The female menstrual cycle is a beautiful & fairly astonishing dance of hormones, which when functioning optimally can work wonders for your energy, mood & overall well being. The cycle is, as the name implies, an ongoing process throughout the month, culminating in the shedding of the uterine lining which is menstruation. Or a period in more colloquial terms.
Tuning into where you are in your cycle is vital if you want to improve your energy, mood, weight, any premenstrual symptoms & overall health.
When we talk about hormones during the menstrual cycle, we tend to focus on oestrogen, progesterone & to a lesser extent testosterone, as these are the hormones primarily responsible for preparing the body for pregnancy & if an egg is not fertilised, menstruation. A hormone that gets less attention in this context is insulin. This hormone is responsible for regulating the amount of glucose in your blood by shuttling it into your cells so it can be used for energy, or into storage if you have more available than you need at that moment.
THE PHASES OF THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE
Having a look at how your body reacts to food at each phase of your cycle gives us a good idea of how insulin is working throughout the month.
The first half of your cycle includes menstruation & the follicular phase. In this time, oestrogen rises & then peaks just before ovulation. This is when your body is the most sensitive to insulin meaning that the week or so after you stop bleeding, you may find your energy is higher than other times in the month, with less dips throughout the day.
After ovulation, oestrogen drops and progesterone begins to rise which has been associated with insulin resistance. Glucose may be struggling to get into your cells which is not great news as we know higher levels of glucose hanging out in the bloodstream causes dips in energy levels, as well as contributing to irregular periods, reduced fertility, acne, low libido, weight gain & other chronic health conditions.
Stress can have a huge impact on your blood sugar & insulin levels, & is something that is also perturbed by the menstrual cycle. In the second half of the cycle, you naturally release more of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone can deplete your body’s resources & interfere with insulin levels, in the presence of cortisol you actually need to make 3 times the amount of insulin to control your blood sugar compared to when it isn’t also circulating. Disrupted insulin contributes to energy fluctuations, & will also disrupt your hunger/satiety hormones leading to food cravings and less healthful food choices.
In the run up to menstruation, AKA your follicular phase, a fall in oestrogen levels can cause a drop in serotonin. This is our ‘happy hormone’ & a decrease can lead to cravings for simple carbohydrates & sugary foods. These foods may give you a quick boost, but in the long term can exacerbate feelings of low mood and anxiety.
SO HOW CAN FOOD & LIFESTYLE HELP?
SLEEP – ensuring a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do to support your blood sugar. Whether it’s limiting your blue light exposure & use of electronics in the evening, or supplementing your diet with CBD oil or adaptogens, a good bedtime routine needs to be a priority. We love the Ocushield blue light blockers for our phones, computers and tablets, or Barner Brand/Swanwick Sleep blue light glasses, mimicking sunrise & sunset with a Lumie light alarm clock, and&just jumping into bed with a good book. For CBD our picks would be the HYTN range or the Hemp Touch products (use Phoebe15 for 15% off), and Motion Nutrition Unplug & Hormone Balance (Phoebe10 for discount on these two) are lovely sleep supporting supplement blends.
EXERCISE – knowing which exercise works for you is essential, & I would say for most menstruating women with blood sugar issues, low impact & resistance training are the best choices. You also want to honour your varying energy levels – when oestrogen is high you might fancy more uptempo dance style workouts, or some weight training, but during menstruation & the luteal phase yoga & Pilates would be more appropriate.
BE CARB CONSCIOUS – in the lead up to menstruation, you might find a lower carbohydrate & higher protein diet works best. Getting your carbohydrate from plant proteins works well (lentils, chickpeas, beans) & upping your organic grass-fed meat (we order online from Pipers Farm – Phoebe10 for your discount on these guys), wild fish & non-GMO organic tofu and tempeh will keep your blood sugar levels nicely balanced. Being hungrier whilst on your period & just after is entirely normal too, your body needs more energy here so adding in a good protein rich snack such as organic yoghurt + berries & some walnuts, or crackers with hummus would be a good idea. This will avoid a situation of fancying lots of sweet things after dinner which can often happen otherwise.
SUGAR – choosing raw/unroasted cacao chocolate (80% or more – we like Ombar, Raw Halo and The Raw Chocolate Company as well as Aduna raw cacao powder + raw cacao nibs) & turning to fruit for a little sweetness are going to be the best options in terms of simple sugars. A berry chia jam is a lovely way to up your insoluble fibre for hormone balancing + adding extra omega 3 & protein into your diet too.
OMEGA3 – this is essential for ensuring your cells are as receptive as possible to insulin as it creates flexible cell membranes. Up your small, wild oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring, trout), as well as flaxseed, hulled hemp & chia seeds. You could also consider a supplement, we recommend the Bare Biology range (they offer both fish & plant based options, use NATNOURISH for 20% off your first order).
CINNAMON – Ceylon cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar so sprinkle it into yogurt, blitz into smoothies or add to a hot drink. Be aware that specificity is key here – most cheaper, non-organic cinnamon will be cassia bark not Ceylon and this does not have the same therapeutic effects.
Written by Florence de Walden
Associate Nutritional Therapist