Understanding Your Menstrual Cycle, Hormones & Health
When it comes to key female hormones, Oestrogen and Progesterone are the two main conductors of the symphony that is your monthly menstrual cycle. They guide the 4 phases to your cycle, with both going through natural fluctuations and changes to their levels of production and intended roles.
The menstrual cycle is a clear insight into why women are innately skilled at doing more than two things at once. Not only is your body going through its natural circadian (24 hr) rhythm every day, but it is also following a second biological rhythm known as the Infradian (multi-day) rhythm. This is the rhythm of the menstrual cycle throughout reproductive years, starting from as early as childhood with menarche (onset of first menstruation) through to post-menopause.
The 4 Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
Period and Early Follicular Phase (roughly days 1-7)
Day 1 of your menstrual cycle is typically classified as the first day that your period arrives. This phase starts when the released egg is left unfertilised, and your hormone levels naturally drop to allow for the shedding of the uterine lining. Menstrual bleeding generally lasts between 3-7 days; however, the length and consistency can be different for every woman based on a variety of factors.
Iron rich foods are best at this time of your cycle to support healthy haemoglobin production during menstrual blood loss. Examples – organic grass-fed red meat, organic free-range poultry, organic liver pate, organic tofu/tempeh, dark leaky greens, legumes, dried apricots, hemp and chia seeds
Focus on restorative exercise and movement such as walks in nature, yoga and stretching
Follicular Phase (roughly days 7-13)
When your cycle is flowing, the follicular phase can feel pretty damn good. Oestrogen and even Testosterone levels are rising, progesterone is humming away in the background and often any slight cycle-related symptoms around or during period are all but gone.
This phase overlaps with the menstrual phase. At this time, the brain (specifically the hypothalamus) signals to the pituitary gland to release a hormone called follicle-stimulating hormone or FSH, which stimulates the ovaries to produce small sacs containing immature eggs. The maturing of one of these eggs triggers a necessary natural surge in oestrogen.
Slightly lower temperatures on a basal body temperature chart can characterise this early follicular phase, and as a complimentary factor resting cortisol levels and metabolism overall is a little slower.
When Oestrogen production is balanced in the cycle, particularly in the Follicular phase when it peaks, it not only supports a healthy mood (based on its influence on various feel-good neurotransmitters) it is amazing for sleep, skin, bone health, libido, insulin sensitivity and metabolism.
Supporting healthy oestrogen clearance is the name of the game here. Increase your intake of Brassica family veg (e.g. broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts), Broccoli sprout, Artichoke, Leafy greens, Onions/garlic, Fibre-rich foods (such as ground flax-seeds, fruit, chia seeds)
HIIT workouts/classes, going for a PB in the gym or stepping up your intensity no matter what exercise you enjoy
Ovulation (roughly anywhere between days 14-21)
The main event of a healthy menstrual cycle. Whether we are wanting to fall pregnant or not, ovulation is critical to women’s overall health and hormonal harmony. This is where Oestrogen has peaked, another essential hormone Luteinising Hormone (LH) is released and so begins the process of ovulation. A matured egg is sent from its follicle into the fallopian tube where it awaits potential fertilisation. It is this window of time (roughly 12-24 hours) where we are either prioritising sex or being extra careful if this is not your current priority.
Interestingly, women’s natural hormonal rhythms would have it that Testosterone peaks during ovulation. As a key hormone this boosts your energy, confidence and most importantly libido, at a time when we are our most fertile.
Ovulation also brings about the nice surge of Progesterone that is required to take you through the next half of the menstrual cycle.
Note: anovulatory cycles (the absence of ovulation, even with a regular period) are incredibly common. This is not an exhaustive list, however some of the main factors that may contribute to anovulation include hormonal birth control (such as the Pill, which suppresses ovulation from occurring), undereating/underweight/overexercising and hormonal conditions such as PCOS.
With so many hormonal changes happening in a small window of time, this is when complete nourishment comes to mind. Think a vegetable packed, macronutrient balanced Nourish Bowl as your go-to meal. Healthy fats (avocado, extra virgin olive oil or nuts/seeds as your topping), Carbohydrates (sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa), Protein (legumes, lean organic animal protein or tofu) and then a rainbow of vegetables (and antioxidants) to fill your plate.
Weight/strength training, Pilates
Luteal Phase (anytime from Ovulation to the start of your next cycle)
The Luteal Phase is where Progesterone takes the stage and brings about some calm post-ovulation. Think of Progesterone as being the Yin energy to the Yang of Oestrogen. We may naturally feel more introverted and in the mood to curl up on the couch at this time in the cycle, and this is largely the influence of Progesterone.
Healthy Progesterone production is not only essential for fertility, conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy, it down regulates inflammation, supports immune function, and is key for the health of our brain, breast tissue and bones. Progesterone also thins the uterine lining and boosts thyroid hormone production (which is why your metabolic rate and resting cortisol level is slightly higher in the second half of the cycle and why your body temperature creeps up a little from ovulation onwards).
With the hormonal changes during the luteal phase, and particularly if progesterone isn’t coming to the party, this is the time in the menstrual cycle where PMS-type symptoms can rear their head. Unfortunately, women note more and more that they experience symptoms such as low mood, headaches/migraines, breast tenderness, insomnia, anxiety, and cramping/bowel movement changes for weeks prior to getting their period.
Supporting progesterone production through key nutrients in food; Zinc (oysters, pumpkin seeds, grass-fed beef, and liver), Magnesium (dark leafy greens, cacao, nuts and seeds), B6 (salmon, chicken, sweet potato, bananas) Vitamin C (broccoli, cauliflower, berries, capsicum)
Lower-intensity movement, skip the HIIT and excessive cardio, stretching and adequate rest post-exercise
Just from this small snapshot of the phases of the menstrual cycle, we can begin to appreciate the complexity of hormonal changes that naturally occur for women every month. Being a holistic health practitioner, hormonal imbalances and reproductive concerns are something that I see all the time in clinic to varying degrees, at various stages throughout a woman’s reproductive years.
The above guide is just that, a simple guide to provide some basic education and insight into the phases of the menstrual cycle and what we might expect. However, I want to stress that every woman is incredibly individual, and I approach every hormonal treatment plan differently. Not all women have a regular 28-day cycle, some women have never experienced PMS, some women are required to take certain medications to manage their symptoms, some women have never been taught to track for ovulation, some women are managing debilitating chronic conditions such as Endometriosis every day… every woman is unique, and a perfect menstrual cycle doesn’t exist.