As a nutritionist, one of the most common topics I’m asked about is menstrual health. And it’s understandable — navigating the menstrual cycle can be complex for many people, even those of us who pay close attention to our health. It can be easy to feel blindsided by the symptoms which occur during our period: PMS, food cravings, cramps, and mood changes.
Our menstrual cycle isn’t just when our period occurs. It’s a constant hormonal cycle, flowing through four distinct phases each month. These phases can impact our energy levels, appetite, dietary preferences, and emotions. Too often, our initial reaction is to fight against these fluctuations. However, by better understanding our menstrual cycle, we can optimize our diets to better nourish our bodies throughout the month.
Menstrual Phase: Days 1 – 5
The start of the period signifies the beginning of the menstrual cycle. In this phase, we experience bleeding as the body sheds its uterine lining. Since blood loss is occurring during this time, it’s important to focus on foods rich in iron, B vitamins, and vitamin C. Research has also shown that consuming vitamin C at the same time as an iron-rich food can help increase iron’s bioavailability — so don’t be afraid to load up your plate with colorful vegetables!
Iron-rich foods to enjoy include eggs, fish, legumes, grains, and leafy greens. To complement these, foods high in vitamin C include strawberries, capsicums, carrots, broccoli, sweet potato, and oranges. Many yellow, orange, and red fruits and vegetables are excellent vitamin C sources.
Follicular Phase: Days 6 – 14
Following a period, our body moves into the follicular phase of our cycle. Our bodies are now increasing estrogen production, which can increase energy and focus. If you’re more active than usual during this phase, be sure to increase consumption of complex carbohydrates such as grains and oats.
Additionally, probiotic-rich meals will help our gut health flourish as our bodies metabolize more estrogen than usual. Light and fresh meals rich in fermented foods are an excellent way to support our bodies. Foods such as tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables are ideal for a diverse gut microbiome.
Ovulatory Phase: Days 15 – 17
The shortest phase of the menstrual cycle, the ovulatory phase is when estrogen levels reach their peak and testosterone is rising. Energy levels remain high during this phase, however, our appetites may decrease.
Healthy fats, like seeds and nuts, are a great way to increase the nutritional density of light meals such as salads, soups, and broths. Foods high in fibre will also assist with metabolism and digestion throughout this phase.
Luteal Phase: Days 18 – 28
The luteal phase is the final phase between ovulation and our period. Nutrition throughout this phase should focus on preparing your body for your upcoming period to assist in minimizing PMS symptoms and cramps.
Limit consumption of foods high in caffeine and sugar, which can cause mood swings and anxiety. During the luteal phase, we are particularly sensitive to blood sugar changes as these foods can have an exacerbated impact on our moods. Instead, focus on nutritionally dense foods rich in fibre and magnesium. In particular, magnesium can help improve sleep quality — a welcome aid, since our energy levels drop during this phase.
To best nourish your body in this time, prioritize foods such as roasted pumpkin, roasted sweet potato, dark chocolate, spinach, and sesame seeds.
Throughout the luteal phase, food cravings are prone to striking. Rather than trying to ignore your body’s signals, try an intuitive eating approach. If you’re craving chocolate, for example, have a couple of squares of your favorite chocolate. Eat slowly and savour it, taking note of when your craving feels satiated. Often, we will try to choose a ‘better’ snacking option, only to find ourselves ultimately coming back to the food we really wanted to eat.
Listen to Your Body
Most importantly, pay attention to your body’s messages and include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet. Eating to support your menstrual cycle can help preempt your body’s needs throughout the month, and will make it feel nourished all year round.
Coco Sandes is a qualified nutritionist and wellness-obsessed writer based in Australia. She loves clean beauty, good coffee, and long runs. You can find her on Instagram.