I admit to sometimes blaming things on my period that very well may have nothing to do with my period. You know — Ugh, I feel bloated. Must be PMS. But looking at the facts, I'm two weeks out from my period, and maybe the gas has more to do with the bag of Beanitos I just housed.
Still, it's true that our cycle affects our health in a pretty serious way. The fluctuations of hormones like estrogen and progesterone that occur throughout the month can impact our energy levels, our metabolism, our vulnerability to injuries, our appetites, our sleep quality, and more.
We still have a long way to go to understand exactly how our menstrual cycles affect our overall wellbeing. But lately, experts have been taking what we do know and using that information to our advantage.
Take Alisa Vitti, an integrative nutritionist and the founder of FLOLiving.com, for instance. After being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, she spent 15 years researching menstrual cycles. (As one does.) According to her, most mainstream diet and fitness plans are tailored to men; but they don't experience the same hormonal ups and downs that women do over the course of the month. And since hormones affect the entire body so profoundly, that means women may not be getting everything they can out of these male-centric eating plans and workouts.
So Vitti developed (and trademarked) a method she calls cycle syncing. Basically, it helps you hack your cycle, laying out when and how to best eat, exercise, and socialize throughout the month to take advantage of the different hormone profiles. Here's how it works.
An average 28-ish day cycle is broken up into four phases that span roughly four weeks. It starts at menstruation (phase one), followed by the follicular phase (phase two), ovulation (phase three), and finally the luteal phase (phase four).
During ovulation and the luteal phase, Vitti says, hormonal changes mean your metabolism actually speeds up and your caloric needs increase by 16%. So if you're following her cycle syncing plan, you'd be eating a little more during these weeks to stay full and energized. Your body may require anywhere from 250 to 350 more calories during this time, S. Zev Williams, MD, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Columbia University Medical Center, previously told to Refinery29. "Women have known for millennia that there seemed to be a link between appetite and the menstrual cycle, [but] recent studies have confirmed this perception," he says. Yeah, that's right — the pre-menstrual munchies are a real thing.
Vitti also suggests playing to your hormonal strengths when it comes to your work and social lives to boost productivity and reduce stress. "During ovulation, hormones stimulate social and verbal centers of the brain regions," she says. So maybe that's when you plan a happy hour or schedule a presentation.
Your menstrual cycle can certainly impact your mood. People reported high levels of self-esteem around ovulation, when estrogen and progesterone levels were both high, according to a study from the Archives of Gynaecology and Obstetrics. The same study found that anxiety, hostility, and depression spiked during the luteal face, when estrogen and progesterone decrease — maybe a good time to load up on the self-care routines.
Finally, fitness. The unique balance of hormones you experience during menstruation and the follicular phase may cause an increase in your energy, Vitti says. To take advantage of that boost, she suggests doing HIIT exercises and cardio.
Research indicates, however, that strength training during this period could also be advantageous. A study from Umeå University in Sweden found that women who did high-frequency leg training during the first two weeks of their menstrual cycles got stronger than those who did the same workouts during the second half of their cycle.
It's best to take these fitness suggestions with a grain of salt. While early studies offer some clues about how the menstrual cycle impacts training, a lot more research needs to be done. "How the menstrual cycle can affect training is in general an unexplored research area," says Lisbeth Wikström-Frisén, the author of the Umeå University study. "As most sports-related research has been performed on male participants, there are on the whole not much scientific knowledge of how women can optimize their training based upon the hormone cycle," she adds.
Another complication: The study says that women on hormonal birth control saw no differences in how their bodies reacted to the workouts from the first half to the second half of their cycles. And according to Vitti's FLOLiving website, "Being on the pill is not ideal for cycle-syncing, since hormonal contraceptives block the natural hormonal patterns in your system". But of course, see your doctor regarding anything to do with medication.
Everyone's cycle is different. Consider tracking yours via an app like MyFlo, Clue, or Day After. (The Apple Watch even has its own menstrual tracking app.) Take note of symptoms like your food cravings, your feelings about exercise, your general mood, and anything else you notice. After a few months, you should start to see patterns that could help you tailor your schedule take advantage of hormone-related benefits (and avoid hormone-related roadblocks).
Cycle syncing can be empowering; rather than dreading your period, you can start to use it to make your life easier.