Your Period Protocol: My Top 4 Tips for Hormone Balance
At The Ultrawellness Center, our team of nutritionists encourage rotating a variety of healthful foods each day to maximize nutrition. We also help people find the meal timing that works best for their physiology and lifestyle. Rotational food choices and proper mealtimes can be especially useful tools for women in their menstruating years to help support the natural changes in sex hormones that occur throughout the average cycle.
If you feel subjected to the twists and turns of your cycle with symptoms like trouble sleeping, acne, brain fog, digestive issues accompanied by seemingly random mood swings, irritability, changes in appetite and energy, it’s not all in your head! Monthly hormonal changes impact your physical and brain chemistry. Understanding these changes can help you leverage the benefits of each hormonal shift to improve your sense of well-being.
First, let’s take a trip back to health class and review the phases of the menstrual cycle and their starring hormones:
- The length of one menstrual cycle is between 21 to 35 days with 28 days being the average.
- The cycle begins on the first day of your period. During menstruation, estrogen is low and continues to increase thereafter.
- Estrogen gradually continues to increase into the follicular phase (~days 6-14) where higher estrogen signals the uterus to rebuild and thicken the lining to prepare for ovulation.
- Ovulation occurs around day 14 where a mature egg travels from the ovary to the uterus which stimulates an increase in progesterone for transition to the next phase.
- In the luteal phase (~days 15-28), elevated progesterone signals the uterus to prepare its lining for pregnancy. If an egg is not fertilized and implanted into the uterine wall, both estrogen and progesterone fall to signal that the thickened uterine lining is not needed and can be discarded (que bleeding). The cycle begins again! It’s quite an amazing and intricate process that occurs, on average, 450 times throughout a woman’s life.
With all of that in mind, here are my top 4 tips for supporting natural hormonal shifts.
- Balance your blood sugar and insulin levels. No matter where you fall in your cycle, this should be a top priority. Diets high in refined carbohydrates and sugar can lead to high blood sugar and insulin levels along with a cascade of hormonal imbalances. Start by including a healthy source of protein with each meal and snack. Some of the best options include grass-fed meat, pastured poultry, eggs, low-mercury fish, and organic/non-GMO tofu and tempeh. Next, add healthy fat which can slow the rise in blood sugar after we eat. Some of the best choices include nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, extra virgin olive oil, SMASH fatty fish (wild Alaskan salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring) and unsweetened coconut. Lastly, include fiber-containing foods like a variety of vegetables, leafy greens, berries, beans, nuts, and seeds. Remember that your body LOVES when carbohydrates hitch a ride through the digestive tract with its three buddies — protein, fat, and fiber.
- Focus on hydration. During the menstrual phase, both estrogen and progesterone are relatively low. This is an especially good time to stay hydrated. Aim to drink about half of your body weight in fluid ounces. This can include soups, smoothies, and herbal teas. Staying hydrated can help reduce common symptoms likes headaches, fatigue, and cramping. Also eat a variety of foods high in minerals like iron, magnesium, and zinc to replete the body. Examples include grass-fed/grass-finished meat and pastured poultry, oysters and other shellfish, leafy greens, lentils, beans and thankfully, cocoa! Aim for low sugar 80-90% dark chocolate or add cocoa powder to foods.
- Increase intake of phytoestrogens during the first half of your cycle. Days 1-14 are when estrogen increases. It can be helpful to eat more plants with properties similar to estrogen, known as phytoestrogens, to offset the effects of higher estrogen levels during the follicular phase. Whole, soy-based foods contain phytoestrogens and minerals that are also in high demand during this phase including, iron, calcium, and magnesium. Choose tofu, tempeh, and edamame that are organic whenever possible. Flax seeds are also high in phytoestrogens called lignans which can help support estrogen balance, regulate the menstrual cycle and even reduce the risk of breast cancer. Pumpkin seeds may also help to promote estrogen balance and are an excellent source of zinc, alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), and protein. Eating different seeds during each phase is known as “seed cycling.” Learn more about this concept through Beeya’s organic seed program.
- Reduce stress on the body during the luteal phase. Higher progesterone makes you more sensitive to the stress hormone cortisol. To help reduce the stress put on the body during this time, is it best to refrain from time restricted eating or fasting longer than 12-14 hours in the 7-10 days before your period. Prolonged fasts can heighten the body’s stress response at a time when consistent nutrition is needed most. The follicular phase may be the most optimal time to reap benefits from longer fasts, if appropriate for your body. Learn more about aligning your cycle with fasting regimens in Fast Like a Girl by Dr. Mindy Pelz. Another consideration for the luteal phase is to reduce or eliminate the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume. If you struggle with PMS symptoms, caffeine and alcohol should be avoided or reduced throughout the cycle to support detoxification processes. Adjust your morning ritual to include organic, water processed decaffeinated coffee, herbal tea or a mushroom coffee-alternative. It is also best to choose lower impact, strength, and flexibility exercises versus HIIT or intense cardio. This is the time to rest and nurture yourself using proper nutrition, gentle movement, breathwork and relaxation practices that work for you. Stress is a natural part of life and cannot be avoided, it is important to find stress management strategies that support you throughout the entirety of your cycle. Take an Epsom salt bath, walk in nature, sip on herbal tea, pet a cat (or dog), always take the time to take care of you. Your adrenal glands will thank you!
All of this may seem like a lot to keep tabs on if your cycle is irregular. If you’ve never tracked your cycle before, it’s a good time to start! Use a paper calendar, your phone notes, or an app like Clue or MyFlo. Connecting the dots across your cycle can empower you to plan timely and supportive nutrition and lifestyle practices. Give new meaning to the endless “that time of the month” jokes. Knowledge and awareness around YOUR time of the month gives you the information you need to make positive change.