Have you ever wondered why some days your training feels like a breeze yet the next week you can’t seem to pick up a bag of groceries without feeling exhausted? A deeper look into the menstrual cycle can provide some insight as to why this happens, when the best time to start a diet might be, and can help you work with your body to get the most out of your training. Over the days and weeks during the menstrual cycle, 3 key hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) fluctuate, which impact mood, behaviour, and overall health. If you are an athlete or are looking to optimize your training, we recommend tracking your menstrual cycle and becoming familiar with these different phases.
The menstrual cycle is composed of four weeks, creating a 28 day pattern. There are many factors that can impact the length and regularity of any one woman’s cycle, but on average, hormones rise and fall in a predictable pattern. Learning about the effects of these fluctuating hormones can make enough of a difference in taking your performance from good to great.
The cycle starts with the first day of menstruation, and continues through to day 7. This marks the beginning of the follicular phase, which carries through until ovulation. At the beginning of the cycle, estrogen is at its lowest point, but we see it rise steadily throughout the week. For the first day or two, some women may experience fatigue, fogginess or a depressed mood due to a loss of iron through menstrual bleeding. If you experience symptoms of period-related aches, iron supplementation often helps, and can help reduce these side effects.
Within a couple days, the increased level of estrogen can be thanked for a rise in not only mood, but also energy . Estrogen has been shown to have positive effects on strength and muscle mass. As estrogen continues to rise, women who are performance driven should take note that this is the opportune time to push intensity and power. Studies have proven that estrogen also acts as a natural appetite suppressant, and some women report higher feelings of confidence and competency. Naturally, this would be the ideal time to start a fat loss phase, as dietary adherence is easier, giving women an opportunity to gain momentum before estrogen takes a dip again.
The second phase is characterized by the continued rise and peak of both estrogen and testosterone. This takes us to the end of the follicular phase, which ends in ovulation. It is right before ovulation that women will experience a spike in testosterone, which explains an increase in libido as the body prepares to release an egg. The rise of testosterone coupled with the peak of estrogen can cause women to act more bold, aggressive, or impulsive. Some women also report feeling more anxious or on edge during this time; activities such as yoga or light aerobic exercise can help reduce some of these symptoms. When it comes to resistance training, this is the phase where there is the most potential for gains. Estrogen has been shown to increase the anabolic response to exercise, which may result in increased muscle mass over time. If possible, set up your training in a way that allows you to push your hardest during this phase, allowing you to deload when your body is naturally asking for rest later in the cycle.
The third phase begins after ovulation and lasts for 8 days. During this week we see a rise in progesterone, as well as a drop in both estrogen and testosterone, before estrogen rises again. Progesterone has a sedative effect, which can cause fatigue in some women, or cause them to become more reserved and quiet. The third week is often when women feel the most tired, which might be a good time to lay off the heavy lifting. Don’t be so quick to throw away training completely though, because the combination of estrogen and progesterone makes the body more efficient at utilizing fat for fuel. Try taking this time to focus on aerobic or endurance training, such as easy paced runs, walking, or cycling.
Cravings for calorie dense and fatty foods go up during this period, making it a potentially challenging time to start a diet. With potential fertilization of the recently released egg, the body recognizes the need to support life. Many women experience an increase in hunger, and will find themselves eating larger meals, or snacking more throughout the day. One of the most craved foods is chocolate, and finally, women may have an explanation as to why this is. According to the literature, magnesium is an evidence-based treatment for PMS. Magnesium has a relaxing effect on muscles and the central nervous system, which can help with cramping and mood swings. One of the most popular dietary sources of magnesium is dark chocolate, with the list also including avocado, nuts, and legumes. Many women find that proper supplementation of magnesium drastically reduces their symptoms of PMS. By the end of the week, estrogen levels have risen again, combatting some of the negative effects of progesterone.
The final week of the cycle is characterized by plummeting levels of progesterone and estrogen. Estrogen is linked with the “feel good” chemical, serotonin, in the brain. As estrogen drops, some women experience bouts of sadness, irritability, or anxiety. Carbohydrates also stimulate the secretion of serotonin, which explains cravings for carb dense food, as estrogen takes a dive. Much like week three, now would not be the optimal time to begin a fat loss phase.Some women choose to implement a diet refeed during this period of time, which is where fat and protein intake remains the same, while increasing the amount of carbohydrates consumed; raising caloric intake to maintenance levels. Above and beyond the greater likelihood of diet adherence, refeeds, when done correctly, can have positive effects on both hormonal and metabolic processes surrounding dieting. Even though many women experience increased hunger and cravings for foods, the last few days before menstruation is the best time to engage in aerobic activity if weight loss is the goal. The combination of progesterone and estrogen can increase the utilization of fat for fuel by up to 30%. In other words, you might feel tired and unmotivated to hit the weights, but if you hit your stride on a light jog, the rewards keep coming for miles – literally.
As you can see, there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the menstrual cycle. If you are a woman, learning the different phases that your body is going through can impact how you organize your training and diet. Understanding the body’s natural tendencies is a great way to set yourself up for success, as consistency ultimately creates lasting results. Do you have any tips for tracking your cycle? Let us know! Tag us on Instagram or Facebook. We are #ReflexNation
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