You know how you have willpower for three weeks a month, then eat like a crazy woman possessed in pre-period days? Well, you’re not alone. But actually, what you eat throughout your cycle can make a difference…
Ruth Sharif is a nutritional consultant at Digme Fitness. “There are four phases in our menstrual cycle, during which we are dealing with the rise and fall of five different reproductive hormones. These are oestrogen, progesterone, FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), LH (luteinising-stimulating hormone) and testosterone. Good nutrition and the effective use of supplements can help with managing these fluctuations.”
She goes on, “during the follicular phase the body is preparing for ovulation. The body is preparing to release an egg but oestrogen at its lowest point now; energy levels are therefore often also very low. Include more of the foods rich in iron and the B vitamins (particularly B12) during this phase. Iron rich foods include meats like beef (if possible grass fed or organic), lamb and venison, fish; salmon, sardines, haddock, halibut. Vegetarian sources including leafy greens, lentils, beans lentils, nuts and seeds. With vegetarian sources, try to have vitamin C containing foods alongside (orange or lemon for example) to aid absorption of this non-haem form of iron. B12 foods include eggs, meat, dairy and fish. The green algae supplement spirulina also contains good levels of B12.”
The ovulation phase, Ruth says, is the phase when the egg is released from the ovary. “LH and FSH levels increase and oestrogen and testosterone levels surge thus proving more energy. Women often feel more confident and experience less food cravings. You may need to rely less on quick energy release foods like carbs. Focus instead on protein and healthy fats to sustain energy levels over this period. Good protein sources: meat and fish, beans pulses, nuts and seeds and cheeses like halloumi, and feta. Good fats are in oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds and nut and seed butter. Fibre and liver-supporting foods are important at this stage to help clear excess oestrogen form the body. Fibre rich foods include most fruit and vegetables, oats and oat bran, brown rice, beans pulses and lentils. Liver-friendly foods include cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, brussel sprouts, broccoli, kale, asparagus (all also help increase a key antioxidant, glutathione which is critical for liver detoxification), onions and garlic.”
During the luteal phase Ruth says “progesterone levels start to rise and with this women can start to feel more bloated, irritable and may suffer from “brain fog” and cravings for more comfort foods. It is important to eat more regularly during this phase to balance blood sugar levels as these may be more volatile during this phase. Including protein with each meal or snack helps slow down the release of sugar into the blood stream thus enabling more balanced mood and energy levels. Progesterone can also slow down digestion and thus we may be more prone to sluggish bowel movements. It is therefore important to continue to include plenty of fibre and to keep hydration levels up (1.5 litres filtered water per day). Dandelion tea works well as a mild diuretic and peppermint and fennel teas help with bloating (remember to leave the tea bag in for 5 mins at least or even use two in order to get a therapeutic effect from your tea!) Good slow release carbs include sweet potato, squashes, quinoa, brown rice and lentils.
As for the menstrual phase, progesterone levels drop and oestrogen levels peak and then decline quite rapidly. The body is discarding the uterus lining and we need plenty of blood building foods. Foods rich in iron and zinc (seafoods and seeds, especially pumpkin seeds) are helpful as well as nourishing foods like bone broths, soups and stews. Iodine-containing foods like fish, sea vegetables an eggs would be helpful as well as antioxidant rich berries and flaxseed (hormone balancing). Dark chocolate is great if you have craving as it is full of antioxidants and contains magnesium (great if you have cramps!)”
The Ayurvedic approach
Eminé Rushton is the author of Sattva: The Ayurvedic Way to Live Well and co-creator of This Conscious Life.
“The three main stages of the menstrual cycle all possess their own unique characteristics, which relate to the shifts in hormones each time. During rajahkala, we menstruate. At this time we are in the vata part of the menstrual cycle. This is because vata is the energy that governs movement and flow, and Ayurveda encourages us to support the downward flow of this energy, so that we support our selves in the clearing of our menstrual blood from our bodies.
After menstruation, kapha is dominant. This part of the cycle, called rutukala, lasts from the end of the bleeding phase to the point at which we prepare to ovulate. The kapha phase overlaps slightly with the vata phase, as one part of the cycle segues into the next part (much like the moon rising as the sun sets).
At the point of ovulation, we enter the pitta phase of the cycle, or rutavateta kala. This is when the endometrium becomes fully engorged and filled with blood, ready to receive the ovum. If the ovum is not fertilised, the cycle begins anew – with day one of menstruation, when the body once again clears and opens, and we move, once more, into the vata phase of our cycle.”
To counterbalance the dry, cool, sparse qualities of vata, we want to nourish, oleate, lubricate, feed, ground, warm and soften, on every level. Return to those comfort foods of childhood – soft, mushy, soothing, warming, fragrant. Well-cooked soups, stews, curries (a yielding marigold-yellow tarka dal is a failsafe), made with plenty of butter, coconut, sesame oil or best of all, ghee, will feed those tissues up from within. Switch from coffee (vata needs rooting, not enervating) to soothing, warming teas – cardamom, cinnamon, and best of all, sweet, gently spiced milks – golden turmeric milk and chai are gifts to the vata body. There are beautiful harmonising adaptogenic herbs and spices too, more widely available now in the west – and shatavari, bala and gokshura are wonderful vata-balancers. Traditionally, these herbs would be added to ghee to form a medicated butter, which you can then stir through milk (as with turmeric in golden milk) and drink. A beautiful, enriching and nourishing way to feed up those vata-weakened tissues, but also understanding of the fact that most herbs and spices, vitamins and minerals, are lipid-soluble – so we increase the amount of goodness that our bodies can absorb, when we choose to eat or drink such things with a little fat, too.”
“Spicy, overly rich, oily and salty foods will all continue to stoke the inner fire, when it needs the opposite: quelling and cooling. Coconut oil and milk, mint, nettle, lavender, chamomile, coriander… all cooling additions, and you can use them freely, in whatever combinations you wish. Because of the rush and force of bleeding with pittas, there can be a real feeling of sudden depletion. If the blood contains toxins (or ama) the flow can be painful and unpleasant, too. In Ayurveda, organic aloe vera juice is recommended as a natural blood cleanser and excellent cooling tonic – sip a small glass, twice a day, on an empty stomach. Other herbs that support harmony of the pitta cycle, include brahmi (also known as gotu kola) and shatavari, both of which quell pitta’s excessive fire, and bring stability and sattvic balance, back to the reproductive tissues.”
“With the elements of earth and water, kapha is the heaviest and most lethargic of the doshas. This slow flow and stagnating quality, can make it difficult for things to move through the body in a healthy way, and kaphas are most likely to retain fluid, bloat, swell and suffer distention of the bowel and abdomen. Working once again with the natural law of opposites, we seek out lightness and fluidity. If the body is overly damp and cold inside – which brings about those sluggish feelings, and slow flow of fluid, too – it needs to be warmed up, excited, energised. Agni, the fire that transforms and enlivens us (and also drives metabolism), needs dedicated stoking now. Add more spice to your daily food – black pepper, cinnamon, ginger (fresh ginger tea is a wonderful tonic all month long for kapha), and avoid sweet, stodgy, heavy foods (processed, fried and overly oily foods in particular, which slow your bodily processes down, even more); meat, yoghurt and cheese are highly kapha-elevating too. Choose light broths, zingy soup, spiced pulse and bean curries and stews, and Ayurvedic teas of tulsi (also known as holy basil), cardamom, turmeric and cinnamon.”
But don’t overstate the impact of food
Aisling Moran is a Nutritional Scientist at Thriva, the at-home blood testing company. There isn’t really much evidence about eating for each phase, she says. Rather, it’s more that in general, there are a few things that are important for hormone production and energy levels. Additionally, during your period and the week before avoiding things like too much salt can help with some symptoms, while avoiding excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption might help reduce breast tenderness and bloating.
In general for hormone balancing, make sure you’re getting enough of the below, she says.
Omega-3s are a type of unsaturated fat that are essential for balanced hormones. They’re needed for hormone production and might even help lower raised androgen levels, like testosterone. Oily fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts are good sources.
A high-fibre diet full of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is thought to help remove excess oestrogen — which can help with PMS symptoms.
Magnesium can also help reduce PMS symptoms — especially symptoms of anxiety or depression. Avocados, nuts, legumes, leafy greens, and dark chocolate are good sources.
Vitamin B6 is needed for hormone production. It also helps with the absorption of other key nutrients, like magnesium. Chickpeas, tuna, salmon, wholegrains, and potatoes are good sources.
Get your weekly DOSE fix here: SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER