Ladies, let’s talk about Aunt Flo. Guys, while this is usually your cue to peace out, I suggest you take some notes to help you win some brownie points with the (hormonal) women in your life. While I’m not a fifth-grade health teacher, and this is definitely not “the talk,” I am a dietitian—and a female one at that—so I know a thing or two about eating for your cycle.
While every woman is different and will find unique foods that make them feel their best, I wanted to break down the monthly cycle into manageable tips so you're aware of what's going on with your body and how to make things a little less painful.
Days 1-12: The Menstrual and Follicular Phase
Hello, bloody Sunday (or Monday through Saturday). So you’re not feeling so hot. I mean, there’s a damn crime scene in your pants, and you’re rightfully pissed about it. OK, your hormones also have something to do with it. Assuming you’re not pregnant, this is when progesterone and estrogen levels are at their lowest, which is why you’re likely feeling fatigued and crampy.
While some women describe wanting to eat all the sweets these few days, researchers don’t believe there is any physiological reason for the snack attack. It’s thought to be more of a culturally reinforced way to deal with the stress of bleeding all day and night.
Hey, sounds like a legit reason to me. Thankfully, once Aunt Flo checks out, your estrogen starts to climb and then drops again suddenly, while your progesterone still remains low. Here are some ways you can feel a little better once your period starts through ovulation.
Up the Iron
Makes sense, no? You’re losing blood (and therefore iron), so you’ve got to put more in your body to compensate. The most absorbable sources of iron include red meat, poultry, and fish, but if you’re vegetarian, try dark, leafy greens; dried beans; peas; and lentils. Adding a little vitamin C to the mix can also help you absorb that iron a bit more efficiently.
Get More B12
Vitamin B12 functions in energy metabolism and red blood cell development, and since you’re walking around like a zombie, now’s the time to get more. While vitamin B12 is naturally only found in animal products such as eggs, milk, cheese, meat, fish, and poultry, you can now find it fortified in some nondairy milks too.
Walk It Out
Being a woman and bleeding for five to seven days sucks, right? And I get it, you probably just want to Netflix and chill with your steak and block of cheese, but research suggests that exercise might help. Vigorous exercises in the management of primary dysmenorrhea: a feasibility study. Kannan P, Claydon LS, Miller D. Disability and rehabilitation, 2014, Sep.;37(15):1464-5165. While the evidence is mixed at best (it’s difficult to measure people’s objective pain), exercise is a good distraction from discomfort and can help boost those feel-good endorphins.
Days 12-16: Ovulation Phase
Now is either the time to get busy in the bedroom or the time to avoid it (depending on your family-planning goals). It’s that special point in your cycle when an egg is released and helplessly waits for nice sperm to play with. Estrogen levels tank, and we see the rise in the testosterone hormone, a combination that gives you a major boost in energy and mood. You’ve only got a few days to soak up this high, so work it. And also follow these simple tips to take full advantage of the energizing phase.
Power Up the Protein
You’ve got boatloads of energy and will be feeling your most badass yet. Fuel your days with a combination of protein like eggs, fish, meat, poultry, legumes, and yogurt with some satisfying high-fiber vegetables, fruits, and 100-percent whole grains.
Go Beast Mode in the Gym
Human nature is really an incredible thing, programming women to have their most ferocious energy during the few days they need to hit the sheets hard and baby dance the night away. But if you’re not actively trying to conceive, now is the time to put your power song on and kill it in the gym. Whether you’re a CrossFit junkie, Pilates fiend, or fierce Spin-master, you’ll want to sweat it out this week.
Days 17-28: Luteal Phase
Hey, you really didn’t think that was going to last, did you? Just when you start feeling damn good, reality punches you in the gut and calls it cramps. Once the egg is released, the corpus luteum is left behind, releasing enough progesterone and estrogen to thicken that lining back up. The hope is that there’s a fertilized egg hanging around to implant, but when that doesn’t happen (hello, birth control), we get hit with the ultimate cocktail of misery: cramps, headaches, aches, mood swings, fatigue, and bloating before the period comes. And we have to deal with this crap every month.
Research has found that it’s not just a popular rom-com theme. We actually do tend to eat more when we PMS.
This is around the time when a lot of us start reaching for the comfort foods: cupcakes, potato chips, pints of Chunky Monkey. Research has found that it’s not just a popular rom-com theme. We actually do tend to eat more when we PMS: One study found a jump of about 500 calories per day from the follicular to the luteal phase of our cycle, and most of those calories came from carbs (not shocking).
There's a number of theories around why this is. One is that progesterone promotes fat storage, leading us to eat higher amounts of fatty foods. It’s also speculated that the jump in estrogen and progesterone causes our feel-good hormone serotonin to drop, so eating chocolate (and other mood-boosting foods) may help us manually make up for the deficiency. Others propose that there are increased metabolic needs during this phase since there are increased metabolic energy needs in the ovaries at this time.
But it’s not all bad news. Research has also found that levels of the satiety hormone leptin (a.k.a. the hormone that says, “you’ve eaten enough, stop eating”) tends to be higher during the luteal stage of menstruation. In other words, if we just listen to our bodies, we can satisfy our cravings with smaller portions and nourish our bodies in more balanced ways.
Make a Craving Diary and Plan
Always notice you’re going for the cookie jar at 3 p.m. each day? Have a snack with a combination of fiber and protein at 2:30 p.m. to nip that hunger in the bud.
Since we know our hormones might lead us to unknowingly devour chocolate, manage the craving with portion control. Allow yourself a mindful portion of dark chocolate (or ice cream or chips) along with a satisfying snack to curb hunger.
Make Healthy Convenient
We know how easy it can be to grab a handful of candy when it’s sitting at the edge of your desk. Use this to your advantage by swapping the sweets for healthier food. One study found that people who kept fruit on their counter instead of candy, cookies, and soda were able to better manage their weight. Make healthy eating a no-brainer by putting cut-up pieces of fruit and veggies in clear baggies and containers at eye level in the fridge, and hiding the treats in opaque containers in the back of the pantry or fridge.
Go Low GI
Carbs are the snack of choice during the luteal phase, but by choosing better carbs, you can get the same mood-boosting benefits without the dreaded crash. Swap white bread for 100-percent whole grain, white rice for quinoa, and candy for fruit to get the best nutrient bang for your carb buck.
Skip the Salt
If hormones have left you feeling like a bloated blimp, then go easy on the all-you-can-eat sushi and soy sauce. Skip the takeout, salty snacks, and frozen microwave meals this week and reach instead for an easy homemade meal. By cooking at home, you can better control the amount of sodium going into your food, and use more fresh and dried herbs to add flavor and seasoning instead.
Head Out for a Run
Research has found that 24-hour energy expenditure actually increases 2.5-11.5 percent in this phase, likely due to the increased caloric intake. Try to balance out some of those extra little indulgences, take your mind off your cramps, and boost those natural endorphins with a good sweat session.
We'll leave you with this: While there’s no argument that being a woman can royally suck sometimes, hopefully, these tips will help ease the monthly drama and keep you feeling like a rock star year-round.