What to Eat During Each Phase of the Menstrual Cycle
Ladies, have you experienced a time in the weight room or on the track where you feel superhuman? You know, those days where your one-rep max feels as light as a feather, or you are crushing your mile pace.
Then other days, you go for the same workouts and feel like you were hit by a bus, barely hitting half the weight you were a week prior. You might be thinking, “Man, what is wrong with me? Why am I all of a sudden so unfit?”
Stop that thinking right there! We promise you, this is not your fault. Your ability has not suddenly left you overnight. What’s happening is your female hormones are changing! Hormone fluctuations during menstrual cycles are the reason for not only highs and lows with your mood but also highs and lows with your training. It is essential to remember hormones fluctuate from week to week and sometimes day to day.
But, what if you didn’t have to feel like death going into a training session? Yes, it’s possible! When you learn how to fuel during the different parts of your menstrual cycle and adjust your workouts, you have the potential to feel good all of the time.
Stay tuned because today, we are talking about what to eat during each phase of the menstrual cycle to keep you feeling and performing your best.
The Different Phases Of The Menstrual Cycle
For some unknown reason, we don’t learn about our cycle as a teenager in school. So, before diving into the food, let’s review the basics about the two different phases of the menstrual cycle.
The follicular phase is known as the “low hormone phase” when ladies are most like men. In this phase of the cycle, the body is primed for higher volume and more intensity because estrogen and progesterone levels are low.
It may even shock you to hear that you shouldn’t feel like death on your period! There are actually many benefits of exercise during periods. So if you are to the point where you cannot workout from extreme fatigue, or you are unable to get off the couch due to cramps, you are likely dealing with female hormone imbalance. Doing a hormone imbalance test can help you get to the root of your issues!
So what’s going on in the follicular phase?
This phase starts on the first day of bleeding. During bleeding, a rise in follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) stimulates the uterus lining to thicken in preparation for a possible pregnancy. This signals the ovary to produce around 5 to 20 follicles. Only one of these follicles will fully develop into a fully mature egg that is released typically around days 10 to 20 of the cycle. Hello, ovulation!
And queue luteal phase! Once the egg is released from the ovary, one of two things happens. The egg is fertilized by sperm and implanted in the uterus to begin growing a fetus. If the egg is not fertilized by sperm, it ruptures to create a corpus luteum. The corpus luteum produces progesterone, and together with rising levels of estrogen, these hormone continues to build the uterine lining.
Progesterone and estrogen levels, therefore, are HIGH!
The luteal phase ends at the start of your period when this uterine lining is shed, and the process starts all over again.
So now that we better understand the different phases of the cycle, let’s learn how this matters with what to eat during each phase of the menstrual cycle.
What To Eat During The Follicular Phase
Carbs Carbs Carbs!
Of course, we need to fuel with carbohydrates each and every day, but fueling well with extra carbohydrates, especially in the first half of your menstrual cycle (from day one of bleeding until ovulation), is the gateway to seamless ovulation, muscle growth, and sustained energy/stamina in your workouts.
Looking for the tastiest way to increase your carbs? Check out our super-tasty overnight oats recipe!
The reason being that…
- Carbs = optimal performance. The body is primed and ready to use carbs for fuel efficiently (estrogen is low). This means you can go harder and longer in your workouts and not hit a brick wall as you might later on in the cycle.
- Carbohydrates fuel reproductive function. They serve as cofactors for the hypothalamus to signal gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) to send LH pulses. LH pulses stimulate the release of an egg from the ovary. When GnRH pulses are not strong enough to generate sufficient LH pulses, an egg will not be released, and ovulation will not occur. So basically, if your carbohydrate intake is too low as an active female, the reproductive system becomes dysfunctional and can result in the loss of your menstrual cycle. This condition is known as hypothalamic amenorrhea and is driven by adrenal dysfunction.
In case this point was not beaten like a dead horse… the follicular phase is when your body is primed for higher volume and more intensity. Estrogen and progesterone levels are lower than they will be later on, making carbohydrates stores more accessible for exercise!
An excellent place to start for the average female who works out leisurely 3-4 times a week is a minimum of 200 grams of carbohydrate per day.
For highly active individuals, the necessary amount of carbohydrates would be around 5 g/kg of body weight when in the low hormone phase.
- For a 150# female, this equates to about 340 grams/carbs per day.
*Disclaimer that every female is different, and depending on body composition, type of exercise, and goals, this number could be higher or lower. Book 1 on 1 virtual nutrition coaching to learn what your exact numbers should be.
Sample Day Of What to Eat During Each Phase of the Menstrual Cycle to Hit 200 grams Of Carbohydrates
Breakfast – Loaded Oats
- ½ cup rolled oats
- ½ scoop plant-based protein mixed in
- Toppings: ½ banana, ¼ cup blueberries, 1 tbsp peanut butter
- 1 cup cubed watermelon
- ¼ mixed nuts
Lunch – Chicken Quinoa Salad
- 4 ounces paleo chicken sausage
- 2 cups artisan romaine or mixed greens
- Sliced cucumber, carrots, bell pepper, and onion
- 1 cup cooked quinoa
Pre-workout Snack Options
- NOKA Organics food pack
- 2 Medjool dates
- Applesauce pack
- Real food-based granola/protein bar
- Rice cake with almond butter and jelly on top
Mid-Afternoon Snack (post-workout)
- 1 scoop plant-based protein powder
- ½ frozen banana
- 1 cup frozen strawberries
- 1 tbsp chia seeds
- Handful of raw spinach
- 12 oz oat milk
Dinner – Balsamic Glazed Salmon
- 4 ounces of grilled salmon (marinated in balsamic vinegar, honey, garlic, dijon mustard, & salt)
- Medium baked sweet potato (or any version of potato)
- 1-2 cups sauteed broccoli and cauliflower (cooked in olive oil on low heat)
- Rice cake topped with peanut butter and banana
After losing blood during menstruation, iron stores can get low in some women making your energy plummet.
The solution? Load up on iron-rich foods!
- Pasteur-raised eggs
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild-caught fish
- Sweet potatoes
- String beans
- Beet greens
- Dandelion greens
- Beans (kidney, garbanzo, or white, canned)
- Dried peas
- Dried beans
What To Eat During The Luteal Phase
Estrogen is a glycogen-sparing hormone. It spares carbs in favor of free fatty acids to fuel the body. A slight problem there is that fat is not efficient for fueling because it is not as readily available as carbohydrates.
What does this mean for me?!
Well, first of all, it means that the luteal phase is not the best time for trying to PR your 5K! Hitting high intensity is going to feel next to impossible because you cannot access carbs easily! For the average human just looking to work out for general health and fitness, low-intensity restorative exercise like walking, yoga, or pilates in the days leading up to your period will feel a heck of a lot better than high-intensity interval training (HIIT) during periods.
Okay, back to the food…
Some of you out there may not be exercising for general health and fitness and are competing in a sport or training for a race. Meaning, you don’t always have the ability to control how hard your workouts are at certain times of the month.
In this case that you do have to train high intensities and volume in the second half of your cycle (before your period is starting), a tip to get you through your workout is to add more intra-workout carbohydrates.
DURING your training sessions, you need to fuel with lots of readily available carbohydrates. Remember that this is because high estrogen levels impede you from quickly accessing the carb stores in your body.
One study even demonstrated that carbohydrate-depleted women, without supplementation, could maintain blood glucose during the follicular phase, but not the luteal phase .
Examples of intra-workout carbs include:
- Homemade protein bites
- NUUN electrolyte tablet with 2 tsp maple syrup
- SkratchLabs hydration mix
- OSMO hydration for women
- Sweet potato/banana food packs
Progesterone also has some systemic effects that must be considered when talking about what to eat during each phase of the menstrual cycle. Progesterone is a catabolic hormone, meaning muscle stores are more easily broken down.
To mitigate the impacts of high progesterone levels in the luteal phase add more protein to your pre and post-workout meals. Approximately 30-40 grams of protein within 30 minutes will support recovery and muscle repair.
What to Eat During Each Phase of the Menstrual Cycle To Maintain A Regular Period: A Few Key Tips
Many competitive female athletes struggle to maintain a healthy period during intense training cycles because they are undereating and underfueled. Some women lose their period entirely, which some refer to as athletic amenorrhea. This is a result of low energy availability.
Low Energy Availability
Low energy availability means what it sounds like!
Energy Availability = Energy Intake – Exercise Energy Expenditure (EEE) = Energy Availability
Your body needs so much energy not only to perform exercise, but also to keep your heart beating and allow you to walk up the stairs. Energy availability is basically the baseline amount of energy remaining to perform biological functions once energy expenditure from exercise has been removed.
Why Do Female Athletes Stop Menstruating?
In the case of female athletes and periods, a lot of energy goes towards training. In the case of inadequate food intake, you can be left with low energy available to perform basic functions of daily living! This involves reproduction or getting your period!
Think about it, your body is not going to put you in a position to carry a fetus when there are hardly enough resources around for you! The stress hormone cortisol gets all whacky and throws off proper signaling, and is one of the first things to go in your period. It is possible to reduce cortisol naturally and combat the effects of strenuous training with proper fueling and lifestyle strategies.
Eat Breakfast Within An Hour Of Waking
Upon waking, cortisol levels rise. This is a natural and healthy phenomenon, but in women, prolonged fasting in the morning can stress the body too much and negatively impact kisspeptin, a neurohormone highly involved in reproductive cues! [2,3]
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Always Eat Breakfast Before You Drink Coffee
How many of you role out of bed and walk straight to the coffee machine? We get it, we’ve all been there, and boy is it tempting. Coffee is one of life’s greatest pleasures…
But for the hormonally sensitive female athlete, slamming coffee because getting a lick of food in can be detrimental to hormonal health.
It is well-established in the research that caffeine increases cortisol levels. Many individuals also report appetite suppression with the intake of coffee, so this is another method of prolonging your morning breakfast that you may not even realize is happening.
The best thing to do is consume your breakfast within an hour of waking along with a nice big glass of water, and then consume your coffee after if you wish to. If you will not survive without your morning coffee, at least consume it alongside your breakfast instead of before.
Always Eat Something Carb-Based Before Exercising
Carbohydrates blunt the cortisol response, so one of the best ways to reduce high levels of cortisol in the morning (and thus encourage a healthy menstrual cycle) is eating complex carbs like oats, potatoes, whole grains, or fruit with your breakfast! Need more ideas? Check out our post on the best gluten-free grains.
Do not practice intermittent fasting as a female athlete. Research has shown positive effects in men, but research has not yet shown intermittent fasting in women to have an impact on performance.
Hopefully, after today’s article, you have a better idea about exercise and periods. Knowing what to eat during each phase of the menstrual cycle is vital for overall reproductive health, but also fueling your workouts.
If things still feel off despite making a few changes, you may want to consider investing in the guidance of a practitioner to assess your hormones and diet and make individualized recommendations to get help for the root of your constant fatigue, stress, anxiety, and chronic inflammation. If you want set up virtual 1 on 1 coaching, check out our virtual coaching packages and if you’re still not sure if working with us is the right fit for you, feel free to email us if you have questions.