In this post we will cover how our nutrition should change at different stages of the menstrual cycle.
Key points covered
- The impact the menstrual cycle has on performance and training,
- what training is better for different phases of the menstrual cycle
- What foods are better to consume during different phases of the cycle
- Cravings and increased hunger during the luteal phase (PMS)
- Different vitamins and minerals, why they are necessary for women and how they affect the body when menstruating
- Hormones circulate in the blood and travel all over the body, having an effect on a whole range of different functions, including your ability to train and recover, your metabolism, the fuel sources your body uses, your immune system, your sleep and much more.
- Women, or people in general, tend to eat the same food on a regular basis to save time and frustration. The different ratios of hormones during the cycle requires changes in the diet and different nutritional and detoxification needs. Imbalances in your hormones can be caused by bad foods, for example sugar and alcohol.
- It is common to feel less motivated and lower energy levels during the luteal phase, workouts such as yoga and pilates can relax the body and prepare it for higher intensity and strength training workouts during the follicular and ovulation phase.
Sections in the article
- What happens during the phases of the menstrual cycle?
- What impact does the menstrual cycle have in terms of training and performance?
- What to eat during each phase of the menstrual cycle?
- Why do I crave junk food before my period?
- Why do I feel more hungry before my period?
- What vitamins and minerals are essential during the menstrual cycle?
What happens during the phases of the menstrual cycle?
During the five phases of the menstrual cycle, the hormone levels change. During the follicular phase estrogen and progesterone are on the rise, preparing the release of the egg. The second phase is menstruation (aka the period) whereestrogen and progesterone are low as you shed your uterine lining. The proliferative phase starts after the day after the period has ended, oestrogen levels are high when the uterus is building up a thicker inner lining that was shed during the last period. The fourth phase is the ovulation phase. Estrogen peaks and testosterone and progesterone are on the rise (the egg is being released from the ovary). The last phase is the luteal phase, estrogen and progesterone levels are high. If the egg isn’t fertilised, hormone levels decrease and the menstrual cycle starts again.
For more information about the phases of the menstrual cycle, see The Menstrual Cycle – phases, hormones and their functions.
What impact does the menstrual cycle have in terms of training and performance?
Each phase of the menstrual cycle varies in the hormone balance. During the first phase (Follicular) women are estrogen-dominant and therefore, adapt better to training. Due to increased insulin sensitivity and increase in pain tolerance, this is a prime time for high intense workouts. During menstruation hormone levels are low which can result in cramps, joint and muscle pain, headaches and low energy levels which have the potential to disrupt physical performance. Some women perform unaffected and others experience stronger discomfort and lower performance, with a diet adapted after hormone levels it can be easier to train during this phase. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted that basal metabolic rate decreased during menstruation and then proceeded to decline to its lowest point one week before ovulation took place.
During the Ovulation phase overall strength is peaked, heavier weight training can be appropriate during this phase (rather than the high intensity cardiovascular efforts in the Follicular phase). With energy levels at their highest this is a good time to push yourself. Progesterone remains low and the body’s overall pain tolerance increases. During this phase it’s a good time to strive for personal bests and overall total body strength training.
In the Luteal phase the body temperature is rising by at least 0.3 degrees Celsius after ovulation and remains high until menstruation. This means heat tolerance is reduced in the high hormone phase, which could lead to earlier fatigue. This effect could potentially be mitigated with heat acclimatization and adequate fluid intake. It is important to stay hydrated and keep cool when working out. Endurance levels are lower than in previous phases and it can be harder to achieve previous goals. Opt for aerobic activities as your primary exercise, for example bike rides, swimming and trail runs. Water retention is common prior to menstruation, changes to body mass can impact performance which can be important to remember in sports such as weight lifting and distance running. During this phase it can be helpful to schedule in rest days, and choose workouts such as yoga and pilates to relax the body before menstruation.
What to eat during each phase of the menstrual cycle?
Nutrition for the Follicular and Ovulation Phase
Estrogen is known to reduce carbohydrate oxidation and increase free fatty acid availability. This means when estrogen levels are high, women tend to conserve glycogen stores and utilize more fat as fuel. For longer endurance events (ultramarathons as an example) this could potentially be beneficial. But this glycogen sparing mode might make it more challenging to reach higher intensities. Supplemental carbohydrates are important in this phase. In other words, if you are in a high hormone phase, you might find you need to take in a few extra carbohydrates to get a similar higher intensity performance as you would without supplemental carbohydrates in a low hormone phase, assuming all other conditions are equal. On race day, this is important.
Progesterone promotes protein catabolism, so it’s a good time to ensure you are getting enough protein in your diet. Protein ingestion is also important for female athletes in regards to recovery. The recovery window is a lot tighter for women, as we return to basal metabolic rates within a few hours. For harder efforts or training of long duration, that 30-60 minute window to consume post-workout protein and carbohydrate is a lot more critical for women.
According to Dr Khan (The Independent), digestive health is very important at this stage in order to support the production of these hormones. She recommends probiotic rich food (fermented foods, such as kimchi, yoghurt and kombucha), omega three fats (oily fish, nuts and seeds) and a range of coloured vegetables “to support the liver detoxification pathways”. Bitter greens, such as rocket, help promote the production of digestive juice and enzymes. Vitamin B whole grains, such as brown rice, help support this energy production.
To add to this, your insulin sensitivity levels will be higher during this phase, so focus on higher carb phases or refeeds during intense, carb-depleting workouts. Your body will be more prone to using those carbs to fuel muscle gains. These intense workouts, coupled with metabolism-enhancing refeeds, will also help to counteract the decline in your resting metabolic rate that takes place during this time.
Nutrition for the Luteal Phase
Due to your insulin sensitivity now being at its lowest point and the fact you’ll be lowering the intensity of your workouts due to your high fatigability, you need to keep your carb intake under control. With the higher metabolic rate and more moderate-paced exercise training, this is a prime time to opt for a lower carb, lower calorie phase to kick-start fat burning. Some women may also report feeling nauseated during this time due to PMS symptoms, so the decrease in food intake may be quite welcomed. To help offset the decline in serotonin and calm those cravings for carbs, consider supplementing with tryptophan or eating foods rich in this amino acid such as turkey, skim milk, soybeans, or pumpkin seeds as they can help produce a natural spike in this neurotransmitter precursor. Because the body prefers fat as a primary fuel source during this phase, opt for food high in ‘essential fats’ such as oily fish, nuts, olive oil and avocado.
Why do I crave junk food before my period?
A 2016 study suggests that changes in levels of estrogen and progesterone cause food cravings for high-carb and sweet foods before your period. Your body releases serotonin when eating starchy foods and sweets. Serotonin is a chemical that boosts feelings of happiness, which can explain why eating bad foods make you feel better during PMS.
However, consuming bad foods can cause imbalance in your hormones resulting in feeling worse and can stimulate more cravings. Try to avoid ‘bad foods’ (treat yourself once in a while, it is important too), focus on food that will give you energy, reduce bloating and keep you hydrated.
Why do I feel more hungry before my period?
Your ‘maintenance calories’ will change during the menstrual cycle as the body’s temperature increases and so does the basic metabolic rate. Often women feel less hungry in the follicular phase and the early stages of the ovulation phase. The hunger mirrors the levels of progesterone, when progesterone is at its highest in the luteal phase it is recommended to consume more calories. If fatloss or weight loss is the goal, this is the prime time for fat burning.
What vitamins and minerals are essential during the menstrual cycle?
Zinc – Women often don’t have enough zinc in their diet. Zinc helps to support the immune system, essential for hormone synthesis, recovery, adaptation and repair. Zinc can be found in red meat, poultry, seeds, whole grains and legumes.
Protein – It is important to hit your daily protein requirements. Protein is essential to help with recovery and adaptation to training. Protein can be found in animal products such as red meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. It can also be found in broccoli, legumes and whole grains.
B vitamins – Essential for maintaining health, supporting metabolism, regulating menstrual flow, growth and development, and red blood cell development. B vitamins can be found in red meat, seeds and nuts, legumes and fruits.
Iron – Women often eat less iron than men and lose iron through menstruation, increasing their susceptibility to deficiency. Iron is essential for red blood cell development and many other factors involved in health and well-being. Iron can be found in beans and legumes, red meat and dark green leafy vegetables.
Calcium – A key mineral that helps with bone health and muscle contraction. It should be consumed alongside vitamin D. Calcium can be found in dairy products, green leafy vegetables and soya beans.
In this article, we have given general guidelines on what to eat and how to exercise during different phases of the menstrual cycle. This information can be very useful and it is important to understand what your body needs during these phases. However, it is important to remember that every woman is different and our cycles are different. Listen to your body and track your cycles to better understand what you need.
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- Joanna Whitehead. Make the most of menstruation: when and how to exercise and eat to feel your best at each stage of your cycle, The Independent (2019). https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/menstrual-cycle-period-syncing-best-exercise-what-to-eat-hormones-rest-a9121276.html
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Healthline (2020). https://www.healthline.com/health/period-cravings
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- National Institute of Health. Zinc. NIH (Updated 2020). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
- Teresa Cheong. Vitamin B: Best Food Sources and Signs of Deficiency, Health X Change. https://www.healthxchange.sg/food-nutrition/food-tips/vitamin-b-best-food-sources-signs-deficiency
- Caroline Kaufman. Foods to fight Iron deficiency, Eat Right (2020). https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/iron-deficiency
- The NHS. Calcium: vitamins and minerals, NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/calcium/