The Menstrual Cycle and Our Metabolism
You hear a knock on the door and raise an eyebrow with suspicion. You weren't expecting any visitors today… and you've listened to too many crime podcasts to know where this is going. You walk to the door with a bag of chips you've been munching on, peep through the door, and who's standing outside? None other than Mother Nature. You panic because it's max out week, and you always feel less than great at the gym when mother nature is in town. This also explains how you've been feeling lately and your weight fluctuation. Not the best timing. Fellow mensi bestie, we get it. The female body is incredible, and we are basically superhumans. And part of what makes us superhuman is our menstrual cycle. As active, busy boss babes, having uncomfortable period symptoms can feel like they are slowing us down in every aspect of our life. From weight fluctuations, bloating, cramps… our menstrual cycle "symptoms" can make us feel thrown off on our health and wellness journey. We are here to ease your mind. Every person will have a unique experience with their menstrual cycle, but we wanted to break down some facts and offer some tips and tricks to help you get through this *period* of your life (sorry, not sorry for that awesome pun).
Our monthly hormonal fluctuations create many differences, which can be attributed mostly to estrogen. Those of us who have a period can go through changes in energy, cravings, hunger, sleep, mood, muscle gain, and fat loss. While it's not always a smooth ride, we can use our natural cycles to our advantage!
Recap on the Menstrual Cycle
The menstrual cycle is a set of monthly changes a woman's body goes through to release an egg and thicken the lining of the uterus to prepare for the possibility of implantation. I know, I know! We aren't here for you to relive the birds and the bee's talk. But, it is important to learn about our bodies and how they work so we can set ourselves up for success in the pursuit of living our best lives!
With that said, the menstrual cycle is broken down into two main phases; menses and ovulation. The follicular phase begins when menses (the period) begins, and the uterine lining is shed. This is day 0 of the menstrual cycle. On average, this phase lasts 12-14 days until ovulation occurs. Ovulation is the release of the egg from the ovary and signals the start of the luteal phase, where the body is spending energy preparing for the egg to implant into the lining of the uterus. This phase can last anywhere from 10-22 days. The main hormones involved with the menstrual cycle are LH, FSH, estrogen, and progesterone, which fluctuate around 28 days on average, but can range from 18 to 40 days.
The RunDown on Estrogen
Here's a quick look at some characteristics of estrogen:
Sensitizes the body to insulin - so you'll utilize carbohydrates more efficiently.
Decreases the negative effects of cortisol - so you can manage stress better.
Makes women a little more likely to gain muscle rather than fat in a caloric surplus #gains
It makes women more likely to lose fat rather than muscle in a caloric deficit. Yes, please to bigger and stronger muscles!
Works synergistically with HGH (Human Growth Hormone) in intense exercise to burn fat and adapt with more lean mass.
Stabilizes serotonin and dopamine, which will make women more relaxed, focused, and motivated. Cravings ( hello, late-night runs to Target for Oreos and wine) occur when estrogen decreases before your period, so it is not there to stabilize the 'feel good' neurotransmitters. This has women going after simple carbs for that 'boost' in these two neurotransmitters.
Slows fat release from certain areas such as butt, hips, thighs, and breast, which is what gives women that 'hourglass' shape #curvyqueen
As you can see, estrogen has a pretty strong influence over the metabolism, much more so than progesterone ( A hormone released by the ovaries. This hormone is responsible for preparing the body for pregnancy). During the first two weeks of our menstrual cycle, estrogen is higher while progesterone stays pretty steady. Then they do a bit of a flip at ovulation once estrogen peaks, and you might notice a decrease in strength due to these hormonal shifts. Ever feel a little off in your training? Or do you find that your weight is fluctuating like crazy? It's the flip, darling.
It's important to note that this varies from person to person, and what one woman considers normal will differ from another. It's very much about awareness in our own bodies so that we can use the feedback in a positive manner instead of becoming frustrated and fighting against our bodies.
Ok, so how can we use this to our advantage?
Well, one way to look at this is that you get to increase your calorie intake and exercise activity during the first two weeks of your cycle - we can kick some butt and make some gains! The first two weeks would be determined from Day 1 of bleeding to Day 14.
These first two weeks, give yourself more total calories, mainly from carbohydrates, to fuel this training. After all, estrogen is higher; let's use it to build some lean muscle! Your body is more insulin sensitive here, so the nutrients are utilized more readily, and your body is less stress reactive since estrogen is around to mitigate cortisol.
Then, after two weeks, take calories down as well as exercise. This doesn't mean you have to restrict food because we all know that's not going to workout so well when cravings kick in! But, if you are lowering intensity and keeping stress low, your hunger may stay in check. In this phase, you would include more walking, yoga, and restorative movements. Lifting can still be done during this time; it's really all dependent on the individual.
Then, when your period returns, you repeat the cycle.
During weeks three and four, perform more stress-reducing activities. If you are continuing with high-intensity workouts, be sure to include walks, Epsom salt baths, meditation, or journaling. Estrogen is lowered now, and the negative effects of cortisol (stress hormone) may be more noticeable. Here you may notice weight fluctuations as well. Be mindful of this, just know why it is happening, so it doesn't cause any unnecessary added stress.
When you're feeling those cravings creep in, it's likely due to both estrogen and progesterone being low. This impacts serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Foods like cocoa (extra dark chocolate), pumpkin seeds, and avocado can be helpful. Yay for *dark* chocolate!
Just go with the flow.
We might sound like a broken record, but it is so important to remember that period symptoms and period experience itself will vary depending on the person. It is also important to remember that our metabolism is adaptable and changeable. Once we understand what causes the weight fluctuations, cravings, altered appetite and mood, and performance changes, hopefully, we can 'go with the flow' a little more readily.
At Grown Strong we are so proud to have built a community it is a safe place for women to talk more about topics like this and ask any questions to in house nutritionists.