This blog post contains some affiliate links to products you may find useful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own.
Do you feel bloated, tired or irritated right before or during your period?
PMS is one of the most noticeable examples of how hormonal changes impact your body and mind. But hormones affect your health, mood and behaviour in countless more ways – in women and men. These small but mighty chemical messengers, excreted by the glands in your body, influence many physiological processes, from your appetite and sexual desire to hormonal anxiety.
Your hormone levels naturally rise and fall throughout the day. Cortisol, for example, peaks in the early morning hours to wake you up, whereas melatonin gets secreted when darkness falls. But in the female body, the reproductive hormones also fluctuate over a monthly cycle of roughly 28 days, changing how you feel from week to week. That means that, unlike men, female bodies don’t function in a steady, predictable manner day in day out.
In Period Power, women’s health expert Maisie Hill advocates that we should acknowledge these monthly fluctuations, without feeling like we’re moody, unreliable creatures for doing so. Your energy levels, mental focus, mood, libido and food cravings vary throughout your menstrual cycle, due to hormonal shifts. And that’s not only normal, according to Period Power you could even take advantage of your hormonal powers.
If that’s the case, how can you get your menstrual cycle to work for you instead of against you?
How to Harness Your Hormones
A growing number of authors suggests we shouldn’t fight the ebb and flow of our cycle, but actually tune into the four different phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. By taking our biochemistry into account when managing our time and energy, these female health experts claim that we can optimize our productivity and performance without getting burnt out.
During each phase of your cycle, you have a natural tendency to focus on or excel at certain things, like feeling flirtatious around your ovulation or the increased need to rest and retreat during your period. So when you let your monthly rhythm guide your schedule (within reason of course), you can use those ‘superpowers’ of your hormonal shifts to your advantage. What’s more, you may finally find an explanation for why your chronic illness worsens from time to time and adjust your plans and symptom management accordingly.
One thing you should know before you read on, is that the advice on maximizing your hormonal power is based on your natural cycle, without hormonal birth control. That’s because hormonal contraceptives mask and alter your natural patterns. So if you’re on the pill or have an IUD, you might have a different experience than mentioned below.
On average, a natural menstrual cycle takes 28 days, but healthy cycles can range from 21 days up to 35 days. If you’d like to figure out which phase you’re in, you could simply start paying attention to your body’s signals or track your hormonal health with the MyFlo app, the hormone-balancing app that lets your cycle work for you.
The first day of your menstruation is the start of your cycle. Both estrogen and progesterone levels are low, causing you to feel sluggish. The drastic drop in progesterone can also worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and increase morning stiffness and experienced pain in women with rheumatoid arthritis.
And of course the bleeding and cramping play a big role in how you feel. The average period lasts between 4 to 8 days – although every body is different – after which you move on to the follicular phase.
Heavy bleeding is the most common cause of anemia in women of childbearing age, so it’s important to replenish the nutrients lost during your period. To get plenty of iron, you should include red meat, sea food, legumes, quinoa or leafy greens like spinach into your meals, and snack on dried fruits and seeds. Make sure you eat fruit or vegetables high in vitamin C with your iron-rich dishes to increase the absorption of iron.
Would you rather reach for that chocolate bar? That’s not such a bad idea as you may think – if you choose chocolate with at least 70% cacao. Not only does dark chocolate contain plant-based iron, it’s also an excellent source of magnesium, better known as the ‘relaxation mineral’. Magnesium could help ease period pain by relieving tension in your muscles and uterus. Low levels of magnesium are also linked to headaches and migraines, fatigue and anxiety – all symptoms you might experience around and during your menstruation. Besides chocolate, you could eat plenty of leafy greens, avocados, bananas and nuts to get enough magnesium.
When you’re wiped out and cramping, you may feel like curling up under a blanket with a good book or feel good movie. Your period is actually a natural time to focus inwards and rest up, so don’t feel forced to ignore your body’s needs and push through the pain. For most women, this is not the time for intense workouts. Gentle movement through restorative yoga and nature walks, however, does help you take good care of your body and mind. Taking real rest during your menstruation can give you the self-reflection and recharging you need to thrive the rest of the month.
Your monthly physical cleanse is often accompanied by an emotional release. We all know the lame jokes about grumpy, irritated women on their period, but it actually is a great time to express yourself, let go off grieves and grudges, and become more aware of your boundaries.
So if you’re ‘irrationally’ angry or annoyed about something, ask yourself if it’s just menstrual moodiness or if your emotions are trying to tell you something. Maybe you’ve been putting up with too much micro aggressions or energy-draining behavior that’s all coming out now. Maisie Hill advises to view your period as your monthly check-in with yourself.
During the follicular phase, estrogen is on the rise to signal to your ovaries to prepare an egg to be released. Your uterus builds up a thick inner lining to create a place where potentially a fertilized egg can safely grow.
Estrogen also increases dopamine and serotonin in your body, two ‘feel good’ hormones. That’s why many women feel more positive, social and energetic during this time.
Your body needs dietary fats to produce hormones, so it’s important to consume enough healthy omega-3 fatty acids in this phase. Fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies are great resources of omega 3’s. But you can also add chia seeds and walnuts to your meals.
If you’re struggling with hormonal imbalances like mood problems, skin sensitivities and unexplained changes in your weight, the follicular phase is a good moment to try seed cycling. Seed cycling is a traditional practice to provide you with the specific nutrients you need during each phase of your cycle. From your menstruation until your ovulation, you take flax seeds and pumpkin seeds to support your estrogen production. Following your ovulation, you switch to sesame seeds and sunflower seeds for the second half of your cycle, to support your progesterone levels. You can mix your seeds through smoothies, yogurt and granola, or make these seed cycling balls from Tasty Yummies.
Because of your rising estrogen levels, you may feel extra motivated to work your body during this phase. If you can manage high-intensity workouts, dancing or martial arts health-wise, now’s the time to get your blood pumping. Research also suggests that strength training has a greater impact during the follicular phase.
Without period pain and with your rising estrogen, you’re more likely to be in the mood for socializing and playfulness again. According to Period Power, the follicular phase makes a great chapter for exploring new ideas and possibilities, getting creative and unleashing your inner kid again. Enjoy this more productive and energetic time!
Midway through your menstrual cycle, estrogen peaks, triggering your ovaries to release an egg. Your body will work its magic to support a possible pregnancy, so this is the time you’ll feel most flirtatious and confident!
If you want to start eating healthier, this is a great period to do so. High levels of estrogen suppress your appetite, which makes it less likely you’ll have major carb cravings. To sustain your natural energy, you should focus on getting healthy proteins and fats with every meal. Also make sure you eat foods rich in zinc. This essential mineral supports fertility by regulating your hormonal functioning and ovulation. You can find zinc in oysters, meat, legumes, nuts and whole grains.
You can also make big strides in your physical fitness at this stage, thanks to the rise in testosterone around your ovulation. So walk the extra mile, stretch your limits a little further or simply dance your heart out to your favorite song.
Feeling good and looking good? This phase is all about pleasure, whether that’s socializing, going on a trip or having sex. If you’re struggling with intimacy issues due to chronic illness, now is a good time to explore different ways to express your love and desire. Your natural lubrication and libido boost around ovulation make it easier to overcome the challenges you (and your partner) might face.
And besides playing hard, your high energy and focus also make it possible to work hard midway through your cycle. So tackle that project you’d been postponing for weeks. Especially if you have chronic health problems and low energy, it can be helpful to know when you’re more likely to feel relatively good.
In the second half of your cycle, estrogen drops while progesterone peaks halfway through this phase. These hormonal changes are linked with the premenstrual symptoms most of us know all too well: acne, bloating, mood swings and tender breasts.
Unfortunately, the peak in progesterone also worsens many chronic conditions, like asthma and irritable bowel syndrome. Women with diabetes may struggle to control their blood glucose levels in the week before their period, thanks to a combination of insulin resistance and unhealthy food cravings. Only fertile females with arthritis might experience an improvement of their symptoms during the luteal phase.
Do you crave chips, cookies or ice cream in the days before your period? You’re not alone. Studies show that women not only have a greater appetite during the luteal phase, they consume and burn more calories too.
Progesterone can also slow down your digestion, which is why many women experience bloating and constipation at this time. That’s why it’s helpful to eat plenty of fibers after ovulation. You could try to curb your cravings and prevent gut troubles by snacking on fresh fruit, dark chocolate popcorn and oatmeal fruit crumble.
Research also shows that adequate levels of vitamin D can reduce your chances of premenstrual symptoms. Sadly, many of us have low levels of vitamin D. If you can’t get enough vitamin D through your diet or safe exposure to sunshine, consider taking a supplement to support your (reproductive) health.
When it comes to moving your body, tune in to what feels good. Got a bad case of PMS? Then you may want to take it easy with low-impact cardio, like walking, swimming and going for a bike ride. Make sure you take rest afterwards to recharge too.
You know how you feel like crap and everything annoys you, and then a few days later you get your period and suddenly it all makes sense? It’s during the premenstrual phase that we clearly see how the hormonal changes in our bodies influence our mood. You probably have a low tolerance for nonsense during this time, while being extra sensitive to criticism – including your own inner critic.
But Maisie Hill believes that, if you take it slow and turn inwards, you can turn these premenstrual shifts into your superpowers. Use this time for going deep on focused work, by reviewing what’s going well and which ares of your life could use some tweaking. And hey, sometimes speaking your mind unapologetically is just what you need to move forward.
Your life doesn’t have to revolve around your hormones. You can’t always plan everything to sync up with your monthly cycle. But learning more about the four phases of your cycle could help you pay more attention to the cues your body’s sending you, and how to interpret them.
You might feel more empowered to give into your needs and take a break when you’re worn out, instead of powering through. You suddenly understand why starting a diet in the second half of your cycle didn’t work out well – and why letting yourself have that (iron-rich) burger during your period actually wasn’t such a bad idea.
Lifestyle changes cannot fix every hormone-related problem. But implementing some of these tips may help you to make smarter decisions and manage your symptoms better, resulting in more consistent energy levels, a steadier mood, less bloating and less skin problems.
For more advice on how to make your menstrual cycle work for you, check out ‘Period Power’ from Maisie Hill and the MyFlo app.
Are you aware of how your menstrual cycle affects your body and mind? Have you ever tried to harness your hormones by tuning into the different phases?
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like: