Understanding Your Period


Understanding Your Period
27 December

Learn how to take better care of your body by harnessing the power of your menstrual cycle.

I wake up a few minutes before my alarm goes off, feeling more tired than usual.

I go to the kitchen to make a coffee and eat breakfast, then I turn on my laptop and start to work.

“I want a snack”, I think, just half an hour later. I try to resist my craving and pour myself another cup of coffee, but then I start munching on chocolate and cookies anyways.

Tasks are piling up and deadlines looming, but I’m not able to concentrate today. Everything seems to bother me. Why am I so sluggish? I have a sudden, uncontrollable urge to cry. “Are you OK?”, my husband asks me— “No, I am not”.

Around lunchtime, I decide to go out for a walk. Fresh air and a little exercise seem to make me feel better. Back at home, I open the Health app in my phone to see how much I walked, and that’s when I read a notification: “Your period is likely to start in the next 5 days”.

Which translates to: it’s that time of the month, stay away from me.

I have had menstrual periods every 28–30 days for the last 12 years, and every month I wonder why I feel so irritable and lethargic! I forget I am a slave to my hormones.

Our body’s chemical messengers can deeply affect a woman’s behavior and emotions. Estrogen, one of the two main sex hormones that women have, is a major player in regulating moods, sometimes with positive effects: it can increase serotonin and endorphins (the “feel-good” hormones), as well as protect nerves from damage.

Estrogen, however, is also closely linked to depression, anxiety, and mood disruptions that occur in women at puberty, after childbirth, and a few days before the period starts.

Some women may be more vulnerable to the changes in estrogen and other hormones than others, and more likely to experience severe symptoms that interfere with their personal relationships and day-to-day life.

The Menstrual Cycle

Between the first cycle or menarche, from Ancient Greek μήν (mēn) ‘month’, and ἀρχή (arkhē) ‘beginning', and menopause, a woman can have more than 400 periods in her life!

The menstrual cycle is extremely fascinating and complex. It consists of four distinct phases, each with its own physical and emotional effects:

  • Menstrual phase
  • Follicular phase
  • Ovulation phase
  • Luteal phase

The menstrual phase starts when a woman gets her period. If pregnancy doesn’t occur, the egg and the thickened lining of the uterus (endometrium) are no longer needed and are therefore expelled from the body through the vagina. During this phase, estrogen and progesterone levels decline. The average length of a period is between 3 days and a week.

The follicular phase begins on the first day of menstruation and ends with ovulation. It starts when the pituitary gland, prompted by the hypothalamus, releases follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates the ovary to produce 5 to 20 small sacs called follicles. Each follicle contains an immature egg. Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg, while the others will be reabsorbed into the body.

During this phase, estrogen levels rise, stimulating the lining of the uterus to thicken in preparation for a possible pregnancy. The average follicular phase lasts for about 16 days, and can occur around day 10 of a 28-day cycle.

Ovulation happens during the ovulation phase, and that’s when the ovary releases a mature egg. A rise in the level of estrogen triggers the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH) and FSH. The egg travels down the Fallopian tube and toward the uterus to be fertilized by sperm — ovulation is the only time during the menstrual cycle when a woman can get pregnant. The life span of an egg is around 24 hours, and unless the egg meets a sperm and is fertilized, it will dissolve.

Ovulation usually occurs in the middle of a menstrual cycle, at around day 14.

The luteal phase lasts for 11 to 17 days. After the follicle releases its egg, it transforms into the corpus luteum. This structure starts releasing progesterone and small amounts of estrogen to keep the uterine lining thick and ready for a fertilized egg to implant. If a fertilized egg implants in the lining of the uterus, the body will produce the necessary hormones to maintain the corpus luteum. Otherwise, if a pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum will be reabsorbed and the uterus lining will be shed through the process of menstruation. Then, the cycle repeats.

Cycle Syncing: Adapting Your Lifestyle to Your Cycle

Even though it’s a Monday, today I am in a great mood. I feel energetic, creative, even attractive. I have no cravings, no pimples on my forehead, no cramps. Why is that? Because my follicular phase has just started, and I know these are the good days.

Understanding my period has helped me take better care of myself, as I have learned to adjust my behaviour, nutrition and training to support my body during each phase of the menstrual cycle.

Leveraging the hormonal benefits of each stage has allowed me to adapt my lifestyle to better suit my mood and energy levels, helping me feel my best week after week.

The practice of eating, exercising and aligning with the different phases of your menstrual cycle is called cycle syncing. Research shows that female hormones affect a woman’s mood, pain tolerance, and energy level, so every woman can only benefit from a better understanding of her cycle.

Let’s see how we can better connect with our bodies and harness the power of our periods to stay healthy.

Menstrual Phase

When I was in high-school I would sometimes skip gymnastic lessons, using my period as an excuse. One day my sports teacher, not convinced by my excuses, look at me suspiciously and said: “Do you know that women athletes clock their fastest times during menstruation?”

He was actually right: during the menstrual phase, hormone levels are at the lowest and women are usually able to perform at their best.

Personally, I feel more energized and motivated towards the end of this phase, when I know that I can push myself more at the gym.

  • TRAINING: energy levels are at their lowest at the beginning of my period, so that’s when I slow down; I usually have a rest day or go for a walk. As I move through this phase, my energy returns and I feel I can ramp up my workouts. This is the time when I can gain maximum benefit from HIIT or strength training.
  • NUTRITION: during this phase, the body uses carbohydrates stores more efficiently, so your natural calorie need is lower. However, you still need to eat carbs to fuel your workouts and to ensure recovery and performance are optimal. It’s better to eat warm, satisfying foods that are rich in vitamins (C, D and B vitamins in particular), omega-3, and minerals (iron, zinc, calcium) to compensate for blood loss, manage menstrual symptoms and support the immune system. Also, it’s important to hydrate and reduce caffeine consumption.

Follicular Phase

This is the phase during my menstrual cycle when I feel best. My hormone levels begin to rise as my body prepares for ovulation, and so do my energy and brainpower; I am more creative and motivated to work. This is the perfect time to try new activities or take on challenges.

  • TRAINING: I find high-intensity workouts and strength training pay off the most during this phase. I also feel more inclined to try new things (I recently picked up windsurfing, and this is the time when I am most motivated for it). It’s extremely important to warm-up well during this phase, as there is an increased risk of injury in the days leading up to ovulation, when estrogen is high.
  • NUTRITION: in this phase you should eat energising foods that help nourish the growing follicles, such as light protein (e.g. eggs, fish), as well as more insoluble fibre (e.g. leafy greens and crucifeours vegetables) to help balance rising estrogen levels. Adding sources of collagen and vitamin C to help muscle recover is also important during the follicular phase, as collagen synthesis and neuromuscolar control can be reduced. I am generally less hungry during the days leading up to ovulation, but I always make sure I eat carbs to fuel my workouts.
  • TRAINING: I find high-intensity workouts and strength training pay off the most during this phase. I also feel more inclined to try new things (I recently picked up windsurfing, and this is the time when I am most motivated for it). It’s extremely important to warm-up well during this phase, as there is an increased risk of injury in the days leading up to ovulation, when estrogen is high.
  • NUTRITION: in this phase you should eat energising foods that help nourish the growing follicles, such as light protein (e.g. eggs, fish), as well as more insoluble fibre (e.g. leafy greens and crucifeours vegetables) to help balance rising estrogen levels. Adding sources of collagen and vitamin C to help muscle recover is also important during the follicular phase, as collagen synthesis and neuromuscolar control can be reduced. I am generally less hungry during the days leading up to ovulation, but I always make sure I eat carbs to fuel my workouts.

Ovulatory Phase

This is the time when the body prepares for ovulation, releasing an egg. Heart rate and body temperature increase. During this phase, I usually feel confident, sociable and sexy.

  • TRAINING: although all types of training are beneficial in this phase, the higher levels of progesterone mean that it may be more difficult to build muscle, so it’s better to focus on aerobic and endurance training. The increase in body temperature may impact hydration requirements, so make sure you drink plenty of water, particularly if you’re exercising in warmer weather.
  • NUTRITION: estrogen is high in this phase, so it’s recommended to consume foods rich in glutathione, an antioxidant that can help the body to detox (e.g. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage). Load up on anti-inflammatory foods to prepare for phase 4: eat foods rich in vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 and B-vitamins. Muscle breakdown could increase during this phase, so make sure you consume a source of protein before and soon after a workout.

Luteal Phase

This is usually the most difficult (and longest) phase: both progesterone and estrogen levels are high, and when progesterone stops being produced, your period starts. The decline in hormones leads to an inflammatory response which is thought to trigger the pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). This is the time when I’m moody, bloated, and easily irritated. I am also more self-conscious than usual. A lot is going on in a woman’s body, so it’s perfectly normal to feel increased fatigue and stress, as well as to have mood swings or cravings.

  • TRAINING: maybe you don’t feel like working out, and that’s fine! The goal of this phase should be to continue to exercise in whichever way you can, as exercise can be beneficial and reduce the symptomps of PMS. When your energy starts to decrease (usually towards the end of this phase), focus on light aerobic activity such as yoga, pilates, or walking. Work on your flexibility and technique. First and foremost, listen to your body: only you know how you feel. Sleep may be disrupted more than usual during this time, so it’s more important than ever to pay attention to your sleep-routine to support recovery and prevent injuries.
  • NUTRITION: manage your cravings by eating a few more good calories — less simple sugars and more healthy fats, fibre, complex carbs and protein to fuel the increased caloric demand. Eat foods that aid serotonin and are rich in magnesium (e.g. dark chocolate) to stabilise your mood: seeds, eggs, cottage cheese. Continue with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods to reduce PMS symptomps. Avoid caffeine and promote sleep with melatonin-rich foods such as cherries, bananas, oats, walnuts.

Women are different, and experience menstrual cycles differently. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the hormonal cycle, and these recommendations may not apply to every woman, especially those on birth control.

However, there are a few practical tips every woman can use to better connect with their bodies and harness the power of their menstrual cycle:

  1. Use an app or a journal to keep track of your cycle. Day by day, note down how you feel: mood, sleep, body confidence, energy, skin, hunger, etc. This will help you understand your cycle and recognize patterns.
  2. As your metabolism is changing throughtout your cycle, track how certain foods make you feel in each phase. Also, refrain from using social media for a few days during the luteal phase, when you feel more bloated and body conscious.
  3. Working with your cycle is a kind way to look after your body, but you can’t control your hormones, so take it easy and be gentle with yourself.

Embracing your cycle will help you feel more connected to your body than ever, and to take better care of it. Instead of hating your period, try to work with it: paying attention to your cycle will help you understand what’s most beneficial for you during each phase.

Accepting that you are ‘cyclical’ by nature will change the way you look at yourself, and using the knowledge of your cycle will greatly benefit your health.

Thanks to Giulia Penni