All About Your Menstrual Phases & Cycle Syncing
By Marilee Nelson |
There is a lot to learn about a woman’s menstrual cycle that many of us may not be aware of. Sadly, many American women associate their monthly period with emotional and physical pain. Yet the great news is that our aim should be to have a completely symptom-free period and cycle!
So today, we’re here to break it down. We’re digging into the physiology of a cycle, the different phases of a cycle and specific things you can do to optimize your time during that phase (aka “cycle syncing”).
A menstrual cycle is the cyclical process the female body undergoes in preparation for pregnancy. During menstruation, hormonal fluctuations are the driving factors that prompt important reproductive activities like ovulation and menstruation to reoccur cyclically, usually around every twenty-eight days.
Within the cycle, no two days are the same in terms of hormone balance, metabolism and more… meaning what a woman eats, how much she eats, what products she uses, and how she moves her body can drastically change. Certain phases of the cycle allow our bodies more energy, and others less.
We’ll explore the phases and how they affect us, then discuss what cycle syncing is and how someone can adapt their lifestyle to optimize each phase for a healthy, happy period!
The Menstrual Cycle: An Introduction
Medically speaking, the monthly cycle is broken down further into two phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase. The first half of the follicular phase (days ~0-7) is marked by menstruation, and the transition between the follicular and luteal phases is marked by ovulation.
Interestingly, the duration of the menstrual cycle (~28 days) often lines up with a new-full moon cycle. Many women find that they either menstruate with the full moon and ovulate with the new moon or vice versa. It’s amazing how in-tune to the earth our bodies really are.
Here’s a great chart to help understand the phases of a woman’s cycle:
Image source: https://iapmd.org/hormones-and-pmdd
The Follicular Phase - Menstruation (Days ~0-7)
The beginning of the menstrual phase is marked by the first day that a woman’s period begins. At this time, hormones fall to their lowest point, prompting the uterus to shed its lining.
Because hormones are at their lowest, levels of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that rely on hormones are also low. As a result, we may experience symptoms like feeling low, mood swings, and depression.
Periods often last for about three to five days, although again, every woman’s body is unique and different. Because of the loss of blood from menstruation, energy levels may be lower during this time. Cramps, excessive bleeding, clotting, and diarrhea during this time are signals of hormone disruption .
Follicular Phase - Estrogen Growth (Days ~5-14)
This phase of a woman’s cycle is directly following her period. As a woman’s body moves through the follicular phase, estrogen levels slowly climb until they peak during ovulation.
Estrogen’s role is to regrow the uterine lining shed during menstruation. This blood-rich lining is vital for sperm and the inherent pregnancy the body thinks it’s about to host.
Ovulation (Day ~14)
As estrogen increases, energy levels rise at the same time. Around day fourteen, estrogen levels peak and signal to the pituitary that “it’s time.” Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and now luteinizing hormone (LH) (the hormone that dominates the second half of the cycle) peak, and it’s time for ovulation.
Near ovulation, one of the follicles maturing becomes dominant and the others around it break down. This dominant follicle releases an egg that can travel through the fallopian tubes to be fertilized by sperm and develop into a baby.
Ovulation is also known as the transition point between the follicular and luteal phases.
During ovulation, somewomen often feel noticeably more energetic and outgoing. Other common symptoms around ovulation may include light spotting, discharge, cramps, mood swings, water retention or bloating and cravings.
Luteal Phase (Days ~14-28)
The luteal phase occurs from the moment an egg is released at ovulation until the start of a woman’s next period. Unlike the follicular phase that relies on estrogen, the luteal phase uses progesterone to grow structures in the uterus that support the body through pregnancy.
If the egg released during ovulation was fertilized, that egg would implant within the uterine lining, progesterone will continue to be released and the structures the body constructed during the luteal phase will continue growing.
However, if the egg released during ovulation is not fertilized, hormone levels will fall over the next few days, and the process of menstruation will begin again with the shedding of the uterine lining. Whether or not a woman intends to get pregnant, her body will prepare for it until a fertilized egg either implants or the body realizes it has no fertilized egg to support. It’s the body's natural cycle!
The theme during the luteal phase is: “build, build, build”. To support this, the body increases its progesterone levels which increase the hormone insulin. Insulin is the hormone of growth, which is very essential for pregnancy.
Hormone imbalance shows up as PMS one to two weeks before menstruation during the luteal phase. Symptoms like irritability, mood swings, depression, bloating, fluid retention, breast tenderness, fatigue, sleep problems, uncontrolled crying, inability to concentrate, skin problems (acne), muscle and joint aches, diarrhea and constipation may continue four to five days after bleeding. Also, conditions like asthma, migraine headaches, epilepsy, irritable bowel, MS (multiple sclerosis), and other disorders may be aggravated, a phenomenon known as menstrual magnification.
In addition, if hormones are out of balance, this can increase a woman’s insulin resistance, which means she may feel hungrier often. A woman’s basal (resting) metabolic rate (BMR) is known to increase during the luteal phase by as much as 5-10%. These factors work together and can increase appetite - especially for sweets. In fact, some women suddenly have an uncontrolled appetite for sugar and junk food.
All Cycles Are Different…
As with all personal health, a woman’s cycle is very unique to her lifestyle and environment. Check out our blog post Feminine Care 101: Toss The Toxins For A Happier, Healthier Period for more on how to reduce any uncomfortable symptoms.
Overall, variation is regular, but extremely irregular cycles or cycles characterized by excessive bleeding, extreme pain or other questionable symptoms after you have tossed the toxins are worth discussing with a professional that can help you identify the issue.
If you are looking to get a handle on your menstrual cycle and optimize every phase in a targeted way, cycle syncing might be worth a try. Cycle syncing coordinates metabolic changes from your cycle to your lifestyle and habits.
This might involve eating certain nutrients like fat, protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals around specific times of your cycle and altering the types of exercise you’re doing. Knowing a bit about the body’s different degrees of insulin sensitivity and its varying metabolic changes come in handy for cycle syncing.
Cycle Syncing Through Your Follicular Phase
As we mentioned earlier, the follicular phase is characterized by high estrogen that suppresses appetite, increases insulin sensitivity and decreases metabolic rate.
During this time, you may find you are not as hungry as a symptom of lowered BMR and high estrogen. To account for the bleeding that just took place, studies have shown that incorporating more foods high in protein and iron can help replenish what was lost during menses. If intermittent fasting is something you typically practice, it may be easier to do so during your follicular phase.
Seed cycling is an easy to implement dietary practice for better hormonal balance that has two phases. Phase One occurs in the follicular phase from the first day of your period to about Day 14 at ovulation, when more estrogen is needed to build the uterus lining (the endometrium). Add one tablespoon of freshly ground flax seeds and one tablespoon of freshly ground pumpkin seeds each day to salads, smoothies, or sprinkled on food to increase good estrogen levels.
In terms of exercise, the follicular phase can be a better time for more higher-intensity activities in comparison to the luteal phase. Estrogen can be helpful to build muscle, meaning that weight training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and other strength exercises can go a long way.
Cycle Syncing Through Your Luteal Phase
During the follicular phase, progesterone increases and for some peoplean increase insulin resistance and lessen carb tolerance. You may feel hungrier than normal.
Quality carbohydrates from whole food sources might help stave off mood swings and sleep changes that are common from the decrease in neurotransmitters we see when progesterone falls. Fibrous carbs like greens (like broccoli, green beans, brussels sprouts, carrots, etc.) and whole food starchy carbs like sweet potatoes are a great way to supply your body with helpful carbs without (literally) feeding insulin resistance.
Because the body is “building,” the basal (resting) metabolic rate (BMR) is known to increase... And it can raise demand for calories by as much as 5-10%! This can make someone feel like they need to eat bigger meals, eat more frequently, or snack.
Studies show that protein and fats are vital nutrients your body requires to prepare your uterine lining for pregnancy. In the days leading up to menstruation, prioritizing foods containing nutrients like B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids and calcium can be helpful to support the hormone changes. Similarly, consuming foods high in iron can dramatically improve energy levels to offset the bleeding that is about to take place.
Phase 2 of seed cycling during the luteal phase from day 15 to day 30 supports progesterone production to help thicken the uterus lining and prepare it for egg implantation. Tip: It can be beneficial to add 1 tablespoon of freshly ground sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon freshly ground sun sunflower seeds each day to salads, smoothies, or sprinkled on food to promote progesterone production and reduce symptoms of PMS.
The luteal phase is a great time to "slow down" and take that slow, stretching class you've wanted to try. Stretching and deep breathing exercises are beneficial to and support the liver, which is vital to healthy hormone levels. With your body working to build your uterine lining, pushing too hard at the gym can exacerbate any cravings or mood swings you might have. Instead, take it easy, walk outside, and be kind to yourself.
So, we've learned a lot...
There’s your anatomy and physiology lesson for the day! We hope this helps shed some light on what is going on in your body during your cycle, why you may feel a certain way, and also steps you can take for a pain and carefree cycle.
To dig in more and learn about how you can #TossTheToxins for a healthier cycle, check out How To Avoid Endocrine Disruptors In Your Daily Life, 3 Ways To Naturally Balance Hormones, and Allison's Journey To Fertility.
Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.