The fifth vital sign is pain, which is what a lot of people think of when it comes to menstrual cycles. It’s a subject that is both mysterious and taboo. The science behind it involves the delicate balance of hormones which control our body’s functions. These hormones are greatly influenced by foods we eat, how we sleep and our movement. What follows is information for you to better understand a woman’s cycle and how to support our body’s function optimally.
Menstrual cycle starts on the first day of the period. Your body is shedding uterine lining from the previous cycle. Due to blood loss, iron-containing foods are the most important additives. These include foods like red meat, spinach and other dark leafy greens. Most women also need an iron supplement. Vitamin C helps the absorption of Iron. Day 1-10, hormones are low, body is strong, you have a lot of energy. This is a good time to hit the gym hard, exercise, fast, and go after the things you want.
As ovulation approaches, self care becomes more important. Nurture your body, eat enough, maybe add more carbs to the diet, insulin sensitivity is excellent during this time, avoid stress, don’t overdo it on exercise, get enough rest and sleep. All of this serves to give our brain a signal that we are safe to ovulate and potentially conceive. Otherwise, we won’t get the hormonal spike to ovulate and the corpus luteum won’t produce progesterone in the second part of the cycle. This is where we experience the symptoms that usually come from imbalance of estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen in the body makes things grow and progesterone, as the regulator, helps to signal how much to grow and when to stop growing. Too much estrogen can lead to fibroids, and an over increase in the uterus lining.
Your thyroid gland is extremely important for hormonal balance. If we overdo fasting or ketosis, or if our body is constantly under stress, this will slow down our thyroid function, which has a negative impact on progesterone production.
Ovulation normally occurs around day 14. If this happens correctly, it sets the stage for the second part of the cycle. It’s the second half of the cycle, where we run into hormonal issues that can lead to negative symptoms like PMS and painful periods, with a predisposition to the growth of cancerous cells. During ovulation, testosterone is highest, increasing sex drive. The body temperature stays elevated for the first couple of days, so it makes sense to take it easy with cardio. Our insulin sensitivity starts to decrease, especially towards the end of the cycle. It’s a good idea to shift our diet to higher protein and lower carbohydrate intake. Higher folate intake is associated with higher rates of embryo implantation. If you’re trying to get pregnant, reach for dark leafy greens.
It’s important that our body metabolizes estrogen. Some of these metabolites can attach themselves to DNA and cause mutations. Things like alcohol, estrogen mimicking chemicals and microplastic can overload our system and the liver. Some protective foods are cruciferous vegetables containing sulforaphane, which help the liver to process toxins and protect it against cancerous cell growth. Broccoli sprouts contain high levels of sulforaphane. Having enough fiber in your diet will help eliminate metabolites.
The week before your next period. When a pregnancy didn’t happen, the body begins preparing to shed the uterine lining. This phase is when many women often experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
Progesterone is a vital component for the manufacture of the neurotransmitter GABA, which regulates and calms brain activity. Lower levels of progesterone/GABA mean more anxiety. Estrogen levels, which are mediated by progesterone/GABA also impact anxiety levels. Too much estrogen leads to more mood swings.
This is the time for more self-care, easy exercise, yoga and walks. To ease cravings, headaches, and difficulty sleeping, we can include magnesium-rich foods like nuts and seeds, leafy greens, beans or a high-quality magnesium supplement. A good time to limit foods that might increase period cramps, like alcohol or caffeine.
Perimenopause, and menopause
When it comes to menopause, in addition to hormones, levels of insulin are extremely important. Insulin resistance can lead to symptoms like hot flashes and weight gain.
Estrogen also influences levels of serotonin, known as the “happy” hormone. It helps promote feelings of being calm and relaxed, and also influences temperature control. We need to control our stress levels, to give the body the right building blocks to make serotonin, one of which is tryptophan. This is best accomplished by a balanced diet with sufficient protein. Addressing this, reduces fluctuations of the temperature control in the brain.
We used to associate vaginal dryness as an issue with estrogen, but research points to the vaginal microbiome. Similar to the gut microbiome, there’s also one in the vagina. If we support our body with probiotics, cell atrophy decreases, even if estrogen drops. At some point our ovaries will stop working. We can take bioidentical hormones, HRT (hormonal replacement therapy) to support our systems from negative symptoms caused by the reduction of hormones from this phase of life.
Stress is one of the hardest factors to address, but maybe one of the most impactful. A healthy diet and consistent exercise are baseline coping strategies for stress reduction. Monitoring of the stress hormone cortisol is important for Type A personalities, who are typically stressed out for deadlines, parenting or being perfect at everything. High cortisol levels lead to adrenal fatigue, sleep and mental health issues.
These are different from food allergies. People are usually aware of allergies, because they’ll get direct symptoms like hives. Intolerances are a different immune response, called Immunoglobulin G or IgG. IgG is what the body produces against viruses, infections and other invasions to our systems. The key response is inflammation in the body. This can happen with a food that we think is healthy, like broccoli. Every time we consume it, our body mounts an immune response thinking it is an invader, which increases inflammation that disrupts hormone production and distribution.
When there’s inflammation, our body shifts to the fight or flight mode. This has many negative downstream effects for both physical and mental health. Testing for food intolerances is important. Removing them allows for healing of the gut, which is one of the most important factors in how you feel every day. Gluten can make the gut more permeable and more prone to inflammation. Some people can only tolerate it in small amounts.
The research on soy is conflicting. Soy and some other plant foods, like chickpeas and flax seeds, have components that are similar to estrogens, but science hasn’t decided yet whether the plant-based estrogens will actually just balance our own estrogen levels or whether it has a potential of increasing it to levels that are too high. When soy is highly processed and genetically modified, it’s in a version that the body can’t recognize, resulting in the potential of production of a harmful type of estrogen.
Bioidentical hormones vs HRT hormone replacement therapy
Both are synthetically made hormones. However, bioidentical resemble our natural hormones, where normal HRT has a different structure. The progesterone that gets frequently used for contraceptive pills for example, looks more like testosterone, creating different effects than natural progesterone.
Studies have shown that HRT has been associated with higher risks of certain types of cancer, despite its efficacy for treating negative symptoms of hormonal imbalance. This is not the case with bioidentical hormones, which have very few side effects. There is ongoing debate as to the usage of each and more research is needed for a definitive outcome as to best practices.
Many thanks to Mirthe Eckle from Precision Health for consulting with us on this article. You can find helpful tips on her Instagram @mirthe_precisionhealth