Updated: Apr 23
Did you know that your mood, behaviour, and even body sensations are controlled by hormones? From devouring sweets on your period to getting emotional watching a movie, the levels of hormones change throughout the day, the week, the month, and even the season, so that your body can adapt to different circumstances.
The menstrual cycle is a 25 to 36-days-long change in the levels of a group of hormones: estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone or LT, and follicle-stimulating hormone or FSH, that have effects on the female reproductive system. The main function of the menstrual cycle is reproduction, as it prepares the uterus for hosting a fetus for the next 9 months. However, when there is no fertilized egg, the second half of the cycle diverts into getting rid of all those “preparations” through bleeding (a.k.a. the period).
Women assigned female at birth usually experience periods every month during their reproductive years unless they get pregnant. However, sex hormones impact their daily lives and health in many more aspects, even after menopause.
In this article, you will learn how to hack your lifestyle by optimizing your activities, your diet, or your exercise depending on the phase of the menstrual cycle you are in. Keep reading if you want to better understand your body (or your partner’s).
The menstrual cycle in a nutshell
The menstrual cycle is divided in 3 phases: follicular phase, ovulation, and luteal phase. During the first half, a follicle slowly matures into an oocyte (or egg), that is released from the ovary. In the second half, the egg travels through the Fallopian tube in search of a sperm cell to fuse with. If it doesn’t find a sperm cell, the uterus enters the next menstruation cycle by discarding all preparations for pregnancy. And what do you think is the cue for the body to start and finish each phase? You guessed it: the levels of different hormones.
Illustration created with BioRender.com
The belly cramps, the mood swings, the premenstrual syndrome. We can understand ourselves better if we understand what is causing all of these symptoms.
Menstruation: The first day of the period determines the beginning of a new cycle. All hormones are pretty low, which induces the shedding of the innermost layer of the uterus wall (endometrium) and bleeding.
Follicular phase: After a few days of the follicular phase, the menstruation bleeding stops and FSH slowly raises, follicles start their maturation and the endometrium wall starts getting thicker again. Estrogen and progesterone are still quite low.
Ovulation: Around 14 days after the beginning of the cycle, LH, FSH, and estrogen levels are produced in big amounts, inducing the release of one mature egg from the ovary by breaking the follicle. This is the moment of highest fertility, so the behaviour might change to promote getting pregnant. After the peak, all these hormones go very low, while progesterone slowly goes up.
Luteal phase: The ruptured follicle that released the egg transforms into a corpus luteum, and progesterone and estrogen levels go up to make the endometrium even thicker in case the egg finds a sperm cell and forms a zygote - the cell that will become a baby after 9 months. If this doesn’t happen, the corpus luteum degenerates, estrogen and progesterone levels go down, and the top layers of the endometrium break down and are shed, starting a new menstruation. If the egg is fertilized with a sperm cell, the corpus luteum does not degenerate and the zygote is implanted into the thick endometrium, which starts the pregnancy.
Brain power: know when to fight your battles
As we mentioned, your behaviour can change depending on the phase you are in - that is because your brain can detect the levels of sex hormones and react accordingly. For example, memory is improved when estrogen is high (ovulation and luteal phase), and so are executive functions of the brain that control organizing, planning, and decision-making. If anything, make sure you don't make life-changing decisions right before or during your period, you might regret them!!
The amygdala is an important brain region involved in emotion recognition and known to be influenced by ovarian hormones. Recognizing emotions in others (especially negative ones) helps to evaluate potential risks and threats in order to avoid danger. Because you are the most “vulnerable” during fertile days, your brain amygdala is more active during the late follicular phase and the ovulation, so you will be better and more accurate at recognizing fear or anger in people’s faces.
This means that between ovulation and menstruation, you probably will be less afraid of taking risks and engaging in conflict with others. So maybe you should schedule the meeting with your boss to ask for that salary raise right before your period comes...😈
Exercise and diet: balance is the answer
Estrogen and progesterone affect how your muscles react to exercise, how they recover from exercise, and how fast different nutrients (fats, protein, carbohydrates) are metabolized at rest and while exercising.
A balanced diet is very important for reproductive health - a very low carb and fat intake will impair your menstrual cycle and fertility. Remember that the higher body fat percentage of women's bodies is there for a reason, no matter how much society tries to convince you that you should always be skinnier.
During your period
You have low levels of everything, including energy - that's normal, you have been bleeding for a few days in a row! If you want to stay active these days, try to do low-intensity cardio (walking, running), gentle yoga flows (with no torsions or inversions!!), and low-to-moderate strenght training (remember to avoid abs exercises and any weights on your belly area). It is not a good idea to have certain foods that will make worse some symptoms like cramps (caffeine is a no-go, but ginger is good for you) or bloating (avoid dairy and legumes like beans, and choose instead bananas, avocados, asparagus, and cucumber).
When estrogen is high and progesterone is low, your body has more endurance (power or velocity that can be maintained for durations of 30 min. to four hours). Take advantage and do more sustained cardiovascullar exercise, such as cycling or running. You can also do HIIT sessions (high intensity interval training).
Ovulation and after
When both estrogen and progesterone are up, your muscles can use calories more effectively, so this is the optimal time for intense strength-based training and weight-lifting. This is why post-menopausal women (with low estrogen production) experience muscle weakness, and estrogen replacement therapies can increase their muscle strength at least 5%. The metabolism of fats and proteins is faster, so you will burn more calories from these types of foods. If you are trying to increase muscle mass, your protein supplements will be more effective in this phase, when progesterone is elevated. But if you are into very long sessions (> 2 h), you should help your muscles by eating extra carbs!
Hormones also affect vulnerability of muscles to damage, including the onset of muscle soreness and loss of strength. Lower training loads or longer recovery periods (how many days you wait between trainings) should be considered in the early follicular phase (menstruation), while strength conditioning weights can be increased during the middle period of the luteal phase (after ovulation).
Obviously, you don’t have to do only certain physical activities or eat certain foods in certain days of your cycle, but being aware of these changes might help you to understand why your body is not responding equally to the same type of exercise in different days. If strength-training feels too much on certain days, be kind to yourself and give your body a long, fast-paced walk instead.
If you are on the hunt for romantic or sexual partners, ovulation is the perfect time to do so! In this phase, the attractiveness of women's voice, appearance, smell, and even body movements is higher than in other phases. In short, they will fall for you easier if you are ovulating, so remember that with great power comes great responsibility 😉
The widely-known rule of higher sexual activity during the most fertile days turns out to be an urban legend, at least with the data available. It would make sense to be more sexually active during ovulation, when the probability of getting pregnant is higher, and that’s what happens in females from other species. But human actions are influenced by many other factors, including cultural and social limitations (such as a the taboo around sexual activity during menstruation, or the “weekend timing effect”) that are probably affecting women’s sexual behaviours besides their physiological needs. So in this case, you don’t have to synchronize sex with your cycle, just have it whenever you feel like it and that’s all!
Menstrual cramps have a very natural remedy: orgasms! So give it a try, alone or in company, and maybe you won't need any painkillers after it. Check our recent article on the female orgasm to know more.
We hope you will find this information useful and let us know if you implement any of these recommendations into your lifestyle. Get ready and make sure that you choose the best time of the month for achieving your personal goals and supporting your natural rhythms! #getready
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