The menstrual cycle: Our top 6 strategies to help you navigate phases of and beat the side effects
For any female or someone with ovaries, the menstrual cycle is something that is going to be experienced in one way or another and is something that takes place for a long period of your life. Starting around the age of 12, a female will start their menstrual cycle, which will last until around the age of 50 when the female will start to enter menopause.
There are many things that can affect the menstrual cycle during a female’s life such as hormonal birth control, pregnancies and stress as well as many other factors that may alter during this time, such as the amount of blood, the length of a cycle and variation of pain.
A healthy menstrual cycle length is between 21 to 35 days and is where ovulation can be confirmed through cervical fluid, a luteal length that is a minimum of 10 days and a period that is a minimum of 3 days. So firstly, let’s discuss what the phases of our cycle are!
Please also note that these phases will be different from person to person and will also change if you are taking contraception so, please take the following information as advice only.
The four phases of our menstrual cycle
Stage one – menstruation! Day one of our cycle starts with the first day of your period (where you bleed). A healthy period length lasts between 3-7 days and should be a crimson red colour without clots or mucus and should be a solid flow, where you need to change your cup, tampon or pad every 4-6 hours. This bleed is actually occurring from the uterine lining shedding and the release of an unfertilised egg. During this time, having some lower abdomen discomfort is normal, however high amounts of pain may indicate that there may be something else going on!
Stage two – the follicular phase. This is from the time your period finishes until you confirm ovulation. This is where estrogen is rising and our follicles are starting to mature eggs in our ovaries. Many women report during this time that they have a bit more energy, have more strength and are more extroverted, so if this is something you experience – take advantage!
Stage three – ovulation! As progesterone starts to rise, we will start to notice cervical fluid that starts off as clumpy and sticky discharge until it becomes watery and egg white-like. This is how we can confirm that we are highly fertile. Once our core body temperature rises (due to the peak of estrogen and progesterone), cervical fluid will start to vacate and ovulation can be confirmed.
Stage four – the luteal phase. The luteal phase is where our progesterone remains elevated, as well as our core body temperature, to support the implantation of a fertilised egg. During this time, many females can experience a variety of pre-menstrual symptoms including disrupted sleep, bloating, food cravings and mood swings to name a few. A healthy luteal length is between 10-14 days before either a bleed occurs, or you can confirm you are pregnant!
So, what are our top six
1. Track your cycle to understand your cycle length and symptoms.
This doesn’t mean downloading an app and listening to the days specified; this means spending the
time each day throughout your cycle to specify the symptoms you are experiencing and noting them
down. This is helpful as it helps to tell a story of what may occur regularly for you every month and
will help you to recognise where you are at in your cycle. Symptoms we would recommend noting.
2. Listen to your body!
If you know that you are emotional and very low in energy during your luteal phase, perhaps try and
pull back from high-intensity training during this time! Opting for exercise that supports your body
during this time such as yoga, pilates and walking might be what your body needs, so don’t try and
push it just because you have a 16km run planned. Try and plan your training to include more
intense exercise in the first half of your cycle if you have more energy during this time!
3. Periodise your fat loss goals according to your cycle!
If you know that you get food cravings in the second half of your cycle, especially in the lead-up to your period, trying to push hard for a dieting phase during this time is not going to lead to success! Perhaps you spend the first part of your cycle where you have lots of energy and motivation to be in a calorie deficit, focusing on lifting heavy and some HIIT-based training and then the second half of your cycle you move back to maintenance with your calories and focus on calmer and less intense exercise. This will help with adherence and reduce burnout in the long run!
4. Implement nutritional changes to support the changes in your hormones
For more information, we would suggest having a look at our blog on Nutrition during Menstrual Cycle to get a clear picture of what foods to increase and decrease around your cycle. However, to recap, during the first half of your cycle, focusing on complex carbohydrates such as rice, bread, potatoes and oats is recommended as the female body is a lot more insulin sensitive and can therefore easily burn through this energy source. In comparison, during the luteal phase, focusing on a higher fat and protein-based diet is recommended as the body opts more closely to fat as an energy source to support progesterone.
5. Prioritise your sleep and water no matter where you are in your cycle!
Adequate water and sleep are fundamental to a healthy life, and it is paramount to maintaining a healthy cycle. Sleep is the backbone of our recovery, and without it, many of our symptoms can become a lot worse, leading to increased agitation, fatigue and emotions which can already be quite high in the lead-up to our period. A healthy and steady intake of water helps to support the liver detoxifying our body, ensuring that our bowels are working well. This can be especially helpful if you experience constipation in the lead-up to your period or ovulation!
6. Whilst not necessary, some supplementation may be supportive.
Supplements are exactly that, something to take to supplement a healthy diet. However, for some people, supplementation can really help to optimise their cycle. Firstly, it is recommended that a discussion with a medical professional is undertaken, and some bloodwork is considered to see if there are any deficiencies that may be present.
Some basic recommendations that could be supportive can include:
Magnesium: it is an important mineral for our body, especially a female because it helps for maintaining muscle, aids our nervous and immune systems, and helps to regulate our glucose and insulin metabolism. Some foods that contain higher quantities of magnesium include almonds, leafy green vegetables and peanuts.
Vitamin B-6; helps with the production of neurotransmitters which supports our mood regulation, so supplementing with this may be supportive if you struggle with mood swings in the lead-up to your period. Some foods that contain higher quantities of vitamin B6 include tuna, salmon, starchy vegetables and organ meats like beef liver.
Calcium; our calcium levels may change during the course of our menstrual cycle so there may be times when you are deficient. Calcium has also been shown to be supportive if you struggle with mood swings and anxiety during the later end of your cycle, so increasing your intake may be supportive. Some foods that contain high quantities of calcium include chia seeds, cheese, yoghurt, sardines and lentils.
There may be other supplements that you could benefit from, however, it is important to remember that supplementation needs to be individualised to you and your requirements, so speaking to a qualified medical professional and undertaking blood work should be considered.
How to beat the side effects
Well, the main thing is to listen to your body and provide it with the support it needs no matter
where you are at in your cycle. Focusing on nutrient-dense foods and eating enough to support your
life; training in a way that you enjoy and listening to what movement your body needs on a day-to-
day basis; as well as prioritising rest and recovery are all extremely important factors when it comes
to making sure your body doesn’t become overwhelmed. The more you push back on what your
body is telling you, the more the symptoms can become exacerbated and may lead to physical or
mental issues. And if symptoms get worse, speak to your doctor.
Written By Paige: Female fitness expert at MotivatePT – Reps Level 3 Qualified / Pre & Post Natal