Menstrual Cycle Diet Exercise

Menstrual Cycle Diet Exercise

How does our menstrual cycle play with our diet and exercise routine?

Men and women are different - women are more likely to cry when watching a romantic movie, men less likely; women are generally better suited at multitasking, men are more single-focused. At a physiological level, the way our hormones interact is also different, resulting in gender differences when assessing exercise performance outcomes and nutritional needs.

Sex hormones fluctuate during our menstrual cycle, manifesting in periods of sugar cravings, mood swings, and a general feeling of tiredness.

Sounds familiar?

So the trick here is getting to know your body, how your hormones change and finding the best possible way to adapt your training and food intake according to these changes.

The menstrual cycle is split up into 2 main phases;

  1. The follicular phase Day 1- Day 14
  2. The luteal phase Day 15 - Day 28

Menstrual Cycle

Exercise recommendations

Follicular Phase

The follicular phase starts off with the actual period which typically lasts 3-7 days. On these days oestrogen and progesterone are both at their lowest, and achieving a good workout may seem difficult due to low energy levels and potentially painful cramps. Try to fit low intensity yoga, light jogging, pilates or even walking.

Once the bleeding stops, oestrogen levels start to increase. This is the time when you would be feeling the strongest with greater pain tolerance and greater capacity for muscle build up and repair. Hence take the advantage of this by focusing more on lifting heavy weights and incorporating high intensity workouts. If you are following a training programme, aim to target your personal bests around this time.

Ovulation marks mid-cycle between the follicular and luteal phase and usually lasts 1-2 days. Oestrogen would still be high and you would be typically experiencing high energy levels. If bloating/pain does not impede you from training, you should still be able to perform at high intensity levels.

Luteal Phase

Say hi to progesterone, the sex hormone that wrecks havoc to us all. As progesterone increases and oestrogen decreases, energy levels start to fluctuate, we feel less energised, experience water retention and increased body temperature, and muscle recovery takes longer.

Studies have shown that these symptoms may impact exercise performance, hence exercise should be adapted to focus on low intensity cardio with a steady pace. We still want to incorporate movement and the luteal phase should not be used as an excuse to not exercise. If doing resistance training, use longer rest periods in between sets and aim for low-moderate weight and high reps.

Follicular vs. Luteal Phase

Nutrition Recommendations

Follicular phase

As oestrogen increases in the follicular phase, insulin sensitivity increases and blood sugar is more stable, meaning that the body is better adapted to process carbs. During this phase the body prefers to use Carbs as a primary fuel source. Including carbs with protein around your workout is recommended during this phase, particularly since the body is at its prime time for muscle recovery and build-up.

Suggested pre/post workout meals;

  • Oats + 1 scoop protein
  • Quinoa + tuna salad
  • Brown rice + chicken

Luteal Phase

As progesterone increases, a shift in fuel utilisation is observed, whereby the body prefers fat as a primary fuel source, mobilising our fat stores. However, this comes with a disadvantage; cravings. Not ideal, since at this point in our menstrual cycle, insulin sensitivity is reduced resulting in fluctuating blood sugar levels.

The most common issues that women usually complain about when trying to shed weight is the cravings and hunger that present around this time in their cycle. Studies suggest that energy requirements increase by 10%during the luteal phase, reflected as an increase of calorie intake.

However, and this is important, we need to carefully choose from where we obtain those extra calories. If loading up on sugary snacks and junk food (crisps, pizzas, burgers), one can easily end up with surplus calories and elevated blood sugar levels. Basing your meals on healthy fats and protein is suggested to feel fuller for a longer period of time and minimise hunger.

In a study by Maury-Sintjago et al., (2022) looking on the effect of menstrual cycle phases on the eating behaviours of 30 obese and lean Chilean women showed that the lean group had a higher caloric and fat intake coupled with an increase in the metabolic rate in the luteal phase, meaning that weight gain was less likely to happen since they were burning more calories. When compared to the lean group, the obese cohort showed an increase in carbohydrate consumption but not their metabolic rate, likely to result in calorie surplus and therefore weight gain. This is a problem since the higher intake of carbs is being consumed in the luteal phase where insulin sensitivity is lower.

Fluctuations in our hormones may make it more difficult to master our nutritional requirements, however now that we know about the changes happening, we are better equipped to adapt our cravings around these hormonal shifts. The following are my tips to help you fight off your cravings and take advantage of how your body works;

  1. Opt for dark chocolate (85-95%) instead of milk chocolate. Dark chocolate is an excellent source of magnesium, which helps reduce cravings, menstrual cramps and minimise water retention. Other sources high in magnesium are legumes, wholegrains, spinach, avocados and tofu.
  2. Swap potato crisps with sunflower or pumpkin seeds, good sources of fat.
  3. Choose nuts, oily fish, avocado, or olive oil as healthy sources of fat which will keep you full for longer.
  4. Swap high Glycemic Index (GI) foods such as white rice, bread and pasta with their lower GI wholegrain alternatives such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta. Sweet potatoes can be consumed instead of white potatoes.
  5. Eat regularly every 2-3 hours, keeping healthy snacks handy. Eating regularly helps stabilise blood sugar. Snack ideas include; hummus with carrot sticks, homemade avocado dip, cottage cheese, natural greek yoghurt.
  6. Opt for foods high in tryptophan, an amino acid needed for the production of serotonin (happy hormone). Sources high in tryptophan are tofu, nuts, milk, poultry, eggs, pineapple and salmon.

Always listen to your body and see what you feel like. This content is intended to help you understand your body better in terms of your natural cycle, and how it interacts with your performance and nutrition. Unfortunately, limited research exists examining the impact of the menstrual cycle on female athletes, and are mostly based in laboratory settings or assessed subjectively via questionnaires, so strong evidence is still lacking.

If you feel like exercising more, by no means this should not stop you from doing so. However, if you do not feel energised to train, rather than not training or giving in to your cravings, adapt the intensity of your workout accordingly and choose food wisely to fuel your needs. A better understanding of the relationship between the menstrual cycle, sports performance and nutrition will ultimately provide a possible performance advantage for females.

Do you think you would benefit from adapting your training and nutrition? Get in contact with me to get started.

Rebecca Micallef Dalli
Rebecca Micallef Dalli Member of the British Dietetic Association (SENR Registered), MSc. in Exercise and Nutrition Science. SENR Graduate Registrant
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