How to Eat & Move to Optimize your Menstrual Cycle

Updated: Jun 26


Statistics show that 80% of women suffer from hormonal imbalances. Hormones play a key role in our mood, emotions, digestion, energy levels, pain tolerance, appetite and so much more. Hormone fluctuations dictate a women's monthly menstrual cycle and are crucial to our body's responses and how we feel on a daily basis. So many of us, myself included, were given birth control at a young age, often masking any symptoms of hormonal imbalances, and told it's normal not to have a regular cycle. Having and getting your period is an incredibly important marker of health. Many believe it to be the fifth vital sign along with body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate and blood pressure - all things that are routinely monitored at your annual physical. To not know if you're having a healthy cycle, leaves out a critical piece of your health puzzle.

Similar to the circadian rhythm, our bodies natural daily sleep/wake clock, women also have an infradian rhythm. Unlike the circadian rhythm which is a daily clock, the infradian rhythm is a month long clock related to the menstrual cycle. Women may feel very differently at certain times of the month based on where they are in their infradian rhythm. Understanding, honoring and adjusting our lifestyle to sync with the hormone fluctuations of our cycle, our infradian rhythm, allow women to optimize overall health and hormone health.

Here's an example: think about your circadian rhythm. I talk a lot about having routine with sleep, food, exercise to optimize your energy levels based on your circadian rhythm. We are naturally more tired when it's dark out, so we sleep. Think about when your circadian rhythm get's thrown off and you stay up much later than usual or wake up super early. The result is usually a very sleepy, groggy, even sugar and caffeine-craving individual. When we honor our natural circadian rhythm, the result is optimized sleep, energy and blood sugar levels. The same idea applies to our infradian rhythm. We must adjust our sleep, energy and diet to optimize where we are in the month-long cycle of our infradian rhythm.

The term 'cycle syncing' was trademarked by functional nutritionist, Alisa Vitti. Cycle syncing is when you adapt your diet, exercise, and social/work calendar to best support the different phases of your monthly menstrual cycle. The goal is to support your body in the best way possible based on what is physiologically happening in your body based on your infradian rhythm. Some studies suggest that switching up what you eat and how you exercise during the different phases could significantly decrease physical and mental PMS symptoms and even help you lose weight. {i, II]

All women can benefit from cycle syncing and supporting the infradian rhythm. It can be particularly helpful if you:

  • Have recently gone off hormonal birth control

  • Have PCOS

  • Are overweight

  • Experience low libido

  • Are trying to conceive

  • Are overly fatigued

  • Experience severe or prolonged PMS symptoms

  • Experience hormonal migraines or worsened digestive symptoms

  • Have heavy, painful or irregular periods

Menstrual Cycle Phases & What They Mean

The menstrual cycle has three distinct phases. Each are associated with unique hormonal fluctuations. The three phases are:

  1. Follicular (pre-egg phase)

  2. Ovulatory (process of release of egg)

  3. Luteal (post-egg release)

How to Eat & Move to Optimize your Infradian Rhythm

Hormonal fluctuations result in different nutrient and detoxification needs throughout your cycle and phases. The speed of your metabolism also changes based your cycle, and your body may be more or less sensitive to certain foods or patterns depending on the time in your cycle. Below is a general overview of nutrient and dietary patterns and movement that will best support you based on the phase of your menstrual cycle. I also discuss two research studies that are clear examples of the power that dietary patterns, specific nutrients and movement patterns have on the infradian rhythm.

One research study showed that omega-3 supplementation in women reduced mental and physical PMS symptoms such depression, anxiety, lack of concentration, breast tenderness, headaches and bloating compared to the control group with placebo supplementation. [i]

A second research study examined the effect of a diet and exercise programs designed to support different phases of the menstrual cycle compared to a standard energy restriction and exercise regime program. Study length was 6 months and participants included 60 healthy, overweight, pre-menopausal women. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group was a diet and exercise program designed to support the metabolic changes that occur during the menstrual cycle (study group). The second group was a standard diet and exercise program (control group). Both groups consumed a 1600 kcal/day diet throughout the study length except for 4 days when the study group was allowed an extra 200 calories. The diet and exercise program that supported the metabolic changes of the menstrual cycle adjusted the diet's macronutrient (protein/fat/carb) composition and type of exercise (high intensity vs. low intensity) to optimize the hormonal fluctuations of the cycle while still consuming the same number of calories as the control group. The control group ate a consistent calorie and macronutrient ratio and the same exercises throughout the study period.

The diet tailored for the metabolic changes of the menstrual cycle included a different diet and exercise protocol based on the 3 phases of the menstrual cycle. Below is an outline of the adjustments based on the phase:

Phase 1 (Menstrual): Standard macronutrient composition (60% carbs, 20% protein, 20% fat) and light exercise (yoga, walking, stretching). 1600 daily calories.

Phase 2: (Follicular): Increased protein content (50% carbs, 30% protein, 20% fat) to optimize response to increased intensity of physical activity and resistance training (circuit training 2x/week + cardio 2-3x week). 1600 daily calories.

Phase 3 (Ovulatory & Luteal): Increased dietary fat intake to accommodate associated increased cravings during this phase and maintained increased protein (40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat). An optional 200-calorie serving of dark chocolate was also allowed to be consumed on days 24-28 with the goal to help satisfy cravings. Daily calories 1600-1800.

  • Exercise: Weight training 2 days/week and cardio 2-3 days week

Control Group:

  • 1600 daily calories

  • Macronutrient composition: 45-50% carbs, 15-20% protein, 30% fat

  • Exercise: moderate 30 minutes/day, vigorous 2 days/week

Results of the study [ii]:

  • Significantly greater weight loss in study group

  • Greater reduction of waist circumference in study group

  • Higher drop-out rates in the control group (personal reasons, dissatisfied with treatment) and more adherence in the study group

The study group likely had more success in losing weight and completing the 6-month protocol (smaller drop-out rate) due to several reasons. First, the adjustments in macronutrient composition to increase protein and fat result in more stable blood sugar levels leading to improved mood, more energy, less insulin release, and decreased fat storage. Additionally, incorporating more protein and fat (and in some cases, even more calories!) is related to feelings of more satiety. The combination of increasing protein and fat while also allowing dark chocolate likely resulted in overall more satisfaction, decreased cravings and more adherence to the diet. While weight loss was the main measurement in this study, when you look a bit deeper, the results really highlight success and improvements in both physical and mental health. These results and modifications can easily be translated to every day life and guide women in making slight adjustments to their diet and movement routines based on their own cycle and their body's unique responses to each phase.

I hope that the above guidelines provide you with extra support and guidance as well as insight into why you may feel differently depending on time of the month. Rather than push yourself through the days when you're more tired or craving more sugar, I encourage you to acknowledge your physiology and support your body using these recommendations - maybe it's taking a walk instead of going to the spin class, scheduling your more intense workouts for the first half of your cycle, increasing protein intake to improve satisfaction during the day, increasing your omega-3 intake in the week before your period to alleviate PMS symptoms or knowing that the middle of the month is the best time to enjoy that extra glass of wine. Having this knowledge and understanding your body can be extremely empowering and really puts you in the driver's seat. Even just a few small changes and tweaks can make a huge impact.

Additional Resources & Tips to Get you Started

  • Pay attention: listen to your body and honor each phase. The above information is to be used as guidelines. Everyone may feel differently in each phase. Do what feels right for you.

  • Track symptoms associated with each phase. Take note of cravings, energy levels, digestion, and length of your cycle.

  • Track your cycle using an app: Flo, Glow, Kindara, Period Tracker, Eve, Ovia, Cycle Tracker, Clue

  • Books: Woman Code by Alisa Vitti

  • The Fruitful Program (6-week online program and classes)

  • Shop my online supplement store for medical-grade supplements at a discount

References

i. Nahid Sohrabi, Maryam Kashanian, Sima Seyed Ghafoori, Seyed Kazem Malakouti,Evaluation of the effect of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: “A pilot trial”,Complementary Therapies in Medicine,Volume 21, Issue 3,2013,Pages 141-146,ISSN 0965-2299,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2012.12.008.

ii. Nina RW Geiker, Christian Ritz, Sue D Pedersen, Thomas M Larsen, James O Hill, Arne Astrup, A weight-loss program adapted to the menstrual cycle increases weight loss in healthy, overweight, premenopausal women: a 6-mo randomized controlled trial, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 104, Issue 1, July 2016, Pages 15–20, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.126565