It took me a long time to realize there was a connection between my eating habits and my menstrual cycle. I say a long time because I first got my period when I was 13 and only realized this now at 27. Better late than never, right?
I've since become so immersed in learning about each stage of my menstrual cycle and how my mood, body and eating habits are impacted throughout each phase. Not only do I now understand why my body is ravenous for carbohydrates the week leading up to my period, but I now feel more connected to my body than ever and have also started to use my menstrual cycle as a cue for my state of health.
I know a lot of people tend to beat themselves up throughout various stages of their menstrual cycle, when they happen to be more bloated than usual or eating all of the carbohydrates. But once you understand what exactly is happening during each stage, I think it will make a lot more sense and even help you make peace with your body and trust that it knows what it's doing.
What is your Menstrual Cycle?
The Menstrual Cycle is the regular natural change your body endures in the female reproductive system to make pregnancy possible. Whether your menstrual cycle is consistent or irregular can say a lot about the state of your health, including whether you are in a state of high stress, experiencing emotional trauma, suffering from a hormonal imbalance, have PCOS or are not getting an adequate amount of key nutrients.
Each month, your ovaries will release an egg (also known as the process of ovulation). During this time, your hormones are changing to prepare the uterus for potential pregnancy. If ovulation occurs and the egg isn't fertilized by the sperm, the lining of the uterus will shed through the vagina and this is both how and why you get your period.
The length of your menstrual cycle isn't the same as everyone elses. It begins on the first day of your period and can range anywhere from 21 to 35 days, depending on your age, state of health and the type of contraception you are using (if you are using it).
Your menstrual cycle is divided into four phases (based on a 28 day cycle):
I'm going to go into greater detail about what's happening in our body and with our hormones during each of these phases and also explain how your eating habits may be impacted throughout each. I hope by sharing this you feel less obsessed about food and can welcome in more self-compassion for yourself and your habits around food!
Menstrual Phase (Day 1-5)
This is when your period begins. During this time, your uterus lining will begin to break down and shed blood and tissue. Many women find they often feel more bloated during this time due to water retention and fluctuating hormones (but of course, we usually end up blaming ourselves for all of the carbs we ate leading up to our period – please don't do that!).
How It Affects Your Eating Habits:
Since you are losing blood (some, more than others, depending on how heavy your flow is), you may crave more iron-rich foods as a result of losing blood (iron). Low iron is also associated with low energy levels and when we're in a super tired state, we crave the body's most preferred, fastest acting form of energy – carbohydrates!
Another reason why you may be craving carbohydrates during your Menstrual Phase or period is because estrogen is at its lowest during this time of our cycle. Estrogen helps to produce those feel-good mood-elevating brain chemicals, but when estrogen is low, people often turn to carbohydrates because carbohydrates also have that effect on our mood-elevating brain chemicals. That usually comes in the form of comfort food, also because periods can make you feel rather "ick" and comfort food tends to fit the "ick" bill.
Rather than turning to pro-inflammatory comfort foods that may worsen period symptoms, I would encourage you to try out some of these alternatives that will satisfy your craving for comfort food, alleviate any period-related symptoms and boost estrogen naturally (flax and pumpkin seeds are great for this during your follicular phase), which can, in turn, help to support your mood:
Some other foods you may want to include to support yourself are:
See? Don't you already feel better knowing that a lot of our actions are actually dictated by biological processes of which we have no control of? No need to beat yourself up!
Follicular Phase (Day 1-13)
You'll notice that your Follicular Phase (Day 1-13) also includes your Menstrual Phase (Day 1-5). While the specific processes I mentioned above are occuring during your Menstrual Phase (shedding the uterus lining in response to the absence of pregnancy), your body is also preparing itself again for potential pregnancy.
During this phase, the Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH) will stimulate your ovaries to produce a matured egg. The maturing process produces estrogen to help your uterus thicken with blood and nutrients and provide the egg with nourishment, in the event that pregnancy occurs.
How It Affects Your Eating Habits:
With estrogen on the rise (which means, happy feel-good hormones – yay!), you may also notice a slight appetite-suppressing effect which estrogen naturally has. Studies show that a decrease in caloric intake is normal during this phase (but not to fret, if that isn't the case for you!).
You can continue to support yourself nutritionally by eating natural estrogen-boosting foods (up until ovulation on Day 14) including flax, pumpkin seeds, hummus, garlic, fennel and alfalfa sprouts, which are high in phytoestrogens. Try out some of these recipes:
Ovulation (Day 14)
At this point in your cycle, your estrogen levels have peaked. You are probably feeling really good, energetic and confident around this time – and there's a reason for this!
The reason is because we are very primitive beings and so, our hormones help to support us feel most energetic, confident and naturally beautiful at this point in our cycle because that's what is most likely to attract a mate so we can reproduce. I thought this was both fascinating and hilarious when I first learned it. Someone must've really wanted us to get our groove on and bring more humans into this world, haha!
Take advantage of all of your energy during this phase. Maybe step it up in your workouts or book important meetings/presentations around this time because it's more than likely, your positive vibes and energy will help you rock it!
During ovulation, your egg will be released from the follicle into the fallopian tube and travel to the uterus. If the sperm makes it there within 12-24 hours (the life span of an egg), fertilization will occur and you will get pregnant. It's also important to note that sperm can last up to 5 days, so it could enter you even before ovulation and if it meets the eggs within 5 days, there's a chance that fertilization and pregnancy can occur. Just a little heads up for those that may not have pregnancy in their plan in the next while :).
How It Affects Your Eating Habits:
Since estrogen has peaked, you may still be experiencing the appetite-suppressing effects and may not be entirely hungry. But funnily enough, high estrogen levels are associated with increased alcohol sensitivity in the brain's reward centre, which means if you happen to have a glass of wine, beer or cocktail during this time, you may find it to be way more pleasurable than usual!
You may also notice a preference for salt while ovulating. That's because you're starting to go into the Luteal Phase which is when you'll be producing more progesterone. The salt cravings act as a way to consume more sodium to help balance out the fluids.
Luteal Phase (Day 15-28)
During your Luteal Phase, your hormone progesterone starts to rise in efforts to help build up the lining of the uterus and make it a hospitable environment for the egg to implant. Since progesterone has a sedating effect, you may notice you are more tired during this phase of your cycle.
How It Affects Your Eating Habits:
If you find you're craving foods higher in fat and carbohydrates during this time, don't freak out. First off, because healthy fats are not bad for you and complex carbohydrates are your friends too! The reason why you may be craving more fat and carbs during this time is because your body thinks it might have gotten pregnant during ovulation and is trying to bring in more nourishment to potentially support a life! If you are trying to get pregnant, you will want to load up on these foods.
Remember, this requires a lot of energy so its only normal that you would find you are more hungry than usual.
While progesterone is on the rise, estrogen takes a nose dive during this phase which means we need to say smell ya later to all of those feel-good hormones, like serotonin (boo hoo!). Not to fret though, because there are a ton of other ways to boost serotonin naturally like ensuring you are getting enough B vitamins through diet or supplementation, soaking up some vitamin D in the form of sunshine (or supplementation in the winter months), exercise, using essential oils , keeping a gratitude journal or eating more complex carbohydrates. That's why you may find you are more drawn to carbohydrates during this phase.
Some great sources of complex carbohydrates can be found in the following recipes:
Now you're probably wondering – where does chocolate fit into all of this? Surprisingly, the jury is still out on why women crave chocoalte throughout their menstrual cycle. Some say it's in response to fluctuating hormones, especially in the Luteal Phase when estrogen takes a nose-dive and we crave more serotonin-boosting foods, while others say it's a learned behaviour in society.
I personally can't vouch for either since I have at least a square of chocolate every single day, haha! But I always prioritize high-quality sources. If you do happen to experience chocolate cravings throughout your cycle, I would recommend that you try your hand at making your own. It's super simple and then that way, you know what ingredients are going into it. This Chocolate Breakfast Bark or my Quick & Easy Chocolate Almond Butter Bark would be perfect!
I strongly encourage you to start tuning into your cycle and observing how your eating habits and mood might be impacted by it. As I mentioned earlier, we can learn a lot about our overall health from our menstrual cycle alone. It may tell us there is a need to lower stress, eat more of a specific food or bring in more hormone-balancing habits, but we won't know unless we listen.
Do you have any notable food cravings during your cycle month after month?