As soon as we think hormones, we think period right? Cue eye rolls and heavy sighs as we are reminded of those dreaded few days us women have to endure every month. But what a lot of women don’t actually consider is that a period, aka menstruation, is only one small part of a great quest your body makes through different phases around every 28-29 days, a little something better known as the menstrual cycle. Your period may be the opening and closing chapters of your cycle but there are actually three other key phases in-between that never seem to get as much attention, those being the follicular phase, ovulation phase and the Luteul phase.
Think of the menstrual cycle as a relay race, where many different hormones are working together to try to fertilise and implant an egg, estragon being one of the main players. Our hormones are molecules produced by the endocrine system that send messages to various parts of our body. They help to regulate processes such as hunger, sexual desire and blood sugar. Though essential, hormones aren’t bound only to the reproductive processes of the body, they are also fundamental to ALL bodily systems right down to how you breathe, sleep, expend energy, even when you eat and drink! So surely, if our hormones are constantly shifting and changing throughout our cycle, it makes zero sense to constantly repeat the same routines week in, week out. You wouldn’t wear a big wooly jumper slap bang in the middle of summer or hit the beach mid winter….so why would you thrash your body with a crazy CrossFit workout when your in your Luteul phase and have considerably less energy due to lower oestrogen and progesterone levels? Is it all that different if you really think about it?
The truth is we actually have an opportunity to use our hormones, oestragen especially, as a sort of super power. If we are aware of exactly where we are in our cycle, we can better understand what our body needs in terms of nutrition, sleep quality and exercise. A 1995 study actually showed how Oestrogen can skyrocket female muscle and strength building capacity during the follicular phase.1 The study found that women who front-loaded volume in the first two weeks of their cycle (the follicular phase) to then train at a lower frequency for the following two weeks (around the luteul phase) gained an additional 33% to their maximal strength compared to a 13% gain with regular frequency training.
It’s crazy how much we can gain from working with our body when its at its best and cutting it some slack when it needs a little more down time. Oestragen is at an all time high in the follicular phase and has been the talking point of hundred of pieces of muscle physiology research studies demonstrating anabolic to muscle tissue (muscle building). Oestragen also aids in muscle repair and is anti-catabolic, a property protecting muscle mass in the body from being broken down. It’s worth noting that during Ovulation your testosterone and oestrogen levels are peaking, making it a great opportunity to maximise your potential. This is the time for workouts such as HITT, Cross fit and spin.
Turns out this genius idea even has its own name, they call it cycle syncing and healthline.com claims its beneficial for all women to do, but particularly for those who have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), are overweight, are overly fatigued, want their libido back or want to conceive. They even advise on how to tailor your food choices to your cycle, suggesting that when you’re menstruating you should avoid or limit fatty foods, alcohol, caffeine, and salty foods and drink soothing tea, like chamomile, to combat cramps. For the follicular phase they suggest incorporating foods that will metabolize estrogen such as sprouted and fermented foods like broccoli sprouts, kimchi, and sauerkraut. When you’re ovulating and oestrogen levels are peaking they suggest eating foods that support your liver. Mainly anti-inflammatory foods like whole fruits, vegetables, and almonds. To aid that Luteul phase they suggest eating foods that will produce serotonin, like leafy greens, quinoa, and buckwheat and pointing your focus towards magnesium-rich foods that fight fatigue and low libido, like dark chocolate, spinach, and pumpkin seeds.2
As it happens the art of tailoring your lifestyle habits around your cycle has been around for centuries, predating modern medicine. For me, this was a massive wake up call to how much power us women hold to harness our health and maximise our fitness potential. I think the big word here is awareness. The more we learn about our body, the more we learn about our cycle and our hormones, the more power we hold to use our hormones to our advantage. Fuelling the body for its needs and ultimately making us feel unstoppable in the process. Let’s stop being casualties of our own bodies and start embracing our hormones as our superpower.
Side note: having recently stopped taking the pill and switched to the fertility awareness method, via the natural cycles app,I have felt an enormous sense of empowerment from taking control of my body and my overall health. This article is written from the perspective of someone not on birth control. Birth control prevents ovulation and hormone fluctuations of the menstrual cycle are practically non-existent therefore this method of cycle syncing may not be as applicable.
1. Reis et al 1995