The Endless Benefits of Cycle Tracking
As a nutritionist who specializes in hormone health and ADHD, one thing I recommend for almost all of my clients who menstruate is to begin tracking your menstrual cycle. Doing so allows us to tune into the different phases of our hormone fluctuations so we can start to adjust the various aspects of our life around these monthly changes. These can include adaptations in diet, exercise, self-care practices, social events and even work related projects and commitments. The goal is to optimize our well-being and overall productivity by harnessing the natural hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout your menstrual cycle.
You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythm - a biological rhythm that follows a roughly 24 hour cycle. The 9-5 work day follows circadian rhythm, and these rhythms are influenced by the body’s internal biological clock and are responsible for regulating various processes, such as sleep-wake cycles, certain hormone releases, body temperature and cognitive function, all over the course of a day.
An infradian rhythm is a biological rhythm that occurs over a period longer than 24 hours. It describes cyclical patterns in various physiological processes, behaviors and hormonal fluctuations that extend beyond the typical daily circadian rhythm. Anyone with a menstrual cycle is influenced by both infradian and circadian rhythms.
One reason why so many people who menstruate struggle with symptoms like painful periods and extreme changes in mood and energy leading up their periods is partially because they’re working within a system that only follows circadian rhythm and completely disregards that around half of the population are also strongly influenced by infradian rhythms.
It would be so much better if we lived in a society that took into account the reality that the energy levels and capacity of people who menstruate fluctuate monthly. We’re unfortunately not there yet, so in the meantime implementing changes in diet, exercise and rest around the different phases of your menstrual cycle can be an amazing strategy for period and PMS symptom management, self-care and maximizing productivity.
The menstrual cycle can be broken down into four phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase. It can be helpful to think of these phases as representing the seasons, and they can even be referred to as ‘inner seasons’. It begins with menstruation, aka your period which lasts on average 4-6 days. The menstrual phase most closely aligns with the qualities associated with winter, so this is the best time of the month to really give yourself permission to rest and do more restorative activities like yin yoga, stretching, mobility classes and walking. Allowing your body to really relax and reset during this phase will impact the rest of your cycle, energy levels and mood. During this phase it's great to eat warm, mineral rich foods that are easy to digest - things like broths, soups and stews. Any foods rich in iron will also be beneficial to eat during this phase, so beets, steamed dark leafy greens, mushrooms, lentils and berries.
The follicular phase follows the menstrual phase, usually lasting 7-10 days. Seasonally, this phase is most similar to spring in the sense that estrogen begins to rise again along with energy, mood and libido - kinda like the warmer temperatures, new growth and energy of spring. Higher intensity workouts, running, circuit training, biking and hiking are all great to do during this phase. Along with consuming leafy greens, berries and lean proteins like poultry, fish and eggs, healthy fats will also be great for supporting your metabolism and liver during this time. Avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and cold water fish are all recommended, as well as complex carbohydrates like potatoes, sweet potatoes and whole grains.
Ovulation occurs halfway through the menstrual cycle. This phase lasts about 4 days and is when estrogen levels peak, so many people feel they have the most energy during this time. Seasonally, ovulation relates most to summer. Make the most of this energy with higher intensity activities like circuit training, running, HIIT classes, pilates and vinyasa yoga. Be sure to nourish yourself with adequate protein sources from fish, nuts, poultry, corn-based grains and rice, and lots of vegetables like asparagus, bell peppers, brussel sprouts, spinach and tomatoes.
The luteal phase is the final phase, usually lasting anywhere from 10-14 days. While the hormone progesterone begins to rise during this phase, estrogen levels drop, often along with energy and our mood. Just like the fall, this is a good time to begin to slow down. Resistance based physical activities are great to implement during this phase, same with lifting weights, pilates and walks. Be sure to tune into what your body needs especially during the days leading up to your period and adjust your activity levels as you feel is necessary. Making sure you are eating enough fiber will go a long way during the luteal phase as well. Brown rice, sweet potato, steamed or oven baked broccoli and cauliflower, garlic and onions are all great sources of fiber that also contain many micronutrients needed by the body during this time. Vegetarian sources of protein like chickpeas, beans and lentils also contain fiber. Animal sources of protein such as beef, turkey and fish will also provide the body with the amino acids and fats it needs. It can also be helpful to monitor caffeine and alcohol intake, especially the days leading up to menstruation, especially if you tend to suffer from cramping and PMS symptoms.
These are all just ideas to experiment with to see if they work with your lifestyle. The first step is to begin tracking your cycle, which can be done most easily with an app, calendar or journal. I also need to mention the importance of prioritizing hydration and making sure you’re drinking enough water, as our hormone system is mainly fluid based. Herbal teas are one of my favourite ways to stay hydrated, and various herbs have so many incredible, powerful properties that can help regulate our hormones, support our nervous system, digestion and overall vitality. Next time you’re at Laya check out the herbal offerings available in tea and tincture form, made locally and with care by Heal Lab Herbal Apothecary.
A final takeaway is to understand cycle tracking as a tool that can help improve your relationship with your body. Approach it with curiosity rather than rigidity and begin to notice how the differences in how you feel as your hormones fluctuate throughout the month. I currently work one on one with clients to help them utilize nutrition, herbs, strategic supplementation and other changes in lifestyle to help with many symptoms related to hormones, ADHD, digestion and skin - all while improving their relationship with food. If you’re interested in working with me I offer free 20 minute discovery calls where we chat to see if we’re a good fit to work together - call the Laya front desk at 647-438-9032 to book a free discovery call with me.
Follow me on instagram @sealemon.nutrition for more info on nutrition, hormone health and ADHD.