If one has to name a single biological process that significantly defines a woman’s being, it must be the menstrual cycle. Menstruation, as we all know is the monthly shedding of the uterine lining. The menstrual cycle is a naturally occurring complex cycle of changes in the ovaries, endometrium, various glands (hypothalamus, pituitary, and ovary), and the hormones these glands produce. All these changes that happen within the body, in turn, affect your overall state of being – primarily in terms of energy levels, appetite, and mood. With the knowledge of the various changes and their impact on the different aspects of the body readily available to you, it is only sensible for you to be prudent and use this knowledge to optimize your health and navigate through your life in tandem with your cycle. In this article let us take a deeper dive into the menstrual cycle, the various changes that happen, and how you can leverage them to your benefit.
The 3 Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
Broadly, the menstrual cycle is made of 3 phases –
- Pre-Ovulation or the follicular phase (the first 14 days of the cycle)
- Ovulation (halfway through the cycle)
- Post-Ovulation or the luteal phase (the last 14 days of the cycle)
Towards the end of the luteal phase, menstruation occurs by means of the shedding of the uterine lining through the cervix and the uterus. Although menstruation could be a separate phase, theoretically it is part of the follicular phase. For the purpose of this article, we will follow the same norm, where menstruation is part of the follicular phase and we will take into account a 28-day menstrual cycle which is the theoretical standard across most of the literature.
Pre-Ovulation or The Follicular Phase
During the first few days of the follicular phase where bleeding occurs as a result of the shedding of the uterine lining, your estrogen and progesterone levels are low. This results in reduced energy levels commonly termed as period fatigue, and your body needs a lot of rest and slowing down. While it may be tempting to fight that fatigue and do things that consume a lot of energy, the best thing to do is get some rest. Hydrate well, eat foods that are rich in iron and magnesium, fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, tuna), eggs, dark chocolate, and vitamin C-rich foods to aid the absorption of iron, and make sure to get enough sleep. Incorporate gentle, low-intensity workouts like yoga, long walks, light lifting, and stretching workouts. Slow down as much as possible and give your body the time to rejuvenate and recover.
As your period nears its end, your pituitary gland secretes Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) that signals your ovaries to prepare for ovulation. Your ovaries then develop follicles, and a mature ovum or egg develops out of the largest follicle, typically between the 10th and the 14th day of the cycle. Your estrogen and progesterone levels are on the rise as well, leading to increased energy levels and your overall mood. This makes it a great time to get yourself into the productivity zone – engage yourself in high-energy tasks at work, kickstart those complex projects that involve a lot of mental activity, spend time around more people, and get some high-intensity workouts – think of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training. Consume clean, healthy carbs and fats and enough protein to meet your high energy requirements during this phase of your menstrual cycle. Continue to include foods rich in vitamin C and iron to replenish the iron levels in your blood. Some foods that are rich in vitamin C that you can include are berries, guavas, amla, oranges, limes, lemons, and bell peppers Some of the best sources of iron to include are grass-fed red meat, and beef liver.
Ovulation occurs halfway through your cycle – typically around day 14 of a 28-day cycle. Ovulation is when a mature egg is released from one of the ovaries for fertilization. Timing your intercourse with ovulation can lead to successful conception. As your body nears ovulation, there is a surge in the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) that signals the release of the egg. In addition, your estrogen, progesterone, and FSH levels tend to peak as well, so you may observe a lot of changes such as increased libido, changes in your basal body temperature, clear cervical mucus discharge, heightened senses, and breast soreness. Note that you may not experience or observe all the symptoms in your body as they tend to vary from woman to woman.
This increase in hormones gives you a great boost of energy so it is a good time to engage in high-intensity workouts, and any activity in general that consumes a lot of energy – get working on those complex projects, spend more time with people at work or socially, and travel around. You will also enjoy a good appetite, so make sure you eat enough to meet your energy requirements and include foods that are rich in healthy fats, vitamin B6, folic acid, and choline to support your ovulation. Think berries, eggs, wild-caught fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, etc.), walnuts that are soaked overnight, etc.
Post-Ovulation or The Luteal Phase
The Luteal phase is the last phase of the menstrual cycle right after ovulation. During this phase, the follicle that released the egg changes its structure to become what’s known as the corpus luteum. The key function of the corpus luteum is to produce hormones – progesterone especially and some estrogen, for conception to occur and for pregnancy to last. The rise in progesterone leads to the thickening of the uterine lining preparing your uterus for a fertilized egg to implant. If you do get pregnant, then the corpus luteum produces human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) that helps maintain the corpus luteum and keeps the uterine lining thick. If you do not get pregnant, the corpus luteum will shrink away, and there will be a drop in the levels of progesterone, and estrogen which will lead to the onset of your period. You would also observe various symptoms as part of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) such as weight gain (which is absolutely natural and normal), bloating, specific food cravings, irritability, fatigue, and mood swings. During this time your body also produces something called prostaglandins, which causes the uterine walls to contract resulting in cramps. The drop in estrogen and progesterone leads the blood vessels to constrict and the endometrial lining to break down leading to menstruation. During this phase, your energy levels are comparatively lesser than that of the rest of your cycle. Engage in workouts that are moderate-low-intensity in nature. Give yourself some rest when fatigue sets in. Focus on tasks that are more monotonous and mundane and do not involve a lot of mental energy expense. Add an extra dose of protein and healthy fats to your plate to keep your serotonin flowing in.
Your Body Is Unique
Keep in mind that this article is based on a healthy 28-day cycle and you may not experience everything detailed in here the same way. Your body is unique, and so is your menstrual cycle. Some women have slightly longer cycles, and some may experience fewer days of bleeding. Understanding your body, and understanding your own cycle is important so you can do things in accordance with your cycle. There are multiple apps and offline journals available that you can use to better understand your own cycle and use that information to optimize your overall life. If you notice any abnormalities, however – such as a missed period, prolonged bleeding, or irregular cycle lengths, make sure you speak to your practitioner.