Our period health is important on so many levels, not just because regular periods means everything is working as it should, but also because it gives us a snapshot of the overall health of our body. That doesn’t mean it isn’t annoying to have cramps during work meetings, to feel irrationally irritable with just about everyone or for your skin to breakout in teenage acne once a month.
Getting to know our cycles and the patterns of our symptoms can help improve how we feel; it’s worth remembering that our cycle is so much more than bleeding each month and there are plenty of cyclical changes happening inside our bodies during the 28 days. The good news is, we can give our cycles a helping hand by eating the right foods to compliment the delicate rise and fall of our hormones.
Back to period basics
Just in case you weren’t paying attention in school, here’s a little science recap for you:
- Your menstrual cycle lasts roughly 28 days, but it’s also completely normal for it to be as short as 21 days or as long as 40.
- The four main hormones involved in the smooth running of your cycle are progesterone, oestrogen, FSH (Follicle stimulating hormone) and LH (Luteinising hormone).
- Ovulation happens around 14 days before your period starts and you’re most fertile around days 12, 13 and 14 of an average cycle.
- There are actually two cycles at work during the month which overlap each other. The first is in the ovaries where an egg is prepared, and the lining of the uterus is built up – just in case an egg is fertilised. The second cycle gets the uterus and your body ready (just in case) and sheds the lining of the uterus if pregnancy doesn’t occur.
Your Period diary
Each woman is different, and all cycles vary, so getting to know your cycle and how you feel each month can help you plot the best foods to eat.
Using a good old calendar to mark your period arriving is useful, but using a period tracker app to plot your periods can tell you where you are in your cycle, as well as noting whether you were cranky, bloated, suffered from cramps or headaches for example. That way it’s really easy to see if a pattern emerges in how you feel.
Try apps like Clue, Flo, Cycles or Clover (but there are so many, so read the reviews to see which one works for you). If period apps are not your thing, devise a way to record your mood and note things like tender breasts or sleeplessness in a diary.
Days 1 – 7 of your period cycle
Day 1 begins on the first day of your period. Because fertilisation hasn’t happened, your womb sheds it’s lining, and oestrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest. This can make you feel super-low in energy as well as cranky and irritable. Your period is usually heavier at the start, which doesn’t help with your general mood. Added to feeling tired, this is the week most women report sleeping badly, due to metabolic changes on overdrive.
What to eat this period cycle week
For heavy periods – you’ll need to increase your iron intake, especially in days 1-3, when you typically lose the most blood. Try eating lean red meat, chicken, lentils and eggs. Tofu contains heaps of iron as well as apricots, prunes and figs. Oysters and mussels are loaded with iron (as well as zinc and B12 – more about those later), so if you’re out for dinner scan the menu for seafood.
Combat the cravings
Those intense cravings for sugary doughnuts or a chocolate binge just won’t go away this week and this is down to low progesterone levels which might leave you feeling low and more likely to reach for a sugar hit.
Start each morning with the right kind of breakfast – avoid cereals (usually high in sugar) and swap jam on toast for peanut butter. Try eating eggs instead (poached eggs on wholegrain bread are quick to make) and keep a bag of almonds in your bag when you feel peckish. And if you really need a sweet treat – try dark chocolate covered almonds – both boost your energy and can help with period cramps.
Best For lack of sleep
Instead of reaching for a second espresso, try eating a banana instead. Bananas are rich in potassium – great for your heart, blood pressure and fluid balance (good for relieving bloating), but also vitamin B6 and pack a great energy punch too. Studies show they can help reduce PMS symptoms and importantly for sleep, they contain melatonin which helps regulate your body’s natural sleep rhythms and magnesium, which works as a muscle relaxant for a restful night’s sleep.
Strange Period Fact:
Women become clumsier when they have their periods. This is thought to be down to a fluctuation in oestrogen levels immediately before your bleed, affecting your coordination. You also retain more fluid in your body, knocking your centre of balance slightly.
Days 8 – 14 of your period cycle
This stage is called the Follicular Phase – where your body prepares for ovulation and oestrogen levels start to rise. Your period will probably have stopped, and this is the week you’ll be feeling your best in terms of energy levels. You’ve shaken off the crankiness too, (you may notice everyone has stopped tiptoeing around you). The change is all to do with oestrogen levels, which are at their highest around day 12 and help with your decision-making, boost your competitive streak and your libido.
What to eat this period cycle week
Lots of women report rising oestrogen levels make them feel optimistic and more motivated to try different things, so this is the week to experiment with new foods, start a detox or cut something out of your diet (oestrogen increases willpower!)
You’re less likely to crave sugary snacks or carbs, so choose foods that are full of antioxidants like berries, pomegranate and broccoli. You may feel like eating unusual tasting foods, so up your game when it comes to kefir, natural yoghurts and raw vegetables – all of which help with your digestive health.
Because oestrogen levels make your feel assertive and full of energy, this is the week to focus on your exercise – try starting that online yoga challenge, going for a longer run than usual or add five lengths to your normal swim.
Strange Period Fact
Your voice actually changes during your cycle and gets deeper as oestrogen levels drop
Day 14 – ovulation
For those of you planning to get pregnant – days 12 – 14 are when you’re most fertile. Eat foods high in B Vitamins, which aid your ovaries in releasing an egg. There are actually eight B vitamins essential to keeping us healthy (you’ve probably heard of B6 and B12), so try salmon, beef, spinach, sunflower seeds, eggs and legumes like edamame and lentils, which contain plenty of B vitamins.
For those not planning a pregnancy, B vitamins keep your nervous system healthy – B6 helps to regulate your emotions and can reduce symptoms of depression. B12 helps with red blood cell production, anaemia prevention and supports your bone health. Try eating oatmeal for breakfast and swap white rice for brown to up your B12 intake or eat protein-rich foods like turkey and beans for a B6 hit.
Day 14 – 21 of your period cycle
Luteal Phase – this is the phase between ovulation and your next period starting and is characterised by the hormone progesterone, which prepares your uterus to accept the egg if fertilisation happens. Some women may experience breast tenderness and spots this week, (typically on their face, around their jawline or on their backs) which is usually down to having a slight hormonal imbalance with too much oestrogen dominating your system.
What to eat this period cycle week
The liver plays a role in our menstrual health, by breaking down and removing excess hormones from our bodies – oestrogen being one of them. Give your liver a helping hand by cutting down alcohol this week. Alcohol impairs how your liver functions even after two drinks, which in turn effects the metabolism of oestrogen.
Foods that naturally lower oestrogen levels are turmeric, red grapes, mushrooms and pomegranates. If your breasts feel particularly tender, try switching your builders’ tea for green tea and add more kale and broccoli to your meals.
Strange period fact
Women apparently have better coordination during the Luteal phase so if you’re planning a long bike ride or taking a driving test, this is the week to schedule it in.
Day 22 – 28 of your period cycle
Progesterone levels are starting to rise now, and as your energy seeps away you’ll start feeling that, ‘can’t be bothered’ lethargic feeling as your period week approaches. As your energy starts to ebb, you’ll start craving sweet, salty or carb-heavy foods for that short-lived burst of energy; these will be followed by an increased energy-slump, sugar-crash or the tendency to reach for more unhealthy snacks.
Opt for fibre-rich foods like almonds, pears and apples – easy to keep in your desk at work or in your bag for when you’re feeling drained. Eating little and often will maintain your energy levels and may help with the feeling of being constantly bloated.
What to eat this period cycle week
It’s not just fatigue that’s on the up this week, but all the common PMS symptoms (tender breasts, cravings, bloating and stomach cramps) will intensify.
Magnesium-rich foods like almonds (again! They’re your period-super-snack), cashew nuts, spinach and avocado can all help with stomach cramps, as well as sprinkling flax, pumpkin or chia seeds on your morning oatmeal. The good news is that dark chocolate is not only high in magnesium but also high in antioxidants and aids heart and brain health – but remember, the darker the better; sadly, white and milk chocolate don’t count. Stock up on dark chocolate with the highest cocoa percentage for maximum benefits.
To combat feeling bloated
The flipping of oestrogen and progesterone levels can cause your body to retain more water and salt resulting in that horrible full-up bloated feeling. Don’t overload your cooking with salt, as sodium increases water retention and avoid processed foods which are typically high in salt.
Don’t avoid drinking water because you think it’ll increase that bloated feeling – it actually helps with healthy bowel function and if you don’t drink enough, your body holds on to what it does have, causing more bloating. Exercise is also important in getting everything moving and avoid gassy foods like broccoli, cauliflower and cow’s milk.
Low serotonin levels are responsible for making us feel blue this week, so choose foods high in tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin in your body and helps you feel brighter and less depressed. Try pumpkin and sunflower seeds and pistachios, almonds, cashews and hazelnuts sprinkled on cereals and in sauces.
Adding oily fish like mackerel or salmon to your online shop, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, can help with mood imbalances and research shows they help reduce tummy cramps.
Oestrogen levels dropping just before your period arrives, can often result in headaches and migraines this week. Again magnesium-rich foods can give you relief from menstrual migraines. Try avocado on toast for breakfast, cut out the caffeine or talk to your GP about magnesium supplements to see if that helps.
There are many ways that zinc helps our bodies, (fighting inflammation, great for immunity and fertility) and it supports our reproductive system. There is some evidence to show that zinc can help if you suffer from painful stomach cramps, and even with acne.
Cheese, meat and shellfish are rich in zinc, as well as nuts and seeds, wholemeal bread and chickpeas, so when you feel that dull achy cramp returning reach for hummus on toast!
Strange Period Fact
You may notice more shortness of breath or wheeziness this week, as researchers found that in the approach to their periods starting, women run out of breath faster!
Your Monthly Shopping List
As we’ve seen your diet can impact how you feel at each stage of your period cycle and since the cycle repeats itself again, here’s a handy shopping list to refer to each month:
Your period week:
Lean red meat, chicken, lentils, eggs, tofu, apricots, prunes, figs, oysters and mussels, almonds, dark chocolate, bananas
Days 8 – 14
Natural yoghurt, veg, berries, pomegranate, broccoli, spinach, sunflower seeds, edamame., lentils, brown rice, turkey
Days 14 – 21
Turmeric, red grapes, mushrooms, pomegranate, green tea, kale, broccoli,
Days 22 – 28
Almonds, pears, apples, flax and chia seeds, oatmeal, dark chocolate, mackerel, salmon, nuts and seeds, avocado, hummus.