If you are a woman, or a man who loves a woman, this column is mandatory reading for you. Researchers have only recently started paying attention to the hormonal cycles of women, and the findings show that our ebbs and flows are completely differently timed than those of men. Instead of pushing through and trying to achieve the same things every day, it would behoove us to learn about our phases, what happens to our body during each one, and how we can adapt our lifestyle to make the most of them.
There have always been jokes aplenty about women’s mood swings and hormonal fluctuations, especially concerning PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and menstruation. The subtext of these jokes is that women are more susceptible to emotional ups and downs than strong and steady men. But did you know that the duration of a man’s hormonal cycle is 24 hours, while a woman’s is around 28 days? The world runs according to the former, expecting all of us to feel energized during the day and ready to wind down by night, and to consistently follow this pattern every day. However for women, our periods of more and less energy, stamina, and even happiness are aligned with particular phases of our hormonal cycle. Understanding this and planning life accordingly has given many women a new lease on life, even if the research hasn’t fully caught up yet.
Alissa Vitti (Functional Nutritionist, HHC, AADP) coined the term “cycle syncing” after healing her polycystic ovary syndrome and, a host of other health issues by organising her exercise and food habits according to the particular hormonal shifts of each phase of the menstrual cycle. She went on to find the FloLiving Hormone Center and the MyFlo app, to help other women get in sync with their natural rhythms.
If you haven’t explored this topic much, you may have wondered at some point why your energy levels and mental state fluctuate depending on the day. Some days you feel gregarious and excited to socialise, while on others you are loath to meet anyone and make small talk. On most mornings you crush your workout, except for certain times when your body feels like lead, stubbornly reluctant to move. Or when it comes to amorous activity with your partner, you oscillate between teenage boy libido and cold fish indifference.
If you ever beat yourself up for not thriving on certain days, or you think the solution is to push through, then I urge you to explore cycle syncing, perhaps by reading Vitti’s book ‘WomanCode’. To get started, let’s get into an overview of the 4 phases of our menstrual cycle, the hormone levels that rise and fall from one to another, and the lifestyle changes you can make to maximise peace and productivity accordingly.
Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5)
This is technically part of the follicular phase but we distinguish this period of 1-5 days because of the bleeding that occurs (also making it the easiest phase to identify without needing a tracking app). During this phase, estrogen and progesterone are low. You may experience cramps, bloating, and inflammation, which is why Vitti and other experts recommend light movement at this time as opposed to rigorous exercise. Go with what feels good for your body, like walking, yoga, or total rest as that recovery time is important for battling the inflammation. Foodwise, eat to replenish the nutrients you lose during bleeding. This means foods rich in iron and B12, like dark leafy greens, nuts, lean red meat, eggs, and lentils. And to maximise the iron absorption from these foods, add vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables like broccoli, oranges, strawberries, and capsicum. An important mineral during this time is magnesium, which you can get from a supplement, to reduce cramping and help you sleep better.
As far as what to avoid, I’m afraid the trope of curling up on the couch with wine or ice cream is exactly the opposite of what you should do to feel better. Instead you should limit alcohol, sugar, and caffeine to avoid exacerbating discomfort and mood swings. Personally I have noticed that my hangovers are far worse during this phase. Plus the bloating and fatigue keep me cozy at home, even if it means turning down a party invitation. I have even gone so far as to send the host a screenshot of my period tracker app to explain my absence from her party, because I prefer to stick to the truth as much as possible. I hope as more women embrace cycle syncing, we can be honest and forgiving with each other about our limitations.
Follicular Phase (Days 6-14)
My favourite phase! Estrogen and progesterone levels start to rise, and generally there are no irritating symptoms. I use the period tracking app Flo (different from Vitti’s MyFlo), which I love for its attractive interface, easy to understand reports, and tons of information on everything from relieving PMS symptoms to maximising pleasure. According to Flo, the follicular phase is the best time for tackling tasks that you have been putting off, for trying new things, and even for scheduling dental appointments! That is because pain may be perceived differently during this phase. This is also a good time to start a new healthy habit you’ve been trying to incorporate into your daily routine.
I can vouch for the increased productivity associated with this time. During my premenstrual and menstrual phase I let my closet decline into a holy mess, and can’t seem to bring myself to tidy it up even if I have all the time in the world. But a couple days after my period ends, I’m a cleaning and organising queen, and my to-do list gets ticked off in a flurry of energised activity. The best part is that now that I have this awareness, I don’t feel any guilt during my unproductive phase. I’m kind to myself and rest it out, knowing full well that Productive Pri will be back very soon.
According to healthline.com, testosterone is still a little low during this time, so your stamina may be as well. In this case you can ease back into exercise with light cardio, then ramp up to heavy lifting or HIIT as you get into the ovulation phase and energy increases. Recommended foods during the follicular phase are sprouted and fermented foods that metabolise estrogen, such as broccoli sprouts, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
If you use a cycle tracking app, you can plan vacations and major social events during this phase. You no longer have to be nervous about getting your period on a beach holiday. Once you’ve entered your data into the app for 2-3 months, it can predict your cycle, so you can check the calendar months ahead of time to see when you are likely to be menstruating.
Ovulatory Phase (Days 15-17)
Ovulation will bring out your inner Samantha Jones! Testosterone and progesterone rise, while estrogen levels reach their peak. Your sex drive ramps up and you feel more attractive, with shiny hair and glowing skin. Use the high energy levels to fuel intense workouts like circuit training or heavy lifting. Schedule romantic time with your partner, though take precautions if you’re not looking to conceive. One downside is that many women experience cramps during this phase as well, so combat this by eating anti-inflammatory foods, as well as omega-rich ones like fatty fish, chia seeds and flaxseeds. Otherwise, enjoy feeling sexy and bubbly during this brief but fun phase!
Luteal Phase (Days 18-28)
This phase can be a bummer. During ovulation, a mature egg is released. If the egg is not fertilised, the high levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease and the menstrual cycle starts again. Your energy may wane but you can still do moderate exercise like strength training and a more intense form of yoga. Battle PMS symptoms by eating foods that produce serotonin like leafy greens, brown rice, dark chocolate, and wholegrain bread. While it may be easier said than done, if you are prone to cramps you can help prevent them by avoiding alcohol, artificial sweeteners, red meat, and dairy. Cramps are just one of many premenstrual symptoms; they run the gamut from breast tenderness to migraines, and digestive issues. And to top off these physiological ailments, many women get the blues from a drop in serotonin and an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone. Therefore it is common to feel weepy and have trouble concentrating during this phase.
I’m sure now you can see how empowering it would be to track your cycle and understand that it is your hormones which are responsible for these low moments. This knowledge could prevent you from being overly reactive in an argument with your spouse, or make you hold off on sending a curt email to a coworker. When my husband and I are planning a holiday, I pull up my tracker app to ensure we don’t book it during an inconvenient phase. I’ve yet to optimise my eating habits accordingly, but I do reduce the intensity of my workouts during the premenstrual phase, as I’ve noticed that I am more prone to injury and joint pain when I push too hard.
Whether you’re a woman or a man who loves a woman, the wisdom of cycle syncing is a must-have information. Women can embrace their natural rhythms rather than fight them, and this allows us to thrive as the nurturers and caretakers of the world.