Eat your way through your menstrual cycle
One of the things I hear most often in my work with my clients is that they feel as though they’re in a constant battle with their period and menstrual cycle.
They love the highs of the follicular phase and ovulation but hate the lows of the pre-menstrual phase and their period. It may seem countercultural, but it is possible to have a better period and feel a sense of ease with your menstrual cycle. The foods we eat everyday are an important way of bringing us back into balance and supporting our menstrual and hormonal health.
We can split our menstrual cycle into 4 phases: menstrual or inner winter (starts the first day of our period!), follicular or inner spring, ovulation or inner summer and luteal or inner autumn. The foods we eat each day cannot only influence what’s happening during each phase, but how we feel during the other three phases of our menstrual cycle. It may sound overly simplistic, so think of it this way: we have 3 opportunities each day, 21 opportunities each week, to add in foods that can improve the way we feel during each phase of our menstrual cycle.
Start slowly by adding in one type of food for the phase you’re in. If you’re not sure, it never hurts to add more healthy fats into your meals. Think oily fish (the acronym SMASHHT is a good way to remember them – sardines, mackerel, anchovies, haddock, herring, trout), avocado, nuts, seeds, eggs, olive oil, organic milk, butter, ghee, and coconut oil / milk. These healthy fats help our body make key sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
Menstrual Phase / Inner Winter
The menstrual phase or the time when we have our periods, is an invitation from our body to slow and turn inward as we shed the lining of our uterus and start anew. Think of it like the winter of our menstrual cycle.
We can support our body during this time by eating foods that help restore and rebuild what we’re losing during our period: iron foods like organic red meat, beetroot chickpeas and lentils help us rebuild blood levels, vitamin C foods like peppers, berries and broccoli help to increase absorption of the plant based sources of iron and copper foods like sesame seeds, organic beef liver, oysters, potatoes and dark chocolate help our body use iron to increase our energy levels.
Follicular Phase / Inner Spring
As winter ends, we move into spring, a time of growth and renewed energy. Moving into the follicular phase of our menstrual cycles, our oestrogen and testosterone levels rise, giving us increased energy, improved moods, more creativity and sociability. The foods we eat during this phase can help us manage our energy levels, support rising estrogen and testosterone levels and bring us back into balance.
Try adding in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables (remember to eat the rainbow!) for their antioxidants and fibre, pumpkins seeds, free-range organic red meat and seafood for zinc, and eggs, broccoli and cauliflower, which are great sources of choline to support the quality of the eggs that are maturing in our ovaries.
Ovulation / Inner Summer
We ride the wave of spring into the summer of our menstrual cycle, ovulation. For many of us, this is the time when we feel like our best and brightest selves. We may notice that our energy levels are at their peak, our skin and hair are at their brightest and glossiest and we feel like we can take on their world! Even though ovulation is just one day of our menstrual cycle, the ovulation phase and how we feel during this time can last up to 5 days.
The foods we add in now can continue to have a positive effect on our hormone and menstrual health. Try adding in foods with vitamin E to support a healthy estrogen / progesterone balance. Some great options are sunflower seeds, almonds, kiwi, hazelnuts, spinach and chard. Fermented food and drink such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables, kombucha, kefir and sourdough bread are also essential for supporting our gut health. When we have a healthy gut, this positively influences our immune, mental and hormone health.
Luteal / Inner Autumn
The vibrant highs of ovulation continue into the early part of the next phase of our menstrual cycle, the luteal phase. We might feel a better sense of wellbeing due to the calming effect of progesterone, which is released after we ovulate. This starts fade if the mature egg that is released during ovulation isn’t fertilised and the progesterone and the second rise of oestrogen drops. The second half of our luteal phase is a time to be gentle with yourself, especially if you feel the effects of premenstrual symptoms such as anxiety, depression, pain, bloating or cravings.
Food can play a balancing role during this time. Try adding in wild salmon, organic poultry, oats, beans, and pumpkin seeds. These contain tryptophan, an amino acid our gut needs to make serotonin, our happy hormone. If you experience premenstrual bloating, try adding in potassium foods like apricots, prunes, banana, artichokes, oranges, and sunflower seeds.
Every meal is a new opportunity to add in foods that positively support our menstrual and hormone health. We’re not aiming for perfection, but rather to use food to influence better, calmer periods and easier menstrual cycles.
Le’Nise Brothers is a yoga teacher and registered nutritionist, mBANT, mCNHC, specialising in women’s health, hormones and the menstrual cycle. She is also the host of the Period Story podcast, which aims to break taboos around menstrual health and hormones.
Le’Nise has helped hundreds of women improve their menstrual and hormone health through her private practice and group programmes, her Instagram page and talks and workshops for the likes of Stylist, She’s Lost Control, MindBodySpirit Festival, WellFest Ireland, WellFest UK, Channel 4, Boden, Ebay and TikTok.
Her first book You Can Have a Better Period was released in March 2022.