There are five major hormones at play in a woman’s body during the menstrual cycle: estrogen, progesterone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing stimulating hormone (LH), and testosterone. As each of these hormones rise and then fall throughout the month, they have downstream effects on a woman’s mood, energy, and consequently, her nutritional needs. Although proper dietary intake can significantly help maintain hormonal balance, reduce symptoms of PMS, and optimize a woman’s energy throughout her menstrual cycle, it is often overlooked.
Adjusting your diet to include specific foods and nutrients during each phase of your menstrual cycle simply takes some planning and self-awareness of your body as it moves from each stage to the next:
The Follicular Phase
A woman’s menstrual cycle has four distinct phases. It starts with the follicular stage which is the time frame before a woman ovulates. During this 7–10 day phase as the body prepares for ovulation, FSH rises to tell the ovaries to prepare to release an egg and estrogen, which is at its lowest level in the cycle, slowly begins to rise. While these hormones are beginning to rev up for the month, they are still at their lowest point, and simultaneously, a woman’s overall energy levels tend to be at their lowest.
Eat Energy-Boosting Foods During the Follicular Phase
To boost energy, the focus of the diet should be on increasing iron-rich foods and vitamin B12. Some iron-rich foods include grass-fed beef or wild game, wild-caught fish such as salmon, and organic chicken. Additionally, including pasture-raised eggs during this period of the cycle can be very nourishing (always ensure pasture-raised variety for highest nutrient density).
For vegetarian sources of iron, opt for more dark leafy greens (enhance the absorption of plant-based iron by adding a vitamin C source such as lemon or other citrus fruits) in addition to beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
For meals, the goal is light, fresh and colorful foods. Boost probiotic-rich foods in this phase to support gut balance by complementing well-balanced meals with probiotic-rich fermented and pickled veggies, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
The Ovulatory Phase
The shortest phase of the cycle is ovulation, which typically lasts between 1-2 days. The release of an egg from the ovary begins during ovulation, when a woman’s egg travels from the ovary to the fallopian tube where it awaits potential fertilization. FSH continues to rise and LH levels increase. Estrogen levels reach their peak and testosterone surges; and with these changes come an increase in female libido and sexual energy. With higher levels of both estrogen and testosterone a woman may find that she feels more positive, body confident, and yearning for greater and deeper social connection.
Cut the Carbs During Ovulation
Estrogen’s appetite-suppressing effect causes women to be less hungry and optimally energized during this phase. As a result, a woman’s need to rely on carbohydrates for quick energy dramatically decreases. Instead, the diet focus shifts to a need for proteins and fat to help sustain this positive energy and tons of fiber to detoxify increased hormones.
During ovulation, focus on fiber-rich veggies like asparagus, Brussels sprouts, chard, dandelion greens, okra, and spinach. Additionally, antioxidant-rich fruit such as raspberries, strawberries, coconut and guava help to increase glutathione and support further detoxification of rising hormones in the liver.
Opt for small quantities of carbohydrates and choose lighter varieties such as quinoa, amaranth, and red lentils. For nuts and seeds, focus on plenty of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds (like tahini), almonds, pecans, and pistachios, all of which you can sprinkle on salads, mix into smoothies or simply enjoy on their own as a snack.
The Luteal Phase
In the luteal phase, which can last anywhere from 11 to 17 days, the hormone progesterone rises and as it does, premenstrual symptoms (PMS) like bloating, irritability, mood swings and brain fog may develop. These changes are partly due to the increase in progesterone, which boosts appetite and cravings for comfort foods that are high in fat and calories.
An additional effect of progesterone is that it can make the body more sensitive to changes in blood sugar. Therefore, if you eat too little during this phase of the cycle, dramatic shifts in mood are more likely to occur which can leave you more emotional.
Eat Light But Often During the Luteal Phase
To help stave off the emotional roller coaster that might accompany skipping a meal, ensure you are eating at regular intervals during the day (every 3–4 hours) and at the first indication of hunger.
Another side effect of progesterone is that it can trigger constipation and slow down digestion, which is often why women complain of digestive trouble the week before their period. Consequently, this can cause temporary bloating and water retention.
To curb cravings and reduce bloating brought on by an increase in progesterone, opt for foods rich in b-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and fiber as these foods help to reduce sugar cravings, mitigate effects of fluid retention, and promote continued elimination to flush hormones effectively. Foods that are best to incorporate include roasted starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, and parsnip.
Focus on brown rice and millet as your grain choices in addition to protein from chickpeas, great northern beans, and navy beans or grass-fed beef and organic turkey. Lastly, sipping on peppermint tea at night or adding marine algae such as spirulina to smoothies can be great additions to help promote hormonal balance in this phase as well.
The Menstrual Phase
The final stage of the menstrual cycle is the most well known of all, the woman’s period, which, for most women lasts between two and seven days. During the menstrual phase, progesterone production drops off and estrogen peaks and then drops. By nature, menstruation involves the intense process of eliminating the lining of the uterus (AKA getting your period). To replenish our systems, focus on blood-building foods that help restore and re-mineralize the body and kidneys.
Bring on the Comfort Foods During the Menstrual Phase
Foods that can help include water-rich fruits and vegetables that have an overall low glycemic index and are rich in iron, zinc, and iodine. Specifically, adzuki and kidney beans, kale, kelp, wakame, mushrooms, water chestnuts, beets, and watermelon can be very therapeutic.
Optimizing comfort during menstruation is essential, so opt for cooking methods that feel nourishing and healing such as warm soups or bone broth (rich in collagen to help with rebuilding), stir fries and sea vegetables (consider sushi with nori, cucumber, or scallops with brown or cauliflower rice). Antioxidant rich smoothies with dark berries (blackberries and blueberries), kale and flaxseed (wonderful for hormone balancing and anti-inflammation) are also great options.
Most Importantly? Listen to Your Body
Overall, understanding the hormones at play and their varying levels throughout the cycle can better help women understand how to nourish and navigate their natural and cyclical energy patterns. In truth, naturally being in touch with your body and being able to get a read on your own personal energy throughout your cycle is the best way to navigate what your body needs and is craving.
As with everything, listen closely to what your body is asking for; utilize regular stress management techniques, consume high quality whole foods, ensure adequate nightly sleep and your chances of achieving optimal hormonal balance become all the more likely.
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- Turner, Natasha. The Hormone Diet: A 3-Step Program to Help You Lose Weight, Gain Strength, and Live Younger Longer. Pennsylvania: Rodale Books, 2011. (1 Int Edition)
- Knudtson, Jennifer, MD. Menstrual Cycle. http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/biology-of-the-female-reproductive-system/menstrual-cycle
- Yamada K, Takeda T. Low Proportion of Dietary Plant Protein among Athletes with Premenstrual Syndrome-Related Performance Impairment. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2018 Feb;244(2):119-122 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29434077