This article was originally written by Divya Butani for Naari Magazine in March 2023
Every month our hormones go for a toss. Estrogen, progesterone, the luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) fluctuate in four separate stages through 28-35 days, every month, each year, even when we hit early menopause.
Our menstrual cycle is more than just the release of blood from our uterus. The menstruation phase is simply the first stage of our cycle. The remaining three stages affect our entire body, from our hair, to our skin, to our sex drive, mental health and physical well-being.
It is completely normal for the hormones in your body to increase and decrease over the four stages of the cycle, because it signals your body to operate as it is supposed to. However, some of us experience acute symptoms that can deter our mood, affect our mobility and in the long-term can cause some other serious health issues. With a few changes in our diet it is fair to say we have the power to improve the acute symptoms of our hormonal changes. After all, we are what we eat.
This article explores the changes in our hormones during the four stages of our menstrual cycle and what we should (and should not) eat during our cycle.
The Role Of Our Reproductive Hormones
Our brain works with our ovaries and uterus to release hormones at the right time, to ensure a fully functioning reproductive system. The first stage of our cycle begins with the shedding of the uterine lining (the menstruation phase). Estrogen is an important sex hormone produced by the ovaries and progesterone is an important hormone for regulating our cycle, as well as maintaining healthy pregnancy. These two hormones are at the lowest levels during this phase.
During the second stage of our cycle (the follicular phase), our estrogen levels increase, improving our physical strength and ability to focus. Women may experience an increase in energy and libido. Our skin starts to glow, we feel more inclined to exercise and socialize.
During the third stage of our cycle (the ovulation phase), the spike in estrogen levels triggers the luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) to increase, causing us to feel happier and more motivated right before we ovulate. This is our most fertile phase. Once the egg is released our progesterone levels begin to increase and the fourth stage of the cycle begins (the luteal phase).
Before the fourth stage of our cycle ends, our body tries to understand if we are pregnant. If we are, progesterone levels remain high to ensure the uterus walls are thick enough with blood to support and hold the growing egg. If we are not, the unfertilised egg is naturally released from the body. Symptoms such as heightened sense of smell, headaches, cramping, bloating, and acne may occur as premenstrual stress (PMS).
By having no egg to feed and support, progesterone and estrogen levels decrease, and the uterus lining starts to shed. The slow rise of FSH helps stimulate the release of new eggs in the ovaries and this entire cycle is repeated by our amazing bodies once again.
What To Eat During The Menstruation Phase Day 1 – 7 (this is the first day of our ‘cycle’ and generally lasts between 4-7 days)
During this phase of the menstruation cycle, our estrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest, which causes the top layers of the uterine lining to shed, and exit the body. We often feel lethargic, demotivated and unsocial. It is necessary to dedicate some self-care in your routine to support yourself through this phase. Additionally, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, protein, iron-rich foods and calcium-rich foods are important to incorporate in your diet during this time.
- Iron-rich foods such as red meats, eggs, poultry, beetroot, nuts, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, spinach, kale and broccoli help reduce symptoms of fatigue due to the significant loss of blood from our body. Lack of iron can lead to anemia, and other health issues. Since iron helps transport oxygen to the body, it is important for energy and metabolism.
- Calcium-rich foods such as tofu, dairy, fortified plant-based milk, cheese, yogurt, edamame, broccoli, almonds and Brussels sprouts reduce symptoms of premenstrual stress (PMS), premenstrual cramps and helps restore iron levels. Calcium also helps ensure the uterine muscles contract to evacuate any unwanted material by the uterus.
- Here are some recipes to help you with your Menstruation Phase
What To Eat During The Follicular Phase (approx Day 1 to 14)
This phase overlaps with your menstruation phase, as the follicular phase starts on the day your uterus starts to shed. At the start of the follicular phase, The follicular stimulating hormone (FSH) slowly increases, stimulating the production of follicles to release the eggs in the ovaries. During the second half of this phase, right after the uterus stops shedding, estrogen starts to increase. The increase of estrogen during this phase can lead to an increased risk of inflammation. Anti-inflammatory foods such as lily bulb, turmeric, ginger, dark leafy greens and berries are great to eat during this phase. Other nutrients that would be essential during this time are:
- Omega-3 fatty acids such as avocados, salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, seaweed, and algae. Omega-3 fatty acids help maintain a healthy menstruation cycle, reduce inflammation, healthy sex drive and healthy production of eggs.
- Complex carbohydrates such as sweet potato, squash, oatmeal, 100% whole-wheat bread, quinoa, barley and brown rice. Complex carbohydrates provide a steady source of energy and support a steady mood throughout the day. Additionally, the fiber content in complex carbohydrates help the body produce estrogen and progesterone which are needed in the following stages.
- Lean protein such as tofu, beans, lean meats, seafood, non-GMO soy, tempeh, and eggs. Lean protein provides the essential amino acids to the body, to help build the hormones and other molecules needed for a healthy reproductive system.
- Here are some recipes to help you with The Follicular Phase
What To Eat During The Ovulation Phase (approx day 14 to 17)
Our mood and energy are at optimum points during this phase. We are often upbeat, and keen to move. To nurture this positive phase of the cycle, it is important to eat plenty of protein-rich foods, omega-3 fatty acids and foods filled with vitamin B.
- Vitamin B such as leafy green veggies, eggplant, breakfast cereals with fortified folic acid, brussels sprouts, oranges, chicken and turkey help regulate hormone levels and maintain healthy fertility. It can also help reduce the risk of miscarriage and increase progesterone levels for the next phase. This vitamin is good for reducing stress, and inflammation as well.
- Here are some recipes to help you with The Ovulation Phase
What To Eat During The Luteal Phase (approx Day 18 to 28)
Our hormones during the later part of this particular stage of our menstruation cycle is what we know as pre-menstrual stress (PMS). During this phase, our estrogen, LH and FSH levels are particularly low, but our progesterone levels are elevated. Women often experience mood swings, tiredness, bloating, tummy pain, headaches, greasy hair, spotty skin, and have trouble sleeping.
To support our PMS symptoms, complex carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats and magnesium are essential to include in our diet.
- Healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil, and nut butters have the essential fatty acids and cholesterol to produce progesterone. Healthy fats also provide us with energy needed for cell growth, and support to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
- Magnesium rich foods such as dark chocolate, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and leafy greens help relax the uterus, allowing it to contract during the release of the egg from the fallopian tube, to prepare for possible implantation. Magnesium also helps release hormone-related mood swings, and cramping during ovulation.
- Here are some recipes to help you with The Ovulation Phase
Food intake is just one of the many ways to balance your hormones naturally. There are several other factors that also contribute to hormonal imbalance such as lack of sleep, stressful experiences, alcohol or drug use, exercise, weight and any other pre-existing medical conditions. Being mindful of what we eat, and what our food contains, is a good start to managing the wave of hormones we experience on a monthly basis.