Life unfolds in cycles and there is hardly anyone who is more aware of that than women. The menstrual cycle is something natural for every woman in the age group 13-47.
Cyclicity in nature means we must bear these natural cycles in mind and modify our behavior or rather adjust it, so as to bring it in line with our changing environment. The same goes for women and their menstrual cycles, but in this case we must change the environment, so as to bring it in line with the changing nature of the body.
Every woman who tries to be fitter – works out and sticks to a healthy diet – has inevitably, at least once in her life, struggled with her monthly cycle or rather with the way she feels and her behavior during that time of the month.
Each and every one of us knows what I am talking about – you stick to your diet and everything goes well – till ten or so days before your next period, when you wake up feeling like you could devour the world. Until yesterday there was no piece of chocolate or cake that could tempt you, and now all you can think about is carbs. You start to struggle with yourself and the insurmountable cravings you are experiencing. As it usually happens, whenever there is struggle, there is confrontation and you usually lose control and all your efforts during the month go up in smoke.
Something like this happens to workouts too. You train hard, get stronger and more resilient, but when you get your next period, it feels like all your strength is gone. Your mind wants you to do your best, but your body stops you. You force things nonetheless and only end up disappointed that you cannot perform up to your expectations.
Before I go into details, let me share with you a joke I ran into. Do you know how men plan their workouts? They normally plan them around their wives’ menstrual cycles – high-intensity sprints away from their wives.
Start of the menstrual period
The menstrual cycle starts on day 1 (see the graph) – the egg has not been fertilized, which leads to the shedding of the lining of the uterus and both are sloughed off in the form of bleeding through the vagina. The menstrual cycle has a duration of 28 days, but this depends on a large number of factors.
The first phase is called the follicular phase and lasts from day 1 to day 14, and it happens when the ovary releases an egg. During this phase estrogen rises, while progesterone and body temperature remain constant. The first phase can be divided into two stages – the first 3-5 days and then the rest. From day 1 to day 5 you may experience a slight loss of strength. You go to the gym, but even though you want to train hard, you will feel you are not performing up to par. This is a time when you do not have to force your body.
People always ask me if I work out while I am on my period. I see myself as an athlete and I have always worked out. The only difference is I try to listen to my body during this period and train less hard. I reduce the intensity (i.e. the weights I use) and increase the volume of my workouts, i.e. I do more repetitions.
From day 6 to day 14 a woman starts regaining her strength. This stage is also characterized by increased insulin sensitivity and increased pain tolerance. The metabolism slows down slightly and reaches its lowest point somewhere around day 7 or 8 of the monthly cycle. That is why you should do higher intensity workouts during this period and include some kind of short, high-intensity complexes at the end of your workouts which can speed up your metabolism (see below): workouts that can be described as strength resistance training, i.e. weight training with a slightly larger duration.
Higher estrogen levels in the body are anti-catabolic, they help preserve muscle strength and make the body prioritize fats as fuel.
What is more, the anti-catabolic phase means you can include longer workouts and this is when you should do aerobic activities such as swimming, cycling, etc.
Ovulation occurs around day 14. This is when estrogen peaks and then starts dropping, clearing the stage for progesterone which starts being secreted in higher amounts. During ovulation and until the end of your menstrual cycle (day 28) you may feel warmer, since your metabolism begins to speed up. In this phase your insulin sensitivity starts decreasing.
With the elevation of progesterone levels, serotonin levels drop and serotonin, as you know, is a neurotransmitter and makes you feel good. Carbohydrates are the food that boosts its levels and this is when you start craving sweets (below I am going to suggest some ways for you to avoid succumbing to all sweet temptations around you). During ovulation your estrogen and strength have peaked and working out with bigger weights is still appropriate. This is a phase of the menstrual cycle when you are more likely to get injured because of the change in hormones and your body’s response. That means you should take longer to warm up and consume homemade bone broths.
The third phase is the luteal phase which starts on the day of ovulation, and that occurs around day 14. During this period you may feel you are not as strong and cannot train as hard. In this phase progesterone is the dominant hormone.
Progesterone is a catabolic hormone and also helps the body make more efficient use of carbohydrates. This is probably one of the reasons why women experience increased carbohydrate cravings during this stage. Since glycogen stores are used much more efficiently, your body signals you to get more. In this period it is also normal for you to retain more fluids. Besides, you may notice you are not as motivated during this phase of your cycle. The emotional state which results from the “interplay” of hormones makes you crave harder workouts. It is as if there is energy inside you that has to be released. You can keep up your high-intensity workouts during this period. This phase when progesterone is dominant is catabolic which means that longer workouts are not desirable, so you should not make your workouts too long.
Your diet and your menstrual cycle
Apart from the part they play in reproduction, estrogen and progesterone have a direct impact on fat storage and utilization. These two hormones determine which fuel we use (predominantly fat or carbohydrates). This is because these two hormones influence the main regulating hormones in the body – insulin and cortisol. This is quite logical, come to think of it, because women’s ability to have children depends on their ability to store nutrient sources to feed the developing baby.
During the follicular phase the egg has not been released yet, but after ovulation it is highly likely to be fertilized, which means the body will switch over to fat storage mode and rely more on burning carbohydrates for fuel.
This means that the follicular phase is characterized by more efficient fat burning, while the luteal phase makes the body need more carbohydrates. Now does this explain your sweet cravings?
Estrogen opposes insulin and makes the body less likely to store fat. Besides, estrogen counteracts cortisol. This means that when estrogen is dominant, stress hormones are well controlled during workouts. What I mean by dominant estrogen in this case is only the normal menstrual cycle and reference ranges, and not cases of hormonal imbalance. Insulin sensitivity is better during this period, which allows you to eat slightly more carbohydrates, but you should watch what sources you consume. I recommend sweet potatoes, pumpkin and other tubers.
Progesterone on the other hand opposes estrogen and makes the body more insulin resistant. That is why you should watch your carbohydrate amount and sources. When progesterone is dominant, the body is more inclined to burn carbohydrates. In this period you should do interval workouts and increase your fat intake. It sounds like a paradox that you should increase your fat intake when you are craving carbohydrates, but just trust me and give it a try.
How to eat?
Try to include more fat and less carbohydrates in your diet. During your follicular phase, on days with predominantly aerobic activities such as swimming or cycling, include sweet potatoes or pumpkin in your evening meal. Make it a point to eat your carbohydrates in the evenings and use cinnamon, if you like its taste. It helps regulate insulin.
During your luteal phase, when you are craving carbohydrates, use the superfoods I shared with you. And be sure to stock up on cocoa beans and eat 4 or 5, when you are craving carbohydrates. During this phase you can take magnesium and eat more broccoli. Raw cacao always helps. Try the combination of coconut milk and raw cacao. It contains a lot of fat, but satisfies carbohydrate cravings and is a quality fuel source.
Most importantly, you should be in tune with yourself and your body. It tells you what it needs at every moment. Don’t try to fight it, just adjust your diet and workouts to its needs and the way you feel.
From day 1 to day 5 you are likely to feel more tired and need more sleep. Allow yourself an earlier bedtime, so you can get some rest. What is more, going to bed earlier has a positive impact on carbohydrate cravings – it calms them down.
Most carbohydrate cravings occur in the evening and if you stay up late, you have noticed that after 10 pm you get a strong urge to eat something sweet. This is due to the fact that if we don’t go to bed earlier, a hormone gets secreted in the body at this point which increases our appetite and makes us crave sweets. Not getting enough sleep also increases carbohydrate cravings during the day, so you should pay attention not only to your workouts and diet, but also to your other lifestyle factors.