Menstrual Cycle Nutrition: Tips for Female Athletes

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Your menstrual cycle is a natural process that affects your body and your mood. It is important to eat well during and have a good understanding of menstrual cycle nutrition to support your health and well-being. 

In this blog post, we will explain the different phases of your menstrual cycle, how they affect your nutrition needs and what foods you should eat or avoid in each phase.

menstrual cycle nutrition for athletes

What is the menstrual cycle

The menstrual cycle starts on the first day of a period and ends when the next period begins. The period occurs when an egg is not fertilized by the end of the menstrual cycle. (1)

A period releases the endometrial tissue and blood that would have been used for pregnancy. 

The average age of a first period is between 9-15 years old. A period can last between 2-7 days. The average cycle is 28 days, but can range anywhere from 24-38 days.

Why is the menstrual cycle important

The menstrual cycle is important because it signals that your body is working normally and that you are fertile. 

It also helps to maintain a hormonal balance in your body, which affects your mood, energy, appetite and metabolism.

The menstrual cycle can also increase your bone density and protect you from osteoporosis in the long term.

What are the hormones involved in the menstrual cycle

The menstrual cycle is regulated by two main hormones: estrogen and progesterone. These hormones fluctuate throughout the cycle and cause different changes in your body and brain. 

The normal menstrual cycle can be divided into two main phases: the follicular phase and the luteal phase.

menstrual cycle nutrition

Follicular Phase (Days 1-14)

The follicular phase is also known as the “feel awesome” phase because it is when your hormones are the lowest and you may feel more energetic, confident, and optimistic. 

This phase starts on the first day of your period and lasts until ovulation, which is when an egg is released from your ovary. 

During this phase, your estrogen levels gradually rise and stimulate the growth of the uterine lining. 

Your estrogen levels also increase your serotonin levels, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, sleep and appetite.

Luteal Phase (Days 15-28)

The luteal phase is also known as the “lousy” phase because it is when your hormones rise and you may feel more irritable, anxious and depressed. This phase starts after ovulation and lasts until the start of your next period. 

During this phase, your progesterone levels increase and prepare your uterus for a possible pregnancy. Your progesterone levels also increase your body temperature, which can make you feel warmer and sweat more.

If the egg is not fertilized, your hormone levels drop and trigger the shedding of the endometrial lining, which is your period.

How to train and fuel through the follicular phase

In the follicular phase, your body may better support intense exercise due to increased carbohydrate oxidation. This means that your body can use carbohydrates more efficiently as a source of energy during high-intensity workouts. (2)

You may also have more endurance, strength and power in this phase. Therefore, you can focus on increasing the intensity, duration and frequency of your workouts in this phase.

To fuel your workouts in the follicular phase, you should focus on consuming pre-exercise carbohydrates and replenishing stores with nutrient rich carbohydrates after exercise. 

Carbohydrates are essential for providing energy to your muscles and brain during exercise.

You should aim for about 1-4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight before exercise and about 0.8-1.2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight after exercise. 

Some examples of good sources of complex carbohydrates are fruits, vegetables, grains, breads, oatmeal, cereals, pasta, brown rice, potatoes, beans, lentils, milk and yogurt.

Quick carbohydrates include dried fruit, applesauce, pretzels, honey, jam, sports drinks and granola bars.

How to train and fuel through the luteal phase

During the luteal phase, your body may have more difficulty with intense exercise due to decreased carbohydrate oxidation. This means that your body can use carbohydrates less efficiently as a source of energy during high-intensity workouts. (3)

You may also have less endurance, strength and power in this phase. Therefore, you may need to focus on reducing the intensity, duration and frequency of your workouts in this phase.

To fuel your workouts in luteal phase, you should focus on consuming more healthy fats and protein and fewer carbohydrates. Fats and protein are essential for providing energy to your muscles and brain during low-intensity workouts. 

They can also help you feel fuller and reduce cravings for sugary and processed foods. You should aim for about 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and about 20-35% of your total calories from fat per day. 

menstrual cycle nutrition

Some examples of good sources of protein are eggs, fish, chicken, turkey, tofu, nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt and protein powders such as pea powder or whey powder.

Some examples of good sources of fat are avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, butter, nuts, seeds, cheese and dark chocolate.

Additionally during the luteal phase, you may experience cramping from your period. Adding magnesium to your diet can help relieve cramping.

Good sources of magnesium include: almonds, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, edamame, salmon, tart cherry juice, dark, leafy greens and olive oil.

Hydration is also key since your sweat rate typically increases during this phase as well. You’ll want to monitor yourself for signs of dehydration.

Conclusion

Your menstrual cycle is a natural process that affects your body and your mood. By eating well during your cycle, you can support your health and well-being. You can also tailor your training and sports nutrition plan to the different phases of your cycle. 

In the follicular phase, you can take advantage of your high energy and carbohydrate metabolism and do more intense workouts and eat more carbs. 

In the luteal phase, you can adapt to your low energy and fat metabolism and do less intense workouts and eat more fats and proteins. 

We will explore each phase and how to optimize your nutrition and exercise in more detail in other posts

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