Updated: Jul 27, 2021
Nutrition can have a direct impact on the menstrual cycle. From PMS to ovulation and menstruation, the food we eat can greatly influence how we feel during these phases.
To find out more, Chaja van Boesschoten takes a look at what research says about how nutrition influences the menstrual cycle.
Nutrition and the menstrual cycle
“As your hormones change, so does your menu!”.
These are the words of nutrition and women’s hormone expert, Alisa Vitti. After years of struggling with her hormones, Alisa healed herself through eating well and changing her lifestyle. She's found that we need to feed ourselves with foods that nurture and protect our hormones.
As Alisa explains on her website Floliving, our bodies have cyclical needs. These change as hormones shift throughout a cycle. These changes may be daily, weekly or even across a whole lifetime.
The challenge lies in (re)stabilising the hormonal balance. Alisa's work does this through applying scientifically-based strategies as well as having a better understanding of and connection to the physical body and mind.
Alisa's strategies aim to harmonise hormones and erase symptoms related to ovulation, PMS and menstruation. In each of the four phases of the menstrual cycle - or, as Alisa refers to, a monthly infradian rhythm - our bodies produce different levels of hormones. This results in varied levels of energy, sleep patterns and cravings.
The four phases of the menstrual cycle
Menstrual phase (the three to seven days of your period)
This phase can be seen as the first or the last phase. It’s when the thickened lining of your uterus sheds during your monthly bleed. The hormone levels are at their lowest level, so it’s time to slow down.
Follicular phase (the seven to 10 days after your period)
This starts on the first day of your menstruation and ends when you start to ovulate. The follicles, egg-containing pods, ripen and one of the eggs matures. During this phase, our metabolism and resting cortisol levels are lower. We might feel more tired and less focused.
Ovulation (the four days in the middle of your cycle)
This shortest phase of the cycle happens when the ovary releases the mature egg down the fallopian tube on its way to fertilisation. Both your testosterone and energy levels are higher. A good-functioning liver and gut are crucial, because these elimination organs help to get rid of excess oestrogen and contribute to being hormonally balanced and healthy. This helps to keep symptoms like PMS, acne and cramps at bay.
Luteal phase (the 10-14 days between ovulation and your period)
The follicle that released the egg also produces hormones that thicken and ripen the uterus to become ready for a possible pregnancy. During this phase your metabolism speeds up and resting cortisol levels are higher. We need more calories during this phase to avoid cravings, energy dips, irritability and headaches.
How food impacts the menstrual cycle
During this whole process, nutrition plays a major role, but it has to be supported by lifestyle changes. This includes exercise, reducing stress and potentially including supplements into our diet.
Scientific research is ongoing about the role of food during our reproductive life. It's generally recommended to have a good balance of proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and folate in your daily diet, but speaking to a nutritionist about your personal needs may be helpful.
Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in legumes, fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, unrefined cereals, moderate to high consumption of fish and low intake of meat, may proof beneficial.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, replace fish oils with plant-based oils rich in omega fatty acids.
It's important to remember that much of the scientific research conducted in the past has often only used assigned male subjects. Alisa is keen to emphasise the biochemical difference between assigned males and females in her work.
It means assigned females have a unique biochemistry that includes metabolism, cortisol and calorie needs, which is often not reflected in scientific literature.
We have a huge opportunity to change our relationship with our bodies and to start listening inwards to our body's subtle signals.
One of them may be Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). This is a condition that affects our emotions, physical health and behaviour during certain days before and during the menstrual cycle.
It might not be nice to experience it, but there are opportunities for change. The body is giving signals of which nutrients it's missing.
Many of the symptoms that occur from hormonal imbalance are the result of surplus oestrogen, which can leave you feeling bloated. It makes sense to eliminate this excess. Fresh green vegetables with their antioxidants are essential to clear excess oestrogen through your elimination organs.
Cramps indicate an absence of the right omega essential fatty acids, while mood swings and lower energy levels may suggest that you're lacking in essential B vitamins.
It's a fascinating dive to start better understanding the whole hormonal cycle with all its interactions and signals. Through this knowledge, we can take ownership of our bodies and embrace our cyclical nature.
About Chaja van Boesschoten
Chaja is a Hatha yoga teacher, international project manager and started recently as a digital writer. She has become so captivated by the knowledge of yoga science and the immense possibilities of the breath, that her life has become devoted to yoga. Chaja was born in The Netherlands, she is married to a Scottish man and has two sons who were born in two different countries. She now lives in Italy and finds it beautiful to use the knowledge of different languages and experiences to transmit yoga. Yoga is available to everyone, but she sees the importance to bring it to people who are possibly unaware of it, to people who live in socially vulnerable situations, to people suffering mentally (as a consequence of the pandemic e.g.) and to influencers.