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Add These Foods to Your Diet for Happy Hormones and Menstrual Cycle Support

by Erin R. Windrim 5 months ago in sexual wellness
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Did you know there are 4 phases in a woman’s menstrual cycle?

Photo by Ruvim from Pexels

I don’t know about you, but sex ed when I was in school did not even come close to accurately explaining the inner workings of the female reproductive system. There are so many things I have learned as an adult, through trial and error, my own research, and working with healthcare professionals, that would have made a world of difference had I learned them when I was a pre-teen. Or even a teen, for that matter.

For example, I learned that the menstrual cycle can be broken down into four phases, and that different foods are beneficial in supporting those phases based on the changes in hormone levels and what the body needs at those times.

Why does it matter what foods I eat and when?

If you have consistent, easy menstrual cycles with little PMS discomfort, this information might not be necessary for you at this time. However, if you’re like me and you’ve been struggling with irregular cycles, anovulation (lack of ovulation), and/or an increase in the severity of your PMS symptoms, this information may be helpful.

Since the foods I am about to mention are all nutritious in one way or another, they can be enjoyed at any time in the month. The point is that incorporating them in greater amounts at certain points may provide more support for what your body is undertaking at that time, whether it be the thickening or shedding of the uterine lining, an increase in the production and processing of reproductive hormones, or ovulation. The female body is always at work doing amazing things, and through our diet we can help give her more of the nutrients she needs, when she needs them!

It’s not to say that eating all of these foods for one or two cycles will instantly improve one’s experience and symptoms, but over time, along with managed stress, adequate exercise, sleep and hydration, and an overall healthy diet, it may make a difference.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitution for individualized care from a healthcare provider, nor is it meant to be used for the diagnosing or treatment of any illness or medical condition.

So let’s get into it.

Menstrual Cycle 101

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MenstrualCycle2_en.svg

The average cycle is 28 days long, but of course this can vary from woman to woman. Cycles are considered “normal” when they are between 21 and 35 days long, and when bleeding lasts from 2 to 7 days. Changes in diet, exercise, sleep and stress can all affect cycle length.

Those who consistently experience skipped periods, cycles that are shorter than 21 days or longer than 35 days, or who experience very heavy bleeding or bleeding longer than 7 days may benefit from seeking guidance from a trusted healthcare practitioner, since there could be something more serious going on.

The image above provides a simple overview of the two halves of the menstrual cycle, the follicular phase and the luteal phase. What divides these in two is ovulation, which in a typical 28-day cycle happens on or around day 14, or 14 days before the next period. These phases can be further broken down, which I will circle back to shortly.

The image also shows how basal body temperature and hormone levels fluctuate in a normal and healthy menstrual cycle. Basal body temperature tracking is one way to help determine when ovulation happens, since there is typically a steep rise in temperature just before ovulation, dropping again just before menstruation. Basal body temperature tracking should not, however, be used in place of contraception if you are not trying to become pregnant.

Looking at the rollercoaster ride of the hormones Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), Luteinizing Hormone (LH), estrogen and progesterone, it’s no wonder our mood, energy levels and hunger fluctuate so much within a month! The goal of this article is to suggest additions to the diet that can help support these hormones for a smoother, happier ride.

The 4 Phases of the Menstrual Cycle & Supportive Foods

Phase 1: Menstruation, days 1–5 or 1–7

The first day of the complete menstrual cycle is the first day of a period. A typical periods lasts an average of 5–7 days, with the heaviest days of bleeding being days 2–4, and lighter days at the beginning and end. At this stage, hormones are overall at their lowest levels. With the blood loss, extra dietary sources of iron, vitamin C and the B vitamins are important to replenish vital nutrients and help promote blood cell production.

Increased cravings for iron-rich protein are normal during menstruation, as well as fats to help boost hormone production, chocolate for magnesium and a boost in mood, and carbs for energy.

Supportive foods:

  • Red meat (small amounts, grass-fed)
  • Other iron-rich foods: Dark meat poultry, dried apricots, raisins, leafy greens
  • Quinoa and other whole grains
  • Kidney and other beans
  • Fatty fish such as salmon, and seaweed
  • Dark chocolate (aim for 60%+)
  • Steamed veggies, beets, kale, mushrooms
  • Flaxseed and pumpkin seeds
  • Ginger and mint tea to help ease cramping and soothe digestion
  • Citrus and turmeric
  • Nutritional yeast

Phase 2: Follicular, days 5–10 or 7–10

Once the period ends, we move into the follicular phase. This is a time when most women start to have more energy and feel better overall. Estrogen begins to rise, encouraging the uterine lining to begin thickening again. It can be common to experience an increase in libido at this time too!

During this phase the metabolism may be slower, which can translate to a smaller appetite and a desire for lighter meals, plus estrogen-supporting and iron-rich foods. The digestion can better handle more raw fruits and vegetables at this time.

Supportive foods:

  • Red meat (small amounts, grass-fed)
  • Other iron-rich foods: Dark meat poultry, dried apricots, raisins, leafy greens, lentils
  • Fresh veggies and salads
  • Avocado, artichoke, broccoli, carrot, parsley, green peas, string beans, zucchini
  • Fermented foods like sauerkraut or kimchi
  • Flaxseed and pumpkin seeds

Phase 3: Ovulatory, days 10–15

For periods that tend to be consistently longer than 28 days, ovulation can be roughly estimated to take place 14 days before the next period begins. So for someone who has cycles that are consistently 30 days long, ovulation may take place on day 16. Basal body temperature tracking, cervical mucous tracking, and at-home ovulation testing kits are helpful in determining when ovulation is happening. For the sake of this article, we will assume that ovulation takes place on day 14.

The ovulatory window begins a few days before ovulation, since the chances of sperm being able to successfully fertilize an egg are greater in the 3–5 days before. This is because sperm can live in the female reproductive tract for up to five days, so once ovulation has happened they may have missed their opportunity. This is not to say that pregnancy is impossible after the day of ovulation. Pregnancy can occur 12–24 hours after ovulation, since a released egg can survive up to 24 hours within a woman’s cervix (Medical News Today). For those who are trying to become pregnant, the day 10–15 window is the time to get down to business!

In the ovulatory window, the hormones FSH and LH peak, stimulating follicle maturation and triggering ovulation. During this time it’s common to have a high sex drive and boosted confidence. As crazy as it sounds, there is evidence to suggest that women’s faces shape-shift to become more appealing, a biological design to help us attract a mate for reproduction.

During this phase, the appetite may still be smaller with desires for anti-inflammatory salads, fresh veggies, berries and healthy fats to ease into the luteal phase.

Supportive foods:

  • Leafy greens, asparagus, brussels sprouts, chard, spinach
  • Berries
  • Avocado
  • Flaxseed and pumpkin seeds
  • Lentils
  • Oats
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt
  • Phase 4: Luteal, days 16–28 (or until day 1 of next period)

    After ovulation, FSH and LH decrease again and estrogen levels gradually decline, while progesterone levels increase to the highest amount midway through this phase, and the uterine lining continues to thicken. If conception doesn’t happen, progesterone levels start to decline again and the lining will shed at the start of the next cycle.

    The luteal phase, particularly the second half of it, is when PMS symptoms take place. These can include mood swings, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, bloating, tender breasts, headaches, acne, appetite changes, food cravings, and changes in sex drive.

    Extreme PMS symptoms, especially so severe that they interrupt regular life, are not normal. Working with a trusted healthcare provider should be considered in order to rule out any underlying conditions. A healthy, balanced diet, sufficient rest and quality sleep, and managed stress all go a long way in helping to minimize uncomfortable PMS symptoms.

    The body may naturally crave foods that are rich in zinc, magnesium and calcium as these nutrients help reduce PMS symptoms. Metabolism speeds up, driving cravings for carbs.

    For a happier period, it’s important to be mindful of the sources of carbs that are indulged. It’s best to opt for complex carbs such as whole grains, sweet potatoes and other vegetables, beans, lentils, legumes and fruit, while minimizing simple carbs such as baked goods, added sugars, and white bread and pasta. Incorporate a protein, fat and carb in meals and snacks, if possible, for satiety and to help maintain steady blood sugar levels.

    It’s also important to avoid excess salt intake during this phase as the body is already more prone to water retention and bloating! Minimize intake of added salt, fried foods, condiments high in sodium, and so on. To add more flavour to food with less salt, try a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice, herbs or spices, or a bit of hot sauce.

    Supportive foods:

    • Quinoa and beans
    • Berries
    • Salmon
    • Cauliflower, collard greens, onion, parsnip, radish, squash, sweet potato, dark leafy greens
    • Warm soups and steamed veggies
    • Dark chocolate (aim for 60%+)
    • Ginger and mint tea
    • Yogurt
    • Nuts and seeds: Sunflower, sesame, almonds, pine nuts, cashews, Brazil nuts
    • Nutritional yeast

    There you have it! I hope this information and the suggested foods are helpful tools for the smoothest, happiest menstrual cycle.

    Individualized Support May Be Helpful

    Working with a professional on diet and lifestyle changes to help support the menstrual cycle, hormones, and energy levels can be a valuable source of accountability. Working with a doctor, gynaecologist, naturopath, dietitian or certified nutritionist may be beneficial, depending on your needs and health status. As a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, I offer one-on-one nutrition counselling and health coaching, as well as custom meal planning. Visit wellandfree.ca to learn more. Thanks for reading!

    Disclaimer: The content in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitution for individualized care from a healthcare provider, nor is it meant to be used for the diagnosing or treatment of any illness or medical condition.

    sexual wellness

    About the author

    Erin R. Windrim

    Certified Holistic Nutritionist, recipe creator & wellness event host at wellandfree.ca | Also a wellness brand designer at erinracheldesigns.com

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