Nutrition For Your Menstrual Cycle

Cramps, mood swings, crappy food cravings, headaches … need I say more? Besides some Midol and hot compresses, there’s not much we can do to minimize period pain; but what if our diet, no matter where we’re at in our cycle, could curb some of these unwelcome symptoms? Today, we’ll discuss just that—nutrition tips to promote balance and well-being throughout a woman’s monthly cycle.

Let it be known I think the female body is one of the most amazing things in existence. No, I don’t rejoice when Aunt Flo arrives, but when you stop to consider the complexities that occur inside your body leading menstruation, it can be quite eye-opening. Below you’ll find a review of each phase of the menstrual cycle, as summarized by the Cleveland Clinic, with nutrition tips to follow along the way. (Days are based on an average 28-day cycle).

Follicular Phase (days 1-12):  

The follicular phase starts on the first day of your period (some call the actual period portion the “menstrual phase,” but technically menstruation marks the beginning of the follicular phase). Throughout the follicular phase, your brain releases hormones that both stimulate the production of eggs in your ovaries while also increasing estrogen production.

With period-related blood loss, it’s important to up the iron, vitamin C and B vitamins to help promote blood cell production and prevent anemia. Low levels of vitamin B12 can contribute to fatigue, dizziness and nervousness. If you happen to take the pill, I’d recommend adding B complex to your daily regimen as these contraceptives have been shown to deplete vitamins B1, B2 & B6 (3).

Eat more:

Iron – beef, chicken, turkey, dried beans, leafy greens, egg yolks, fortified cereals

Vitamin C – citrus fruits, kiwi, pineapple, cantaloupe, kale, yellow peppers, broccoli

B12 – clams, salmon, tuna, fortified cereals, fortified plant-milks and some fortified soy products

B6 – turkey, fish, potatoes, starchy vegetables, non-citrus fruits

Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices – ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cilantro, garlic parsley … incorporate these herbs into fresh, plant-based meals to help combat cramping and inflammation.

Ovulatory Phase (days 12-14):

Eggs are released from the ovary (aka ovulation) into the fallopian tube. You’ll notice a change or increase in your cervical mucus, which would eventually help to capture and nourish sperm for fertilization.

Some people notice a heightened sense of smell or breast tenderness around this time. Many women also experience increased energy (and libido, heyy-o) so make sure you’re not countering all that extra energy expenditure with junk food. Hormone shifts around ovulation have been known to increase sugar cravings so prepare yourself and keep plenty of healthy, easy-to-grab sweet snacks at hand. Make sure you’re getting plenty of fiber to prevent bloating and ensure bowel regularity (gals, we recommend 25 grams of fiber a day). Fermented foods can also help promote gut health, bowel regularity and fluid balance, so consider incorporating kombucha, kefir, yogurt or raw apple cider vinegar into your daily regimen.

Eat more:

Fiber  fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans (real foods are always preferred over fiber-supplements).

Healthy sweet fixes – dark chocolate, fresh, in-season fruits, greek yogurts, dates, apple chips … or check out any of the RD approved weekday recipes in Weekday Weekend.

Luteal Phase (days 14-28):

This phase begins right after ovulation. Estrogen and progesterone levels increase which prepare the egg for implantation. A non-fertilized egg will pass through the uterus until the uterine lining sheds and … voila, you have a period and find yourself back at day 1 of the follicular phase.

Ladies, this is the time to really up your game in preparation for your monthly stay at the Red Roof Inn. Research reveals women who experience greater pain during periods have higher levels of prostaglandins (a chemical released to stimulate contraction and breakdown of the uterine lining). This prostaglandin production is directly related to the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in one’s body—in other words, the more omega-3 rich foods you eat (in conjunction with a decrease in omega-6 rich foods) will theoretically lower prostaglandin production, in turn, improving period cramps. You may want to consider taking a fish oil supplement if you consistently battle PMS-related cramping (shoot for at least 1500 mg DHA/EPA per day).

Eat more:

Omega-3 fatty acids – coconut oils, olive oils, grass-fed butter and beef, salmon, leafy greens, avocados, walnuts

Eat less:

Omega-6 fatty acids – vegetable oils, processed foods, mayonnaise, salad dressings

Ancient Ayurvedic medicine believes your period acts similarly to a built-in detox system. So if you’ve had a stressful month of junk food, boozing and little exercise, the thought is that your period will be pretty brutal. On the contrary, if you’ve taken good care of yourself, chances are your period will be much lighter. (2) Speaking of booze, consider avoiding alcohol if you’re experiencing PMS symptoms. Sources say drinking alcohol can actually worsen symptoms of headaches, breast tenderness and mood swings. Of course moderation throughout the rest of your cycle is generally okay, but I would suggest avoiding alcohol altogether towards the start of your period.

Concerning caffeine, great news! No need to pass on your morning cup of joe when experiencing PMS, as if anyone ever thought that was a good idea?! A 2016 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found “caffeine intake is not associated with PMS, and that current recommendations for women to reduce caffeine intake may not help prevent the development of PMS.” Remember, caffeine is a diuretic so make sure you’re still drinking enough water—which leads me to my next point. Water.  

Bloating is common during the follicular and luteal phases, as are food cravings, thanks to fluctuations in hormones like estradiol and leptin. Besides avoiding salty, processed foods, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water to help combat the bloat and stay hydrated. Read more about how much water you should be drinking here or, in a pinch, try to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day! Fruit- or herb-infused waters are a great way to add some pizzazz to plain old water.

As a reminder, menstruation in and of itself is an inflammatory process. I recommend trying to follow the anti-inflammatory as consistently as possible throughout your entire cycle. Luckily, Lindsey just covered this topic in depth, and I highly recommend you check out her post if you haven’t yet. In conclusion, try to keep your meals plant-based with lots of healthy fats, lean protein, fresh fiber sources and plenty of H2O.

A note from Lindsey:

Great stuff, Sarah! Full disclosure, PMS gets me down from time to time. I always seem to notice I have more energy and am less emotional in the few days before my cycle if I’m getting regular exercise. Turns out, it may not just all be in my head. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists touts aerobic exercise as a way to relieve PMS symptoms and it may even help relieve pain from period cramps. Whether you hop on a bike, go for a swim, or take a jog–get your heart pumping for at least 30 minutes most days. Although no judgment if you spend the first few days of your cycle getting reacquainted with your couch.

Credits // Author: Sarah O’Callaghan with contributions from Lindsey Kelsay. Photo: Emma Chapman. Additional Sources: 1.) USDA National Nutrient Database. Available at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/ 2.) Barrett, E., Hanley, K. (2014) The 28 Days Lighter Diet; Your Monthly Plan to Lose Weight, End PMS and Achieve Physical and Emotional Wellness. Globe Pequot Press. 3.) Gottfried, S. (2013). The Hormone Cure. Simon & Schuester Inc.
  • I have noticed that during a month of clean eating, I barely have any issues during my cycle. When I was at my heaviest, so was my cycle and my PMS was way worse. With the pounds coming off, it is getting back to normal.

  • Thank you so much for this!! I would also love it if you gals would follow this up with more information on fertility-based methods of managing one’s cycle, aka FAM or NFP. As a good resource regarding clean and non-toxic living I think it would be a natural extension to discuss that approach regarding our reproductive systems. It didn’t seem logical to me to pursue eating better while continuing to put the same artificial hormones into my body on a daily basis. More research is coming out all the time on the pill specifically and how it can negatively affect mental and physical health.

    • Awesome suggestion – I’ve pondered this myself and would love to research this further. There are so many great, new resources for women who are interested in getting more in sync with their natural cycle or NFP. Definitely worth some more research!

  • This is so great and thanks for breaking it down so clearly. Cycle based nutrition has been on my radar for a while, but this was one of the clearest resources I’ve come across so far. Taking lots of notes and planning to implement ASAP!

  • Thanks for this article! It’s super helpful to have all of this info in one place across the whole cycle. Did Sarah actually mean that decreases in leptin stimulate cravings, though, as the linked article says those things are inversely related?

    • Hey Marissa! Sorry for the mix up – upon re-reading the study you’re right, I’ll be sure to clarify in the post. People with high levels of estradiol and estradiol/leptin ratio seem to experience increased cravings for carbs/sweets while low estradiol, low estradiol/leptin ratio clients experienced less cravings. Thanks!

  • I’m lucky to feel almost no period-related pain at all, ever – What I did notice tough, is that in the week before my period starts, I’m either super hungry and could eat forever, or, on the contrary, don’t have any appetite at all. I’ll try drinking more water during these times and make sure to eat really healthy, let’s see if my appetite will get back to normal… thanks for the tips!

  • Thank you so much for this article! This info is amazing – I’ve already sent it to my sisters. I’m always looking for new ways to fight PMS!

  • This is so interesting. We’re never taught all the things happening with our bodies, so I’m glad to learn a little more every day. I take continuous BC because the changes in hormones cause me to get migraines, but I think there is a good point about always aiming for an anti-inflammatory diet that’s low in sugars. High salt and alcohol also affect me like nothing else!

    Eva | http://www.shessobright.com

  • This was so good. I really enjoyed your writing, Sarah! I think Laura posted about a book she was reading about women’s bodies but am not sure if it was here or instagram. Do you mind sharing, Laura?

  • Que interesante la alimentación mas adecuada en cada punto del ciclo. Me gustaría mucho algo parecido para la etapa de a menopausia 😀
    Besotes!!!!

  • SO INFORMATIVE! I TOTALLY AGREE WITH THE ANCIENT AYUEVEDIC MEDICINE BELIEF THAT HOW YOU EAT/EXERCISE ETC DURING THE MONTH AFFECTS YOUR PERIOD. THIS MONTH WAS A ROUGH ONE FOR ME AND I TOTALLY NOTICE THAT MY SYMPTOMS ARE MORE INTENSE. THANK YOU FOR ALL THESE TIPS!!!

  • just wanted to note that i have seen a huge decrease in the severity of my pms symptoms after transitioning to a fully VEGAN diet. i used to take paracetamol/ibuprofen every few hours during the first day or two of my period and sometimes the pain was so intense i’d reach for a stronger painkiller leftover from surgery, but ever since i switched to eating only plant-based foods, i haven’t needed to take a single pill of any kind to deal with the pain! nor have i experience bloating, breast-tenderness, or any other physical symptoms. yet another reason to go vegan!

  • Thanks for this info! I have post viral fatigue/relapse of me/cfs since the beginning of this year and just noticed I get wrongly affected just before ovulation, after ovulation leading up to my period and of course during my period. So I wanted to understand the actual process of what my body is doing through the process and what nutrients I should be increasing doing this time.

    Thanks!

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