Your body is regulated by the interactions of a number of different hormones. Hormones are chemicals in your body that help your body todo certain things, such as to build muscle and to help you to know when you are hungry or sleepy. They control many processes of your body.
One system influenced by hormones that is experienced by women and people who bleed, is the menstrual cycle. In this article we explain the different phases of the cycle (1-4), the hormones involved and why everyone is different!
We also give recommendations for nutrition, exercise and lifestyle changes you can make to help you manage how you may be feeling at any stage of your cycle.
There are 4 main phases of the cycle:
What happens in your body: This is where the lining of your uterus is shed and you have a period. At this time the concentrations of oestrogen and progesterone in your body are at the lowest point.
How you might feel: It is normal to have some symptoms here – you may get some cramping in your lower abdomen, lower back pain, headaches, feel a bit sick or fatigued. You may also feel a bit more emotional, irritated or just a bit less energised. But there are some important and simple actions you can do in this phase to reduce these symptoms.
Exercise: Exercise is a great way to reduce menstrual cycle symptoms, even if you don’t feel like it.
The best athletes in the world regularly exercise when they are on their period and have even broken world records during this time.
The best type of exercise here is moderate intensity – this means you are breathing quite hard but you are still able to hold a conversation. Doing some running, cycling, going for a brisk walk, or playing team sports are all good options. This is also a great time to do some stretching and yoga, as yoga has been shown to improve PMS symptoms.
Nutrition: It is particularly important for you to eat foods that contain antioxidants and are ‘anti-inflammatory’ in this phase. A great way to do this is firstly to remember to get at least five portions of fruits or vegetables in every day, making sure there is lots of variation. It is also more important to eat foods such as oily fish and whole grains (wholemeal bread, wholemeal rice, pasta) during this phase.
Recipes tailored to phase 1 can be found in the FitrWoman app. We particularly recommend the ginger and cashew cookies, and the chickpea & spinach curry.
It is also important to remember to keep fuelling regularly with some snacks; your body is working hard at this time so needs fuel for energy! Try to ensure that the snacks are not too processed – as things like crisps, biscuits, cakes and greasy take-outs can make your symptoms worse.
Lifestyle: Your body may need a bit more sleep in this phase, so try togo to bed a little bit earlier if you can, this can reduce some of the fatigue you may feel. If your mood is low, this is normal, and our suggestion would be to try to do some activities that make you feel good such as mindfulness, listening to music, playing with your pet, do some cooking or some fun exercise. Keeping your body moving in this phase is really important to reduce symptoms!
This phase begins after your period ends. Progesterone levels stay low here but oestrogen levels start to increase in preparation for releasing an egg (ovulation). Ovulation occurs right at the end of this phase.
How you might feel: Oestrogen is linked with serotonin and dopamine release, also known as happy hormones. Therefore, increased oestrogen can help you have lots of energy.
Exercise: You may feel particularly like doing some energetic (high intensity) exercise here, like playing team sports, dancing, HIIT circuits, running or aerobics. Make sure you warm up and cool down adequately from these!
Nutrition: In this phase it is mostly important to make sure you are fuelling the exercise you are doing with a particular focus on carbohydrates(pasta, bread, noodles, rice and potatoes to name a few).
Recipes tailored to phase 2 can be found in the FitrWoman app. Why not try the lentil spaghetti Bolognese for dinner followed by the athlete baked apple!
Lifestyle: Many people feel particularly sociable here and energised, do whatever makes you feel happy!
Ovulation occurs just before the start of this phase, oestrogen levels quickly decrease here but then start to increase again alongside another hormone; progesterone. This phase is often called the ‘high hormone phase’ as there is lots of progesterone and oestrogen circulating around your body.
How you might feel: Progesterone is what we call a ‘thermogenic’ hormone, which means that you can feel that your body temperature increases a little bit during this phase (by about 0.3-0.5℃).Progesterone can also make you feel that your breathing rate and heart rate increases a little (both during exercise and at rest), some people can also feel a little hungrier as the body is working hard here to thicken the uterus lining.
Exercise: During this phase some people feel like doing more endurance exercise and longer, slower activities such as swimming, running, hiking or cycling. Others may benefit from doing things like gymnastics, dancing or aerobics where flexibility work can be good.
Nutrition: In this phase it is normal to feel a bit hungrier, and to experience cravings for sugary things! If you can, try not to eat too many highly processed foods as these can make your symptoms worse particularly in the next phase. You need to try to keep your energy levels up so try having a couple of healthy snacks spread throughout the day if you are feeling hungry. Protein is also particularly important in this phase – try to ensure you are having some protein at every meal (e.g. fish, meat, nuts, seeds, yoghurt, tofu).
Recipes tailored to phase 3 can be found in the FitrWoman app. We are big fans of the yogurt parfait and the sweet potato fish pie.
Lifestyle: If you find it hard to sleep because you feel a bit hotter, remember it is best to sleep in a cool, dark room. Try to stick to good sleep hygiene– which you can read more about in the ‘better sleep’ insight in FitrWoman.
This is the phase that happens just before you start your period. To bring about a period, your hormone levels decrease sharply through this phase.
How you might feel: The decline in hormones in this phase can cause symptoms (these are called premenstrual symptoms or PMS). There are lots of actions you can take to reduce and minimise these symptoms.
Exercise: You can try all types of exercise here!Some people feel more like doing some high intensity exercise, while others may feel like something that is focused more on general mobility such as yoga,Pilates or walking. Typically, the best type of exercise here is moderate intensity – so you are breathing quite hard but you are still able to talk to your friends. However, Pilates and yoga are also great at helping to reduce premenstrual symptoms. If you are doing lots of hard exercise, remember to include enough time to recover.
Nutrition: As with Phase 1 of your menstrual cycle, it is particularly important for you to eat foods that are ‘anti-inflammatory’ and high in antioxidants. We know that by doing this, you are less likely to get bad symptoms in this phase and during Phase 1.
A great way to do this is firstly to remember to get at least five portions of fruits or vegetables in your diet every day. Try not to have too many processed foods (takeaways, sugary drinks, cake, biscuits and sweets) as this can add to the levels of inflammation in your body and cause symptoms to be worse.
Recipes tailored to phase 4 can be found in the FitrWoman app- the Berry Burst smoothie and Ultimate fishcakes are firm favourites.
Lifestyle: Some people can feel a bit more emotional or that their mood is a bit lower compared with some of the other phases. This is a natural response to the changes in hormone levels. Doing exercise and fuelling correctly, as well as prioritising some ‘me-time’ or self-care can help to make you feel better.
Remember to track your cycle throughout all phases of your cycle and record how you are feeling as this can help to identify when you experience symptoms and proactively help you to manage them.