Many women may notice mental and physical changes throughout the menstrual cycle. Some of these may include digestive and bowel change fluctuations, chronic disease symptoms and changes in appetite. In this article, we will take a deep look into the nutritional considerations and what you should eat for every phase of your menstrual cycle.
The female menstrual cycle begins on the first day of your period and ends when your next period begins. While the average length of these cycles is 28 days, it does vary from person to person. During this cycle, three phases occur and repeat. They are pre-ovulation, ovulation and post-ovulation, and each phase is marked by hormones and physiological activity in the ovaries and uterus.
In the ovarian cycle, what is happening at this stage is known as the follicular phase. Pre-ovulation continues from day one of your periods up until ovulation occurs. During this time, the body is preparing to release an egg from one of the ovaries.
Pre-ovulation encompasses both the breaking down and shedding of the uterine lining as well as proliferation, where this lining is built back up again. Both of the female reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone are low during this phase of the cycle.
Towards the end of proliferation, estrogen levels spike, peaking just before ovulation occurs. Studies have shown that energy intake (in the form of calories or kilojoules) tends to be quite low during this phase of the cycle, especially when compared with the premenstrual phase.
Research also suggests that zinc and iron levels may be at their lowest during ovulation. You can boost your zinc intake by eating oysters, red meat, chicken, firm tofu, cashews, chickpeas, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds and tahini during this time. Dietary sources of iron include red meat, pork, chicken, seafood, iron-fortified cereals, lentils, cooked silverbeets, cooked bok choy, cooked spinach, white beans, wholegrains, firm tofu, chia seeds, rolled oats, cooked broccoli, dried apricots and figs.
Since this phase also includes menstruation itself, magnesium is a micronutrient that is beneficial in reducing menstrual cramping. While this is a good nutrient to consume all month long, pay special attention to wholegrains, dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds during your period.
This occurs when your ovary releases the egg it was preparing throughout pre-ovulation. As soon as the egg is released, estrogen levels dip back down. If you are an active woman who may be under-fueling or putting your body under intense physical stress without nutritional recovery, ovulation may not occur. This is because regular hormone activity is disrupted. This is called Relative Energy Deficiency and is, unfortunately, quite common, causing periods to be irregular or cease altogether. If this sounds like it might be what you’re experiencing, book in to see your dietitian promptly to assess and adjust your performance nutrition.
During post-ovulation, our ovaries go through their luteal phase and the uterus goes through its secretary phase. Your body is basically readying itself for the potential of pregnancy. Estrogen does rise slightly, but this is where you will peak in progesterone, stimulated by the fact the an egg has been released by an ovary. The uterus will now either begin to produce chemicals to support early pregnancy if there is a fertilised egg present. Or it prepares to break down and shed its lining in time for our next period.
After an egg has been released, but before our next period starts is the time where many women tend to experience an increase in appetite and cravings. Studies have revealed that women eat both more macronutrients and micronutrients, with a particular increased intake in carbs, protein and fat.
This is because the body’s metabolic rate has been shown to increase by 10-20% during this time, resulting in the need to increase energy with approximately 100-200 extra calories per day. Implantation, early pregnancy and preparing for menstruation are all high-energy body functions. Common cravings for energy-rich chocolates, chips, pizza, etc, is the body and brain working together to try to fill that energy requirement.
If you follow a balanced diet, there is nothing wrong with enjoying these kinds of foods during this pre-menstrual or early pregnancy phase. But you may want to consider adding some extra items to the menu which will be beneficial for alleviating other common symptoms of this phase, such as mood changes and constipation, for example. This could look like a nutritious morning or afternoon snack, an extra serving of wholegrains or legumes at main meals, and an extra drizzle of olive oil or slice of avocado anywhere.
Additionally, research has demonstrated that blood glucose levels may be increased post-ovulation, particularly just before menstruation occurs. The cocktail combination of hormones in women’s blood at this time makes the body more resistant to the actions of insulin. Normally, insulin tells the glucose in our blood to exit the bloodstream to enter and energise the cells. When you are insulin resistant, even mildly so as in this case, glucose doesn’t respond to insulin and varying amounts of it remain in the blood, raising blood sugar levels.
To limit any potential side effects of this, you should consciously prepare blood-sugar-balancing meals and snacks. Choose options that contain wholegrain carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats and fibre. If you’re eating something sugary, consider pairing it with a protein like nut butter. Magnesium has also been shown to improve the action of insulin, so be sure to add a selection of magnesium-rich foods as well.
As if all of the above wasn’t enough during this phase of your cycle, sex hormones also influence the way your body retains sodium. This unwanted water retention can be minimised by eating potassium-rich foods including bananas, potatoes, avocado, legumes, spinach and broccoli.
As we can see, the female body is wondrous and fascinating. Complex and beautifully premise, the menstrual cycle affects many aspects of our wellbeing, including our nutrition. Now that we have taken the time to understand it, we are better empowered to have more influence over how we feel, how much energy we have, how we perform mentally and physically, and more.
For more specific or individual advice, reach out and make your booking with one of our expert dietitians.