What is the menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle is defined as the hormonal cycle which the female body goes through to prepare for pregnancy, every month. However, the cycle is a lot more complex than meets the eye, is individualised to every female and impacts people differently. Therefore, it is important to understand the phases of this cycle, how it impacts health and how to optimise nutrition during this time.
Phases of the menstrual cycle
the menstrual cycle can be broken down into four different stages, which are influenced by different hormones and impact the female body in very different ways. These stages are:
- The follicular phase
- The ovulatory phase
- The luteal phase
- The menstrual phase.
Let’s break these stages down and explain the impact they have on female health.
The follicular phase is defined as the 7-10 days after a period ends. During this time oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest. As this phase comes to an end, oestrogen levels start to rise, and the uterus lining begins to thicken in preparation for an egg being released.
During this stage you may notice energy levels begin to rise, skin glows and you may feel energetic.
This is closely followed by the ovulatory phase, where oestrogen levels rapidly increase for 2-4 days and subsequently an egg is released from the ovaries. It is during this phase that pregnancy will occur if the egg is reached by sperm, during ovulation and 24 hours after the egg is released.
It is at this stage where energy levels are at their highest, along with libido and mood.
After the egg is released, the luteal phase begins. This lasts for around 10-14 days before the next bleed and is when oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone peak, and then begin to drop, which triggers the lining of the womb to shed if an egg is not fertilised. However, if the egg is fertilised, progesterone levels continue to rise and build the lining of the womb for pregnancy.
If pregnancy does not occur, you may experience common PMS (pre-menstrual symptoms) such as: bloating, headaches, food craving, sleep disturbances and changes in sexual desire.
The last stage of the cycle is the menstrual phase. This is also known as the bleed, when oestrogen and progesterone decrease rapidly, and the lining of the womb is shed. This phase lasts on average 3-7 days however, length and heaviness are retaliative to the individual.
During this stage you may feel irritable, experience cramps, tiredness, lower back pain and bloating.
Every female will experience different symptoms during these stages; therefore, it is important to be aware of the hormones released and the impact they have on your health (Ashok,2022).
How nutrition and the menstrual cycle link
There is a range of evidence which suggests that diet can impact menstruation and the symptoms which occur during the menstrual cycle. Therefore, optimising health nutrition throughout this cycle can improve both health and possible symptoms.
The menstruation phase:
It is during this phase where the uterus lining sheds, and the female body loses on average 30-72ml of blood during this time. As a result of this blood loss, it is estimated that there is an iron loss of 1mg a day. Therefore, this is crucial time to focus on consuming enough iron rich foods and energy dense foods to support energy levels.
Iron is an essential mineral involved in the formulation of red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen around the body. There are two types of iron, haem and non-haem iron, haem iron can be sourced from animal sources and non-haem from plant sources. Iron from animal sources, haem iron, is absorbed better than non-haem iron however, absorption of iron from plant sources can be optimised by consuming them with foods rich in vitamin C, which aid iron absorption.
Examples of food rich in iron include:
- Red meat
- Fortified cereals
- Cacao powder
- Dark leafy greens
- Canned tuna and poultry
Some females suffer with particularly heavy periods, if this is the case, the NHS recommends that you take an iron supplement to prevent anaemia risk.
The follicular phase:
After the uterus lining has shed fully, the follicular phase begins, and oestrogen levels begin to rise. This stage lasts around 10-14 days, the change in hormones influences how your body uses food for fuel, resulting in a slightly elevated demand in carbohydrates. Therefore, following a healthy balanced diet full of complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables is advised. During this phase, consume:
- Complex carbohydrates such as wholegrain oats, rice, bread, and grains.
- Sweet potato, nuts, olive oil.
- Leafy green vegetables such as kale, broccoli, Brussel sprouts.
- A range of fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals.
The ovulatory phase:
Ovulation, when an egg is released, occurs at days 12-16, and at this time oestrogen is at its peak. Oestrogen is thought to stimulate appetite therefore, hunger may increase during this time. Alike the follicular phase, it is important to follow a balanced healthy diet and focus on fruit and vegetable consumption.
The luteal phase:
After ovulation, if fertilisation does not occur, the luteal phase begins, days 15-28. Progesterone and oestrogen levels rise and fall during this stage, serotonin levels drop, and many women experience PMS symptoms such as headaches and bloating.
Serotonin is a hormone which has a role in our control of mood, sleep, anxiety, and digestion. Due to the drop serotonin during the luteal stage, anxiety and mood swings can increase, along with bloating and sleep disturbances. The mineral calcium plays a role in the regulation of serotonin therefore, ensuring calcium intakes are sufficient can balance serotonin levels and levitate some PMS symptoms. Consuming calcium rich foods with vitamin D aids calcium metabolism, like iron and vitamin C consumption.
Food rich in calcium include dairy products such as yoghurt, cheese, fortified plant-based milks, and fortified orange juice. Foods to pair these with, which are rich in vitamin D include oily fish, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals.
It has been suggested that the drop in serotonin during this stage is responsible for cravings such as chocolate, sweets, and salty foods. As when consumed, these foods trigger serotonin secretion in the body and serotonin also helps regulate hunger levels.
During this stage it is recommended that:
- Calcium and vitamin D intakes are prioritized, in the form of diary products, oily fish and leafy greens.
- Avoid foods which trigger bloating- such as coffee, spicy foods, and fizzy drinks.
- Focus on complex carbohydrates, fruit, and vegetables to aid digestion and regulate hunger levels.
Research has highlighted that the fluctuation of hormones throughout the menstrual cycle influence hunger, digestion, and mood therefore, it is essential that during this time nutrition is optimised to relieve PMS symptoms and regulate energy. Every female will experience different symptoms during their cycle, and it is important to be in tune with your symptoms and hunger cues.
See our Nourished Life recipe of the month ‘Cherry and cocoa overnight oats’, for a healthy breakfast recipe during your menstrual cycle. Make sure to share your photos on social media and use the hashtag #Nourishedlife!
Ashok, N. (2022). Nutrition & The Menstrual cycle [Review of Nutrition & The Menstrual cycle]. Rhitrition. https://www.rhitrition.com/blog/nutrition-the-menstrual-cycle#:~:text=Modulating%20salt%20intake%2C%20and%20consuming,foods%20supports%20the%20menstrual%20phase.