely normal).
Increase dietary sources of iron: seaweed, pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, beets, and molasses (Kaur, 2005, p.76). Focus on water-rich foods and vegetables in order to hydrate your body such as watermelon, burdock, dark berries, as well as various soups and stews (Vitti, 2014, p.153-154).
Duration: 8 Days Average
As estrogen continues to rise during the first half of your cycle, the uterine lining thickens and prepares for a fertilized egg. FSH drops and luteinizing hormone (LH) is released by the pituitary gland between menstruation and ovulation. Estradiol (estrogen made by follicles) boosts neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine resulting in feelings of happiness, pleasure and motivation (Briden, 2017, p.57-58). High testosterone levels before ovulation increase sexual energy. Estrogen causes the cervical fluid to thin and alkalize, promoting passage and survival of sperm (Kaur, 2005, p.77).
This is a good time to start new projects. There is an increase in left brain activity indicating verbal fluency (Kaur, 2005, p.77). Energy levels begin to rise and the body is more receptive to physical activity. Use this time towards creating to-do lists and setting goals for the upcoming phase as your mental and physical energy continue to rise.
Increase consumption of phytoestrogen-rich foods such as flaxseed while estrogen levels are still quite low. Eating light, fresh food during this time is very helpful. Help transition to ovulation and assist with cervical mucus production by focusing on foods such as: artichoke, broccoli, zucchini, carrot, avocado, flax seed, Brazil nuts, olives, citrus fruit, and mung beans (Vitti, 2014, p.159-160).
Duration: 1 Day Average
The outpouring of LH triggers a more subtle rush of FSH, which halts estrogen production in the leading follicle. Eventually this follicle ruptures resulting in the release of the interior ovum (ovulation). The egg stays alive for about 24 hours. Pheromones are strongest during this phase as the body is most fertile. Body temperature begins to rise and cervical fluid is very thin and elastic; the most conducive for achieving pregnancy (Weschler, 2015, p.410).
Mental and emotional activity is at its peak, causing a rise in intense emotions (Kaur, 2005, p.78). This is the time for receptiveness to new ideas and strong communication. Speak your truth, open up fluid conversation with loved ones, and execute your to-do lists and goals using the energy of this phase.
Increase fibre and specific nutrients (e.g. glutathione) to aid with estrogen metabolism, detoxification, and removal (Vitti, 2014, p.149). Boost circulation and lower oxidation with the following foods: asparagus, red bell pepper, chard, dandelion, okra, spinach, coconut, fresh fruit (apricots, strawberries, raspberries, figs), red lentils, and almonds (Vitti, 2014, p.159-160). If striving for pregnancy, amplify fertility with: turmeric, cinnamon, buckwheat, avocado, leafy greens, royal jelly (Vitti, 2014, p.217-218).
Duration: 14 Days Average
Progesterone (our nourishing and calming hormone) rises after ovulation and dominates the luteal phase (Briden, 2017, p.63). Progesterone keeps the body temperature higher and controls the buildup of the uterine lining to support pregnancy. If there is no pregnancy, progesterone levels fall and the uterine lining sheds, resulting in menstruation. FSH and LH remain low during this phase, until just before menstruation when FSH begins to rise as a result of low estrogen levels (Weschler, 2015, p.411). Cortisol and serotonin may decrease, resulting in mood imbalances such as depression, irritability, anxiety, and food cravings. Towards the end of this phase, melatonin peaks.
This is the time when reflective and intuitive thoughts rise. Decrease stress by saying “no” more often (Kaur, 2005, p.79). Increase rest and be gentle with yourself as your body prepares for menstruation. One way to shift the focus on rest is to concentrate on self-care; take time to meditate, do gentle yoga, take long baths, spend time in nature, and partake in any other relaxing activity you enjoy.
Increase potassium rich foods to help decrease salt and water retention in the body: carrot juice, avocado, papaya, cantaloupe, mango, banana, kiwi, figs, pineapple, adzuki beans, lentils, pinto beans, and squash (Kaur, 2005, p.79). To further reduce water retention, increase the consumption of diuretic teas (e.g. dandelion greens) and leafy greens (calcium and magnesium). Avoid sugar cravings by focusing on B-vitamin rich foods, such as: brown rice, pine nuts, and collard greens. Eating complex carbs at this time balances serotonin and dopamine levels and averts mood fluctuations (Vitti, 2014, p.150-151).
Thank you Marina! I hope you enjoyed this post. If you need help supporting your cycle with nutrition, please do not hesitate to reach out to either Marina or myself.
Briden, L. (2017). Period Repair Manual: Natural Treatment for Better Hormones and Better Periods. United States: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
Kaur, S. D., Dean, C., & Danylak-Arhanic, M. (2005). The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women’s Health. Toronto: R. Rose.
Vitti, A. (2014). Woman code: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source. New York, NY: HarperOne.
Weschler, T. (2015). Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.