Ladies, do you know what exactly is going on in your bodies in a given month?
GUYS, don’t quit reading. This is just as important for you as it is for the women to read this entire article. In your lifetime, you will come in contact with a female...be it your significant other, sister, daughter, mom, or simply just a friend. Telling her she’s crazy is simply just ignorant and rude...and will make matters worse. Actually develop an understanding as to what is going on so you can instead be a resource for her...not a nuisance deserving a quick punch in the throat.
Now back to the women...
Have you ever wondered why you feel a certain way? Maybe you’ve felt energized and motivated right after your period or groggy and tired in the days leading up to your period?
If you’ve had somewhat of a similar experience as me, you’ve likely just chalked it up to “being crazy,” or maybe you have actually been told that by someone (your doctor, friend, significant other, family member). In fact, I don’t know the number of times I was just quiet one day (or maybe God forbid in a bad mood) and some ignorant guy goes “oh must be THAT time of the month again.”
Well let me be the first to tell you that you’re not crazy.
In fact, you’re pretty much normal...there is actually a reason for what you’re feeling and when you’re feeling it. Now, there are some outliers and some emotions/feelings that are out of the norm...but from my research and experience working with hundreds of women, this is pretty much spot on for most women out there.
This article is going to teach you
What is going on at a physiological level
Why you’re experiencing it
When in your cycle you’re likely to feel certain ways
How to support your body – both nutrition AND training
So, what is exactly happening in your body during the month?
The average female cycle is roughly 28 days. There will obviously be some variation (1) between months and (2) between individuals. We typically see a range between 26-36 days.
The first day of your cycle is the first day of your period. This happens when both estrogen and progesterone (our two big key players) drop. This triggers the lining of your uterus, the endometrium, to shed. The average period lasts about 5 days.
After your period, your body starts preparing for ovulation. This is known as the “Follicular Phase”. The drop in both estrogen and progesterone during your period stimulates the pituitary gland (in your brain) to release Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH). As the name suggests, this begins the growth of follicles in your ovaries to get an egg ready for ovulation. During this time, estrogen begins to rise, starting around Day 8, until you reach ovulation. Estrogen does a number of things. It increases “fullness” in certain areas (curves are more pronounced, lips are fuller, etc.). It also stimulates the thickening and lining of the uterine wall and promotes ovulation. Around days 9-10, we also (although not depicted on the graph) see a slight increase in testosterone (this is important for the next section!).
Once estrogen spikes to its highest level around Days 12-14, another hormone joins the party. This time, it’s the Luteinizing Hormone (LH). LH here marks the official beginning of your ovulatory phase and stimulates the release of the egg from the follicles developed in the Follicular Phase. Once released, the egg travels down the fallopian tube and either implants in the endometrium if fertilized or slowly dissolves and passes out of the body with the uterine lining (start of your next period and cycle). After ovulation, we see a massive drop in estrogen, beginning the Luteal Phase.
Now a couple of things happen when the follicles release the egg and we begin the Luteal Phase. The now empty follicle is called the corpus luteum. (Fun fact: this “ruptured follicle” is actually a ruptured cyst which is completely normal. If cyst remains, it causes a ton of pain and can be a sign of PCOS.) The corpus luteum triggers the release of progesterone, and eventually estrogen again. Progesterone is the dominant hormone from days 15-28, or until you begin your next period, and peaks around day 21.
If the egg isn’t fertilized, then both progesterone and estrogen drop...beginning your next cycle. Then it’s rinse and repeat. Now if you do become pregnant, those hormones remain elevated.
I know I threw a lot of science at you. Now we’re going to get into the fun part...where I get to explain what you’re feeling at certain time points during your cycle.
During the follicular phase—to remind you, this is when estrogen is high—you are likely to feel very confident and energized. Most women will actually report feeling their best selves the two weeks immediately following their periods...and this is all due to our friend, estrogen. Women will also report feeling the most attractive. Remember I mentioned curves are more pronounced and lips are fuller? Your skin is often most clear and has a “glow” during this time. Why? Because everything is leading up to ovulation...when your body hypothetically speaking should be becoming pregnant. I also mentioned earlier that we see a quick bump in testosterone roughly 4-5 days before ovulation. This is actually to increase your libido, or sex drive, to encourage ya know, getting pregnant.
Some of these feelings brought about by both estrogen and testosterone are why, most often, you’re feeling your best and most confident self... I mean it makes sense, from a biological standpoint and even evolutionarily. The point of the female cycle is to become pregnant. Regardless of where you are at in your life, your body is preparing to have a baby every single month. The female body has evolved biologically to encourage this process...by producing hormones and creating an environment that encourages getting pregnant. It wouldn’t make sense to produce the hormones that make you feel lethargic and bloated during the time critical period you need to be in the mood. Contrary to popular belief and opinion, you actually can really only get pregnant 4-5 days before ovulation and 2-3 days after ovulation (which comes to a vary narrow 5-6 day window of getting pregnant), so the time really is valuable and your body is going to create the perfect environment to encourage it.
Now after ovulation, in the two weeks leading up to your period, you’re in the luteal phase. Here, estrogen has dropped considerably, and progesterone has taken over. It’s during this phase that women get the poor rep of “being crazy” or “moody”. Progesterone is kind of like our bodies’ natural Valium. It makes you feel calm and “chilled out”. It may cause you to feel more introspective, which is why you often want to stay in for a movie night rather than go out for a night on the town in the later half of your cycle. This is when you mistakenly get blamed for “being emotional”. It’s actually just progesterone...telling you or just encouraging you to slow down...because for all it knows, you could be pregnant and will have 9-10 months of stress literally creating life and growing a human inside of you. Progesterone is actually trying to give you 2 weeks of calm and peace before life gets crazy...unfortunately, very few of us realize this, and instead fight this feeling (making us miserable), which makes us get blamed for being emotional or moody or crazy.
Support Your Body
From my personal experience (and from the experience of many women I have worked with), even just the realization that what you’re feeling is completely normal and you’re not in fact “crazy”, “bitchy”, “unreasonable”, “moody”, etc. is enough to feel 100x better.
Now how to go about supporting your body during the month...there are a number of things you can try.
#1 Support Your Natural Hormone Cycle
Work with your hormones. I recommend downloading a tracking app (Kindara is my favorite) and learning about your cycle. You can even go one step further and track other parts of your cycle, such as cervical fluid (when you’re about to ovulate) and/or basal body temperature (you will see a 0.5-1°F spike during ovulation). This will tell you when you’ve ovulated and will let you see your individual cycle and when you reach and pass certain phases. I find that this is very empowering for many women and ends up taking back a lot of the control you feel like you don’t have.
For your actual cycle, use your hormones and how you’re feeling at certain phases to plan ahead.
Plan new and exciting events/tasks/jobs for the earlier half of your cycle, when you’re more energized. In case you forgot, this is when estrogen is high. You’re going to be motivated and energized...so you might as well plan fun, social things to do when you’re feeling up for it.
Use the later half of your cycle to plan more restorative things. Treat it more like maintenance. No, you can’t use this as an excuse to take days off from work (I don’t think your boss will appreciate it). Instead, do the tasks you need to do, but maybe don’t go overboard. Use this time for movie nights, getting massages, spending nights in, etc.
Now, this doesn’t mean you’re stuck to a schedule of when you can go out. If you’re 5 days before your period, when progesterone is at an all time high, and your friends are last minute going out to a concert or to a bar...you don’t need to bail because your hormones aren’t at the right level. Just use this information to understand why maybe when your friends text you about this fun party, your initial thought was “ugh I just want a night at home” if you’re post-ovulation or “helllllll yeah count me in” if you’re pre-ovulation.
#2 Stress Management
This one is huge. You need to manage stress, as with everything. Cortisol, the stress hormone, tends to wreak havoc on your cycle and hormones. High cortisol can lead to a drop in progesterone (called the progesterone steal) because progesterone is actually taken from your cycle and used to make more cortisol. This could cause a subsequent rise in estrogen, leading to estrogen dominance.
When we see a lack of balance in hormones, we see a lot of the miserable parts of being a female arise. It worsens PMS symptoms, cramps, bloating, acne, etc. This, in turn, just makes stress even higher...causing a really miserable cycle (great pun, definitely intended).
Now I’m not going to say stress will fix all of your problems BUT it is what every professional encourages (on top of treatment and other solutions). Not sure how, check out a recent Guide to Stress I wrote.
#3 Nutrition Considerations
Food quality is always going to be important. Make sure 80-90% of your diet is coming from whole foods. We’re talking cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, cold-water fish, grass-fed beef, berries, nuts and seeds.
Gut health and liver health is also crucial because this is part of the detox system naturally occurring in your body.
Choose foods that are going to support your gut and liver: cauliflower, artichokes, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, pineapple, ginger, garlic, grapefruit, kale, onions, turmeric.
#4 Adjust Your Training
By now, I’m sure this is going to seem a bit more intuitive, but I’ll still discuss it!
Plan heavier, harder workouts for the earlier half of your cycle. During this time, HIIT and heavy lifting is encouraged. If you’re an experienced lifter, try and use this time to hit PRs. This is when you’re going to feel most confident and capable in pushing the limits.
As you get closer and closer to your period starting, you likely won’t feel as awesome. I know the day I start my period, my lifts drop at least 10lbs. Rather than being pissed about it, I just accept it and don’t plan on serious heavy lifting. During this period, plan workouts with a bit more intention and flow. Take the weights down and bring the reps up. Instead of going everything “for time”, do it “for quality”. Pick a time frame and just focus on moving well the entire time. Blood is flowing and you’re feeling good and still getting a workout.
The key here is to listen to your body. If you’re feeling really good, then plan a harder workout. If you’re not, then slow things down and introduce a bit more intention and flow to your workout. Sometimes, halfway through your luteal phase, you get an estrogen surge. During this time, you will have a new burst of energy, which is completely normal. You may have every intention of keeping things slow, but if you’re experiencing a good training day, by all means take advantage!!
#5 Macro Changes
Cravings are pretty common during your cycle and most often, it’s not cravings for fruits, veggies, and grass-fed beef. It’s sugar and carbs, most of the time. Unfortunately, the solution of “just ignore those cravings” doesn’t always work...so there’s a bit you can do to make those cravings fit in your life.
This is where the 80/20 Lifestyle comes into play. If you know you have a ton of cravings in the days leading up to your period, keep the days where cravings aren’t there as your days to be 100% on point with your diet, limiting sugar and processed food consumption. Don’t restrict, though. Don’t make those days absolutely miserable because that will make cravings even worse. Allow a few treats here and there in the first half of your cycle, but if you do have a lot of cravings, save a bit more for when those cravings exist.
You can also adjust your macros or calories slightly, to keep yourself on track. Now we do see a slight increase in expenditure leading up to the start of your period. It’s not usually significant enough to make changes to overall calories, but you can generally go a little lower calorie during the follicular phase and increase calories slightly during the luteal phase. This usually isn’t my favorite approach because typically you’re training harder during the first half of your cycle, so we want you properly fueled up.
Instead, I’d play with macros slightly. I would increase carbs slightly during the second half of your cycle and drop either protein or fats or a little of both. This could look like a 5-10% increase in carbs and a subsequent 5-10% decrease in protein or 3-5% decrease in fats. This keeps calories the same and meets your daily expenditure, but it makes factoring in those cravings a bit more feasible.
It’s important to note that your hormones may not be working exactly like this and may in fact be all over the place. There are a number of ways your hormones can be out of whack: stress, birth control, poor eating habits, etc. For example, too high of estrogen leads to heavy, painful periods. Too low of progesterone does make you moody and may make you want to either (1) run into the woods to never be seen again or (2) murder someone. I recommend checking out any or all of the resources listed at the bottom of this article.
This concludes everything I know (most of it at least) about training and nutrition around your cycle. I really hope you learned something from this and can take some of this to your own life. For the fellas out there still reading, THANK YOU. Now just go out there and support the badass women in your life...who do this and go through this every single month. You may be surprised that supporting them rather than shaming or embarrassing them will actually make them feel better...and reduce that “craziness” you’re experiencing.
NOW, please note that I am NOT a doctor. This is from extensive research from doctors (MDs, PhDs, and naturopathic doctors). This is also from YEARS of practice, experimentation, and observation with myself as a subject and also working with many women on supporting their bodies natural processes. This article is simply for your education and knowledge, not a diagnostic article, or anything of the sort. If you DO have questions or even concerns, consult your primary care physician, or OBGYN.
Where can you learn more? Below are some of the resources I have used and frequently reference. All are great resources on how to work with YOUR body.
Dr. Jolene Brighten Beyond the Pill
Lara Briden The Period Repair Manual
Sarah Gotten The Hormone Cure
Nicole Jardim “Fix Your Period”
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.