I had a reader request for advice on eating for your menstrual cycle and trusting your body.
It’s a great topic because few of us were given a compassionate education about the facts:
- We have to gain weight growing up to start, and maintain a period
- Yes, weight fluctuations during your menstrual cycle are normal
- Yes, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable (to a point!)
Understanding what’s happening in our bodies can help us turn towards and embrace our cycles and feel confident eating supportively. And move away from hating and being fearful of ‘that time of the month’.
This is why it is important to slow down and listen to your body for what it needs. This can help to reduce or not experience as many symptoms, and to know and trust yourself if something doesn’t feel right.
Weight gain is needed for a regular cycle
Without going into specific numbers, it’s important to know that we all need to gain weight and have a certain percentage of body fat during puberty to kick off our menstrual cycle, known as menarche. And we need to maintain a certain percentage of body fat in order to maintain a regular cycle.
This is just one of the reasons why putting kids on weight loss diets is harmful and misguided.
Your body is not the same from week to week
Just like every other system and function in your body, your reproductive system is never static.
Every week you’re going to have a little bit of a different hormone mix that’s going to impact your other body systems. It would be unreasonable to expect that these changes aren’t going to impact your appetite, sleep, gastrointestinal functioning, mood, etc.
So, if we can accept that our needs and our body is going to change from week to week, we can stress less about it.
What you might notice during your cycle
During your first week of your cycle (i.e. when you are bleeding), for the first couple of days, you’re going to notice you’re a little less energetic (when estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are at their lowest). You might notice your hunger isn’t quite as strong and that you’re more tired.
In the second week, you might notice your energy and mood improving because estrogen and testosterone are increasing. This will continue until ovulation.
After ovulation, you might have a downward shift in your mood because of the upward shift in progesterone. This is also what contributes to the increased need for fuel and fluid because it is an anabolic hormone. Your body has an increase in its resting metabolic rate, in other words, your engine revs up a little bit. This is all done in preparation in case you conceive.
At this point, if you are someone who knows you have extra stressors in your life, or you anticipate them at this time, you might want to consider extra rest, and extra care strategies/activities for yourself in order to support transitioning through this phase of your cycle a little more smoothly.
If you’re active this is a place in your cycle and month where you’re probably not going to feel your best when you work out or that the workouts feel more like a struggle
As the month winds down and in the days prior to your next cycle, you’ll start to notice your symptoms coming on – like headaches, cramping and water retention.
Be gentle, feed yourself the best you can use more self-care strategies (heat packs, hot water bottles etc.). And slow things down – your body will probably want to slow down anyway, but this is so you can get better in touch with your body’s signals and symptoms.
Getting comfortable with menstrual cycle ‘weight’ fluctuations
Whether you intend to or not, the body is preparing for fertilization, so a lot of the shifts in hormones and symptoms to support this also contribute to weight fluctuations.
Yes, you’re going to experience bigger hunger so that you have fluid and fuel on board just in case fertilization happens.
However, we’re quick to blame food when cravings and food obsession increase, because when we’re operating from a diet brain or diet mentality, this normal biological need is seen to be us being out of control, or you’re doing something wrong that you need to feel guilty about.
In reality, there are a number of other things that can contribute to these normal weight fluctuations.
Estrogen and progesterone are also involved in fluid regulation. So when these two hormones fluctuate during your cycle, you can accumulate more water leading to fluid retention. This is what contributes to that swelling, puffy feeling in the stomach and breasts.
The hormonal changes can also impact your gastrointestinal system increasing gas, bloating and cramping. Some people can also experience constipation. As well as feeling uncomfortable, these symptoms can draw our attention to that classic ‘problem’ area of our bodies and spark negative body image.
All of these things are typically not a cause for a permanent change in your body mass (i.e. your muscle, fat, bone etc), but can feel like they fluctuate your weight (the relationship you have with a scale) over the course of the month.
Getting comfortable with these normal ‘weight’ fluctuations can help to lessen the mental and mood burden during your cycle.
And what do you do if those pants are feeling a little tighter? Maybe just wear more comfortable clothes trusting that this fluctuation will pass.
Trying to change your body actually won’t result in long term weight change; just suffering as the body fights to reclaim a more natural weight and energy balance.
Supportive eating for your menstrual cycle
I’m going to get straight to it – if you’re not eating enough, then you’re more likely to experience symptoms that aren’t quite the ‘flowy norm’, or a cycle that is irregular or disrupted. You’re also more likely to experience a surge in hunger, rather than a gradual increase.
So, the very first thing to do is make sure you are consistently getting enough to eat with a good mix of carbohydrate, protein and fat, each and every day to support your changing body each month.
Foods to add
As you know, I don’t give out nutrition advice without knowing someone and their story personally. But I do know (via research) that there are a couple of additive steps we can do to help the body with symptoms that come around during the month.
In addition to more overall fuel, you might also experiment with foods high in tryptophan such as pumpkin seeds, cottage cheese, eggs or turkey for example, to boost your serotonin precursors to help with that ‘blahness’ that can happen premenstrually.
Fiber and water help (of course be careful with fiber depending on your gut health status) with gastrointestinal issues and constipation.
Finally, make sure your Vitamin D status is good and that your intakes of foods containing calcium, magnesium and B6 are good to help with nerve conduction, rest, headaches and cramping.
Get things checked out
If you are quite sensitive to hormones and their changes, you’re probably noticing that when your estrogen levels go down, that serotonin also goes down. This is why menstrual symptoms can be more pronounced.
It’s important to work with your primary care provider to support you. If you’re having major symptoms, they can investigate for nutrient deficiencies and hormone imbalances.
Getting in touch with your menstrual cycle
Everything I have shared above is a generalized set of experiences. Your experience of mood, appetite, and energy may be different.
If you’re listening and being curious about what’s going on in your body, you will get to know this for yourself.
Take 3 months and start paying attention to what’s happening. Get a sheet of paper and pen out. You can ask yourself:
- How did my body and cycles start out when I was young?
- What, if anything, has changed over the years?
- What happens when I’m eating enough?
- What happens when I’m stressed?
- If you notice weight fluctuations or your clothes feeling tighter, are they tight all the time or after a few days do they go back to feeling more comfortable?
As you can see, attuned eating for your menstrual cycle that is supportive, is an additive process. It’s not about what you are doing wrong, but being curious about what is missing without obsession or judgment.
If we can bring wisdom we can see that we can’t mentally override our changing needs; it just is.
And if you need help getting your nutrition without obsession on track, let me know. I’ve dropped some extra resources below.
To your peaceful eating,
1. If you prefer video, I cover most of this post in the two videos here:
2. An additional video resource here : https://youtu.be/eWOUCYSXufY
3. To chat about how to uncouple your specific food and body image concerns for freedom in your life: https://www.tracybrownrd.com/get-started/
4. Recommended reading if your period is missing – No Period Now What? By Nicola Rinaldi <got an affiliate link?>
5. Audio series to regulate nervous health and stress with Intuitive Eating: http://bit.ly/audiomeditation