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Understanding Your Menstrual Cycle and Improving Your Energy Levels

Ever wondered why you might feel energized one week and sluggish the next? If you’re menstruating, there is a physiological explanation for this. Shifting hormone levels impact the way women feel throughout their menstrual cycle. And syncing your lifestyle and diet habits to your cycle — a practice known as cycle syncing — is a phenomenal way to stay balanced and energized.

If you’re interested in learning more about hormonal fluctuations, cycle syncing, and how to stay energized during your cycle, read on. Today’s article covers everything you need to know. 

Menstrual Cycle Phases

As you probably already know, the menstrual cycle prepares a woman’s body for pregnancy. It consists of four phases that span a 28-day period: 

Menstruation

Menstruation is more commonly known as a period. This menstrual phase begins when the egg from your previous cycle isn’t fertilized, and your estrogen and progesterone levels drop as a result. Because the thickened uterus lining — which supports pregnancy — isn’t needed, it sheds through the vagina. And a combination of blood, mucus, and uterus tissue is released. 

Follicular Phase

The next menstrual cycle phase is the follicular phase. Technically, the follicular phase begins the first day of your period (so there is some overlap with menstruation) and lasts until ovulation (about 13-14 days). 

The follicular phase begins when the hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). And FSH signals your ovaries to produce about 5 to 20 follicles, which are small sacs containing immature eggs. The healthiest egg will eventually mature, and the rest are reabsorbed into the body. The maturing egg triggers a surge in estrogen that thickens the lining of your uterus – creating a nutrient-rich environment for the embryo to grow. 

(Note that if you have diabetes, your blood sugar will begin to rise at the end of the follicular phase.) 

Ovulation Phase

Rising estrogen levels prompt your pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH), which starts the ovulation process. (Ovulation is when your ovaries release a mature egg for fertilization.) Women are at risk for pregnancy when they’re ovulating, and they can tell that they’re ovulating by the following symptoms: 

  • Breast tenderness
  • Abdominal pain and bloating 
  • Slight rise in basal body temperature
  • Rise in cervical mucus  – a thicker discharge that is wetter, clearer, and more slippery than normal 

Generally, ovulation occurs on day 14 of 28 – right in the middle of your menstrual cycle. (However, the timing of your fertile window is highly unpredictable and depends on a variety of factors.) Once ovulation occurs, it lasts about 24 hours and after which, the unfertilized egg dissolves.

Luteal Phase

After the follicle releases its egg, it transforms into the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum releases the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which keeps the lining of your uterus thick and prepared for a potential fertilized egg. 

If the egg is fertilized, your body produces human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), which maintains the corpus luteum and keeps the uterine lining thick. However, if the egg isn’t fertilized, the corpus luteum gets reabsorbed. This causes estrogen and progesterone levels to drop – which triggers the uterine lining to shed (menstruation).   

During this phase, many women experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS symptoms include the following

  • Bloating
  • Headache
  • Weight gain
  • Mood swings
  • Food cravings
  • Sleep troubles
  • Changes in sexual desire
  • Breast swelling, pain, or tenderness

Common PMS Symptoms During Your Period

Because every woman is different, reproductive symptoms vary from person to person. Generally, they include

  • Tension, or anxiety
  • Anger or irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Social withdrawal
  • Change in libido
  • Poor concentration
  • Depression or low mood
  • Appetite changes and/or food cravings

Cycle Syncing For Your Health

Cycle syncing was introduced by Alisa Vitti, an integrative nutritionist and women’s hormone expert. Essentially, it involves adjusting aspects of a woman’s life — like her fitness and nutrition habits — to reflect her menstrual cycle. Doing so helps correct hormonal imbalances and minimizes symptoms. 

Research confirms hormonal fluctuations affect energy, mood, appetite, and sleep. And one study linked increased consumption of sweet foods, junk food, coffee, and a lack of exercise to PMS. 

Should You Cycle Sync? 

Dr. Becky Campbell, a functional medicine practitioner, tells us that “cycle syncing is completely safe for anyone to try.” However, it’s especially beneficial for women with the following conditions: 

  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having low energy
  • Wanting to conceive
  • Having low libido
  • Estrogen dominance
  • Depression or anxiety 

Exercise and Cycle Syncing

A woman’s hormones and energy levels fluctuate throughout the month. And syncing your exercise routine to your menstrual phases supports your body without compromising your health. 

Dr. Campell recommends planning your workouts as follows: 

  • Follicular phase. Low hormones may affect your stamina. Therefore, light cardio — like jogging, hiking, and flow-based yoga (vinyasa) — are terrific ideas. 
  • Ovulation. Because your estrogen and progesterone levels are peaking, your energy levels are likely higher. That makes ovulation an ideal time for high-intensity workouts – including strength training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Tabata workouts, circuit training, group fitness classes, or spin classes.
  • Luteal phase. Your estrogen levels drop, which makes some women feel more tired. Therefore, moderate-intensity workouts (pilates, aerobic workouts, lighter levels of strength training) are fantastic options. 
  • Menstruation. Light movements are best during menstruation. Stick to pilates, walking, tai chi, and getting plenty of rest. 

Nutrition and Cycle Syncing

According to Dr. Campbell, different foods can affect you differently throughout your cycle. “No matter what stage you are in your cycle, avoid inflammatory foods” like refined sugar, refined oils, additives, artificial ingredients, junk food, processed food, caffeine, and alcohol. Instead, focus on consuming whole foods and eat regularly — every three to four hours — to help balance your blood sugar levels and avoid cortisol spikes.

Dr. Campbell also offers these nutritional tips for each specific cycle:

  • Follicular phase. Add foods that support estrogen metabolization (like cruciferous vegetables), as well as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods (hemp seeds, chia seeds, kale, sugar snap peas, carrots, artichokes, sprouts, strawberries, blueberries, and apples) to boost energy. 
  • Ovulation. Support your liver by loading up on anti-inflammatory foods like beets, carrots, apples, and cruciferous vegetables. Not only do these foods protect from environmental toxins, but they also contain anti-aging properties. Additionally, remember to stay hydrated and consume plenty of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables (grapefruit, berries, peaches, plums, grapes, cucumber, radishes, bell peppers, and greens) to support healthy energy levels. 
  • Luteal phase. Try to incorporate foods that produce serotonin and improve your mood (like leafy greens). Additionally, prepare for menstruation by loading up on iron-rich foods (red meat, seafood, dark leafy greens). Dr. Campell also recommends consuming magnesium-rich foods — like pumpkin seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds, and dark chocolate — to reduce fatigue and boost libido and other menstrual symptoms. 
  • Menstruation. Since menstruation involves the loss of blood, aim to restore your iron levels with iron-rich foods (dark leafy greens, red meat, and seafood). Additionally, anti-inflammatory herbs (turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, parsley, and rosemary) and foods containing healthy fats (oily fish, nuts, olive oil, avocados, flaxseeds, etc.) can help reduce period pain. 

Natural Ways To Improve Energy During Your Next Period 

You may or may not be aware of how your cycle impacts sleep. But for those who don’t know, PMS often causes sleeping problems. Women who experience PMS are twice as likely to experience insomnia either before or after their period. And poor sleep often leads to daytime grogginess and increased fatigue. 

While researchers aren’t entirely sure why PMS negatively affects sleep, hormonal changes occurring around menstruation might affect body temperature and melatonin production. Changing hormone levels can cause difficulty falling asleep, as well as more sleep interruptions

While it’s common to experience sleep troubles during your period, certain measures can help. Firstly, make sure to develop healthy sleep hygiene and optimize your night routine to improve sleep. Avoid consuming caffeine after noon, stick to a consistent bedtime, and turn electronics off at least an hour before bed. 

Additionally, exercising during your period — whether it be a brisk walk or a feel-good yoga flow — releases endorphins and supports healthy sleep habits. It can also relieve menstrual cramps, which can help if those are the source of your insomnia. 

Finally, staying hydrated and avoiding alcohol is a great way to stay energized during your cycle. Consuming a sufficient amount of fluids — including water-laden foods like fruits, vegetables, and soup — will replenish the water lost throughout the day and help maintain your energy levels.