Hormones are responsible for so much of our physical state including our emotions, appetite, mood, and so much more. But we don’t have to be a slave to our hormones. The power is ours when it comes to nourishing our bodies to optimize how we feel during the entire month—not just during our menstrual cycle.
Over the span of four weeks—more or less—our hormones ebb and flow in a carefully orchestrated symphony of fluctuations to drive the four different phases of menstruation, listed below.
Menstrual Phase (Days 1 to 5)
Starts with the first day of your flow and is day 1 of the menstrual cycle. This is the shedding of your uterine lining after an egg isn’t fertilized. While most women bleed between 3 to 5 days, anywhere from 2 to 7 days is considered normal.
- Hormones: During this phase, your hormones are at their lowest with estrogen and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) beginning to rise towards the end.
- Nourishment: Eliminating your uterine lining is an intense process. It is important to prioritize nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods. Focus on foods rich in magnesium and iron such as dark leafy greens, nuts, and dark chocolate (for those sweet cravings!) Seafood is a great way to get antioxidant omega-3s to combat inflammation and ease cramps. When choosing carbohydrates, opt for low-glycemic carbohydrates to support blood sugar balance and cravings. Hydration is also key during this phase. Try red raspberry leaf tea to aid with cramps and chamomile tea to support sleep.
- Movement: Your body is working hard during menstruation so be gentle with yourself and focus on restorative movement and rest. Avoid high-impact exercises and opt for light stretching instead.
Follicular Phase (Days 6 to 14)
This phase is all about preparing for ovulation. The hypothalamus, a gland in your brain that plays an important role in hormonal control, signals to your pituitary gland to send FSH to your ovaries. FSH instructs the ovaries to mature 6 to 8 follicles, and eventually one dominant follicle will be ready to release an egg at ovulation.
- Hormones: During this phase, estrogen and progesterone are both on the rise. Maturing follicles in the ovaries release estradiol which thickens the uterine lining, preparing it for possible pregnancy.
- Nourishment: Focus on foods that support healthy estrogen metabolism. Think: fibrous, cruciferous veggies like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. You can even opt for fermented versions like kimchi and sauerkraut. Lean proteins also provide critical amino acids that support the liver in metabolizing estrogen. Healthy fats, like avocado, are important for supporting hormone production and improving the follicular-ovulatory transition.
- Movement: Your physical energy is at one of its highest points during this phase so go ahead and go for those more strenuous workouts. This is a perfect time to try something new (perhaps even moving up a level in the TA Online Studio) as your brain is able to form new neuroconnections more easily.
Ovulatory Phase (Around Day 14)
Ovulation signals the end of the follicular phase. This is marked by the rupture of a follicle and the subsequent release of an egg, ready for fertilization. While Day 14 is the average day for ovulation, depending on your cycle length this can happen a few days before or after. You may feel hotter than usual at this time since your basal metabolic temperature will increase approximately 0.5 to 1°F shortly after ovulation.
- Hormones: A sharp increase in FSH followed by an increase in luteinizing hormone (LH) causes the mature follicle to burst and release an egg into the fallopian tubes. Testosterone increases slightly and drops right around ovulation to support healthy libido. Additionally, estrogen levels continue to rise to further thicken the uterine lining.
- Nourishment: Natural energy is abundant during this time so focus on lighter grains like quinoa and amaranth. With estrogen at its peak, you want to ensure you are supporting detoxification pathways in order to eliminate the surplus of estrogen efficiently. Load up on fiber-rich veggies and fruit which contains glutathione, an antioxidant that supports phase 1 detoxification in the liver.
- Movement: With testosterone and estrogen at their peak and energy levels high, you’re primed to take on more strenuous activities like weight lifting or cardio.
Luteal & Premenstrual Phase (Days 17 to 28)
This phase immediately follows ovulation and leads to either pregnancy or menstruation, depending on whether or not the egg is fertilized. Your uterus continues to thicken in preparation for a possible egg implantation. If the egg is not fertilized, hormone levels will begin to drop, signaling the uterine lining to break down and triggering menstruation.
- Hormones: The ovarian follicle that released the egg develops into the corpus luteum and secretes progesterone, a hormone responsible for keeping the uterine lining intact. It also directs the pituitary to stop releasing FSH and LH. Toward the end of the cycle, if the egg has not been fertilized, the corpus luteum will stop producing progesterone, triggering the commencement of your period.
- Nourishment: Foods rich in B vitamins like salmon, legumes, and eggs are important for supporting progesterone production. Leafy greens offer a great source of calcium and magnesium which help mitigate fluid retention. Sugar cravings may start creeping in. A great way to target this is by roasting veggies, which increases the concentration of sugars making the veggies taste sweeter. Complex carbs, like sweet potato and legumes, are important for stabilizing serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, helping to prevent mood swings. Avoid alcohol and caffeine during this time, as they can contribute to symptoms of PMS and dehydration.
- Movement: While your body is preparing to start another cycle, energy levels may be low. Opt for light to moderate activity.
Tuning into your cycle may take time, especially for those who may have recently come off the birth control pill. For some, it may be helpful to keep a journal of how you are feeling, including mood and appetite throughout the month to help identify what phase you may be in. While there is never a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness, it is important to ensure adequate nutrition through a varied, whole-foods diet and utilizing supplementation when necessary (i.e. taking prenatal vitamins). For an individualized approach, always talk to your healthcare provider.
When it comes to fitness, honor how you are feeling throughout the month and allow that to drive your movement choices.