Firstly I want to make it clear that I am not a doctor or a specialist nor do I claim to be. Without getting too scientific then, here is my take on the issues females face both at the dinner table and in the gym during the menstrual cycle.
Cycle & Hormone Basics: (Good to know)
Day 1-14 Follicular phase (Oestrogen & Progesterone are both low)
Day 14 – Ovulation (Oestrogen peaks & Progesterone is low)
Day 14-28 Luteal phase (Oestrogen levels are unsettled – small increases and decreases & Progesterone peaks)
NOTE DAY 1 IS THE FIRST DAY OF YOUR PERIOD.
The effect that oestrogen levels have on hunger, satiety and cravings is more dramatic than you realise. During the time from ovulation through to menstruation (luteal phase) is most likely when you’ll struggle with food and the urge to not overeat. Studies have shown that as oestrogen levels go down here, women eat larger portion sizes (because of the decrease in the potency of CCK – your ‘fullness’ hormone) AND have more cravings (and interestingly, it isn’t just carbs we crave, it could be fat or even protein for some women, anything with calories).
Ok, so that’s the very basic ‘science-y’ bit on food, hunger and dieting but what about in the gym?
The follicular phase (day 1-14 leading up to ovulation) is your time to increase and improve. During this time, you will feel stronger, will go for longer and have a higher pain tolerance. You’ll also be more prone to using carbs as an energy source. As oestrogen peaks at ovulation, studies suggest women are the strongest at this point and hit more PBs, HOWEVER it is also worth noting they are more susceptible to injury so my advice would be to re-check your form. During the luteal phase, as oestrogen levels decrease, your body will be more reliant on fat as your fuel source. This is the prime time to focus on fat loss using lower intensity cardio and moderately heavy weight training. If you struggle with discomfort and tiredness though, this phase can be bad news as it will undoubtedly affect your performance in the gym.
OK SO WHAT DOES ALL THIS ACTUALLY MEAN? WHAT CAN I DO AT WHAT TIME TO IMPROVE STRENGTH & FITNESS AND MINIMISE FAT GAIN?
Here is a more detailed overview:
Day 1-14 Follicular phase:
Appetite is lower and more balanced so sticking to a plan is easier and this is good time to focus on improving strength and endurance. This is your time for IMPROVEMENT.
Day 14 – Ovulation
Appetite will start to climb as metabolism ramps up so maybe your diet can be adjusted so that you fuel yourself properly – you’ll also feel at your strongest so go for a PB but be very careful with your form and ensure your technique is solid to minimise risk of injury.
Day 14-28 Luteal phase
The most difficult and complex phase.
Overeating and high cravings are most likely to occur through this phase but because you will naturally decrease load and output in the gym, your body doesn’t need the extra calories. Your body fuels well off fat here (insulin sensitivity is at its lowest) but you may well be a carb-craver because of a decrease in serotonin levels. Try and give your body what it needs and not what it wants – eating a higher fat and lower carb diet in this phase could increase fat loss. You may not feel like you’re losing fat though as water retention can be high so don’t let this fool you! Some women may suffer more with pre-menstrual symptoms like nausea so while they welcome a lower calorie diet, they may have other challenges in the gym. Consider switching your training time or look at drinking more mint or ginger tea to tackle nausea.
So, aside from what is suggested above, do I have any other tips? Yes, I do…
- Get to know & understand your cycle and how it affects you personally. We are all different so don’t have the same symptoms and experiences. Once you understand you own body, it’ll help you make better choices. You’ll gain satisfaction and peace of mind by understanding WHY cravings are high or WHY you are struggling in the gym and most importantly, you’ll know how to rectify them.
- Given the first point, don’t beat yourself up. Your hormones are largely out of your control so don’t beat yourself up for going off-plan or not getting that PB. You can be satisfied with knowing the reasons and you can work with your body and not against it.
- Menstruation is normally the ‘getting back to normal’ phase. Although you bleed, it’s normally the time when you begin to feel better. Water retention will subside, metabolism and body temperature will balance and a more balanced food intake is needed. Don’t view this time negatively.
- If you struggle with cravings, supplement with the amino acid tryptophan or eat more foods containing it e.g. turkey, soy beans, pumpkin seeds, beef, salmon or reduced fat mozzarella.
- If you struggle with PMS symptoms or endometriosis, look at supplementing with Diindolylmethane (DIM), a phytochemical , produced during the digestion of cruciferous vegetables as it can aid oestrogen metabolism and reduce the symptoms of PMS.
- Sleeeeeeeeep. It’s so important you are as well rested as possible, through all the phases. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night will make all the difference when those tiredness and irritability levels start to rise.
- Finally, drink plenty of water, all the time. Apart from the importance of hydration for regulating and aiding bodily processes (especially if you sweat a lot), getting plenty of water in can reduce water retention which I know, can be one of the worst things when trying to monitor fat loss.
Take care of yourself, girls.