The Female Cycle: Diet and Training Tips to Help Your Life (and your cramps)
We’re doing it; we’re talking about PMS.
Men, feel free to sit this one out…
I don’t like the term PMS, though, and I know many other woman who concur.
From all the other options—on my period, on my rag, menstruating, the tomato truck is in town, I’m having my moon time or shark week—I’m liking Shark Week best. Seems the least disturbing of the terms, and it makes women sound fierce!
Yep, today we’re going deep into shark week—and the female cycle in general—in relation to diet and training. Why? Because when I ask female clients about their emotional experiences, as well as their food cravings and energy levels at various times of their cycle, they often stare at me blankly and admit they don’t think about it much. During their actual shark week, they might pick up on things going on in their body—as there’s a physical symptom that’s hard to ignore—but during the rest of their cycle, usually because there’s no visible signs as to what’s going on inside them, they’re oblivious.
Whether you’re currently in tune with your body or not, your cycle drastically affects your hormone levels, which influences you physically and emotionally more than you may have realized. Some small diet and exercise changes during these specific different times of the month can go a long way in helping you feel, sleep and perform better.
Let’s take a look:
Shark Week: (Day 1 to Day 5, 6 or 7, depending on the woman)
During this time, your hormones—progesterone and estrogen—are at their lowest. Because of this, you often feel zapped of energy, or just a little sluggish for a few days.
Diet Tip: Iron and Vitamin B12
Losing blood meanings losing iron (low iron = fatigue), so it’s best to up your iron intake during this time. You might want to up your intake a couple days before your shark week, even, to prepare for the upcoming blood loss.
This can mean eating more red meat and dark leafy greens, or getting on top of that iron supplement. Combining iron-riches foods with Vitamin C is also helpful as it helps your body absorb iron more effectively.
Vitamin B12 also affects our energy, as it, too, plays a role in producing red blood cells. Foods high in Vitamin B12 are animal products, like eggs, milk, cheese, fish and chicken. So if there’s a time to eat cheese, it might be during this week!
Shark Week Workout Tip: Keep Moving
Though it can be temping on those heavy cramping days—usually Day 1 and Day 2—to stay at home curled up in a ball pumping Advil and Aleve, it’s actually better to do something active, even if it just means going for a walk. Some research, like this study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25243766), even suggests a link between exercise and reducing cramps, but it seems to vary from woman to woman. If nothing else, the endorphin rush from a low-intensity workout should help with energy levels in those first couple, heavy flow days.
Once the cramps are gone, push hard!
The follicular phase of your cycle in general—meaning from the start of shark week until the end of ovulation—is when you’re pain tolerance and your insulin sensitivity is the highest, meaning your body will be prone to using carbs as fuel for muscle gains. Thus, you can make big gains in the gym during shark week and beyond (until the end of the ovulation phase) even if you don’t feel at your best for the first day or two of shark week.
In general, think about the first 14 to 15 days of your cycle—the follicular phase and the ovulation phase—as being a time when you can push it harder at the gym and make valuable gains.
Ovulation (Day 11 to 14 ish, although, again, this depends on each women)
This is, of course, the time of the month where the new, mature egg gets released (aka your most fertile time of the month), and where estrogen and testosterone levels are high, and our energy levels, too.
Ovulation Phase Diet Tip:
During this stage of the cycle, your metabolism starts ramping up, so you might feel a bit more hungry than normal. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be eating a ton more, though. In fact, your metabolism won’t be at its highest until the luteal phase. So it’s best to stick to eating whole, unprocessed foods and appropriate portions sizes.
Also, take advantage of your abundance of energy to get creative and get food prepping to prepare some extra meals for the luteal phase, when your energy drops and you start having cravings for high-sugar foods.
Ovulation Phase Workout Tip:
From a hormonal standpoint, this is the time to go for a PR. You body is at its physical peak for the cycle. In other words, a great ego-boosting time.
However, some science (https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/tjem/240/4/240_287/_html) also shows the ovulation phase may be a time you’re ironically also at higher risk of injury, because as your estrogen peaks, this can impact collagen metabolism, as well as your neuromuscular control. Because of this, joints are less stable and injuries can ensue if you’re not on top of warming up and prepping your body properly.
Day approximately 25-28 (End of Luteal phase)
This is when the egg gets released, and your hormone levels decline again. Some women experience premenstrual cramping, headaches and bloating during this time, as well as mood swings and fatigue, especially in the last couple days of the luteal phase leading into shark week.
Even though you don’t feel great on day 27 and 28, metabolically your body is actually peaking. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered your metabolism is about 7.7 percent higher during the luteal phase.
Along with this metabolic peak, however, comes food cravings, especially cravings for sweet carbohydrates and fatty foods. These cravings aren’t just in your head. A 2016 study (https://ucdavis.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/estradiol-shbg-and-leptin-interplay-with-food-craving-and-intake-) showed a relationship between leptin and estrogen levels with food cravings.
Diet Tip: Get to know YOUR body and Pound the Protein
To help offset the decrease in serotonin and stop those carb cravings, you can try supplementing with tryptophan, as well as increase your protein intake, as they both can help promote an increase in serotonin production. (Seratonin helps regulate mood, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function, so basically if your serotonin is too low, it could be contributing to making you moodier or more anxious than normal).
If you’re unaware of your mood during this time, start writing down what you’re thinking and feeling for a couple months or so, as well as how you’re sleeping in the three days before shark week. When you become more aware of your mood, cravings, sleep, as well as any other physiological changes in your body, you’ll become better at dealing with them in the future.
For example, if you feel bloated the day before shark weeks starts for three months in a row, it might be worth considering limiting salty foods the last two days of the luteal phase, as salty foods make us thirsty, so we drink more and end up feeling even more bloated.
Or maybe you notice you have trouble sleeping for a few days during this time. Sometimes limiting your caffeine during those days, or eliminating your afternoon coffee, can help you sleep at night. Or maybe these are the three nights a month you take melatonin before bed.
Or maybe you realize you always get into a stupid argument with your spouse in the three days before shark week. Becoming aware of this might help you avoid bringing up any “big subjects” during this time.
The take home message: Take the time to get to know your body and mind during this time, and adjust accordingly.
Exercise Tip: Stick to your routine, but back off intensity
During this time, your body temperature is often higher than normal, so you’ll often feel more tired during conditioning workouts. This doesn’t mean you can’t workout; it just means you may want to reconsider how intensely you’re pushing yourself.
Though it’s tempting to fall off the horse if you’re feeling crampy and bloated for three days, this is probably the most important time to stick to your workout routine, even if you’re not able to put forth the same amount of intensity or effort.
Be gentle on yourself as you prepare for the next cycle to begin with a shark-like bang!