Did you know that your menstrual cycle actually has four phases? And that you have approximately 450 cycles in your lifetime? (source) How you eat and care for yourself (and even plan events) throughout your cycle can support happier moods and healthy hormone balance. Learn how to leverage your cycle by using foods to support hormones and mood during each phase. Work with your cycle!
Phases of Your Menstrual Cycle
Most basic info about menstruation says that your cycle consists of two phases, the follicular phase (the first half, average 14 days) and the luteal phase (the second half, average 14 days). But it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
If you’re unsure how your cycles work, this post is for you. Speaking about menstruation is taboo in our culture, and that doesn’t help anyone. Women need to understand how their bodies and their cycles work. The menstrual cycle is a delicate ebb of hormones, the chemical messengers that influence fertility and menstruation. There’s a reason you have a lot of energy and feel more outgoing at certain times of the month and more tired and introverted at other times during the phases of your cycle. That’s totally normal, and it’s OK.
The average menstrual cycle lasts from between 21 – 35 days. The gold standard is 28 days. More on cycle length and how to regulate your period in this post. I also recommend tracking your cycle using the Fertility Awareness Method, an app, or a tracker like Daysy (more of an ovulation tracker).
Phase One is menstruation. The first day of your cycle is the day you start bleeding. Your main female hormones, estrogen and especially progesterone, are at their lowest levels, which triggers the uterine lining to shed. And that’s when you get your period. A typical period lasts 3- 7 days on average.
You may feel more tired and withdrawn for the first few days of your period, and that’s normal. If you can, get more rest, and don’t schedule major events for these few days if you can help it. This is a time to be more introspective and quiet and turn inward, and you’re likely not feeling very outgoing. It may sound crazy or anti-feminist to suggest planning your life around your period, but it really helps to honor your body’s natural rhythms rather than to force yourself to keep up the same intensity all month long. Obviously it’s not always possible (or you may not even want) to schedule your life to correspond with your cycle, but it can work in your favor.
During period week, take detoxifying epsom salt baths with essential oils; avoid overly strenuous exercise; get plenty of sleep (and a 20 minute nap if needed during the day), Do some gentle yoga. Set your intention for the month.
Phase two of your cycle is the follicular phase. After your period (and really as soon as the first day of bleeding), estrogen levels begin to rise. The pituitary gland releases a hormone called Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), which stimulates the follicles in your ovaries to mature. These follicles contain your eggs. FSH is highest during the follicular phase (probably peaking around day 5-7).
Your period is winding down during this phase, and testosterone and estrogen begin to rise, boosting sex drive. You’ll start to feel better, more energetic and outgoing, so get back into the workouts you love.
Phase three is ovulation. Did you know that you are only fertile for about four days per month? The ovulation phase is that time. Estrogen and testosterone peak (read: you’re horny) triggering ovulation. In a “normal” 28 day cycle, ovulation occurs around day 14. You’re fertile for the 2 days prior to and after ovulation. This is the time to get busy if you’re trying to get pregnant. The egg (that’s right, only one egg– typically) released from the follicle in your ovary survives for 24 hours, BUT sperm can live up in there for up to 72 hours, which is why it’s possible to get a fertilized egg if there’s some sperm hanging around in there even before the egg is released.
Anyway, you’re at your most outgoing, energetic, and even attractive during this phase (source). Your sex drive is highest; you feel your best and most confident. Now is the time to do all the hard stuff; make the big presentation or pitch; get out there and make things happen. Schedule a date night. Get plenty of exercise. Schedule a job interview. You get the picture.
Consider making your OB/GYN, doctor, or dental appointments during this phase—days 12 through 16. That’s when estrogen levels, and your body’s painkiller system, are highest. Apparently your pain threshold is lowest during menstruation.
Phase four is the luteal phase. This is the second half your cycle that begins with ovulation. Estrogen and testosterone decline, and ovulation has triggered a rise in progesterone, the hormone that continues to rise if you’re pregnant. It drops just below menstruation if you’re not pregnant. Progesterone is a natural anti-anxiety hormone, and you may find yourself winding down in the second half of your cycle.
The luteal phase can be difficult for some women, especially if you are not making enough progesterone (incredibly common). Symptoms of low progesterone are shorter cycles, heavy periods, bad PMS, sore boobs, moodiness. As your period approaches, you may feel more tired and start craving sugar or carbs. You may also feel more bloated, moody, or headachy. These are all signs of dropping hormone levels prior to menstruation, and while normal to an extent, these symptoms should not disrupt your life and can actually signal to you that you need to better balance your hormones.
The week before your period is a time to start winding down again and practice good self care, more yin yoga, and more time to yourself. Then the cycle starts all over again.
What to Eat During Each Phase of Your Cycle
During every phase, focus on making half your plate veggies of all types. You want to get plenty of different types of fiber to support estrogen detox (many women are estrogen dominant which can cause painful periods and terrible PMS) and to provide food for your gut bacteria. Also get plenty of B vitamins all month long. I take a supplement, or B rich foods include egg yolk, meats, and dark leafy greens.
Phase one: Some women find they feel better eating lighter during the first couple days of menstruation. That means focusing on easy to digest and nutrient-rich soups, broths, stews, green juices, smoothies, lighter proteins. If it’s summer, do veggie packed salads with dark greens like arugula, and top with lighter proteins like wild salmon or eggs. Get iron-rich foods like beets and leafy greens like kale, spinach, and chard. During winter, focus on soups and stews packed with leafy greens, bone broth, and legumes or sweet potato.
Listen to your body, though: some women crave red meat during this phase, which is probably because you’re losing iron during menstruation. Eat a (bunless) burger or make a meat sauce to eat over spaghetti squash “pasta” if this is you!
Avoid alcohol, sugar (rely on dark chocolate if you have cravings), processed foods that are high in sodium, gluten, and dairy, which contribute to bloating.
Many women have GI upset, especially loose stool, during menstruation due to dropping hormone levels that affect your gut bacteria. If this is you, take a probiotic for several months, increase your fermented and gut healing foods, and avoid harder-to-digest, heavier foods during your period. Drink fresh ginger tea to ease bloating and GI discomfort.
Phase two: to support healthy estrogen levels and build the uterine lining, you can include seeds like ground flax during this phase, which boost your “good” estrogen levels. Add 1-2 tbsp to smoothies or porridges (loose term to encompass oatmeal if you do grains or grain free “n’oatmeals” if you do not eat grains) in the morning. You’ll also want to support detox, so load up on the sulfur-rich cruciferous veggies–cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, for example–which contain indole 3-carbinole to support estrogen detox and prevent estrogen dominance. Happy liver = healthy hormones. Read more on foods and herbs to support a healthy liver here.
Phase three: to support healthy ovulation, think zinc-rich foods like oysters, grass fed lamb, and pumpkin seeds. If you’re trying to conceive, get plenty of fertility-promoting foods prior to ovulation (and all month ideally). Include good fats like avocado and coconut oil, and eat plenty of nutrient-dense proteins and essential fatty acids from wild salmon, sardines, grass fed meats (always organic), eggs, and seafood.
Phase four: in the luteal phase, continue to focus on zinc-rich foods that support healthy progesterone levels. You can add in a couple tablespoons of sesame seeds or tahini and sunflower seeds to help boost progesterone during this phase. As you approach your period, you can ward off mood swings by keeping your blood sugar balanced and focusing on those mood-boosting omega 3-rich foods like salmon and sardines. Eat some dark chocolate to boost your mood!
I recommend taking an omega 3 and evening primrose oil supplement, like this one (all month). You can even try liver, if you like it, during this phase, as it’s very nutrient dense. I often begin to crave red meat during this time, so I’ll do more grass fed beef and lamb.
Increase the starchy root veggies to satisfy carb cravings that occur during this phase. Try sweet potatoes, make butternut squash soup, or roasted parsnip. Try carrot fries with a grass fed burger and avocado, side of raw kraut to support digestion. Get some legumes for good fiber (lentils especially), which will support digestion and provide you with fiber to keep you satisfied.
You can drink raspberry leaf tea all month to support healthy cycles. It’s an excellent uterine tonic that may relieve cramping. Or try nettles tea in the second half of your cycle especially. It’s very rich in minerals and iron and replaces nutrients lost during menstruation. Peppermint and ginger teas are excellent for GI upset and nausea, and hot water with lemon is an excellent first-thing-in-the-morning detox drink.
You can read more about seed cycling to support hormone balance here. Be sure to check out my posts on how to make your period pleasant; how to balance your hormones; and how to regulate your period. This post tells you how to get rid of PMS.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.