Strong Mommas Podcast Episode 103 Menstrual Cycle

May 18, 2021 by Megan Dahlman

Your Menstrual Cycle - How to line up your workouts and nutrition to feel your best all month

Megan Dahlman Strong Mommas Podcast

How your menstrual cycle effects…well, everything!

This is a topic I get asked about a lot. And I have a feeling that for every woman that asks me this, there are 10 more that are wondering about this, but just too embarrassed to ask. 

There are so many completely normal functions of our bodies as women that have been placed in a taboo category. I think we need to see that we all have bodies that operate generally the same with some variations here and there, and so if we’re struggling with something, chances are A LOT of us are. And I firmly believe that when we can be vulnerable about our bodies, talking about the oddities, the things we’re a little bit ashamed of, the things that seem not perfect, then we can finally feel the burden lift. 

It’s so validating and freeing to have someone tell you, “Yes, it’s completely normal to pee your pants sometimes when you sneeze or jump postpartum. There’s definitely something we can do about it, so you don’t have to keep living it, which is awesome, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Or, “yes, it’s completely normal to gain 5 pounds in one week and feel ravenously hungry and have extremely low motivation, all during that week leading up to your period, and this is nothing to be ashamed of, and there are things you can do about.” 

As women, especially moms, we want to be impervious to weaknesses. We don’t want to admit when we don’t have it all together, especially with our bodies. We’d rather portray a machine-like body. And if it has embarrassing weaknesses about it, it’s best to keep those things hidden. 

But what we have to understand is that God designed our bodies to operate within certain biological rules. And there is nothing embarrassing or weak about our own biology as women. The more we can understand how our bodies physiologically function, the more prepared we can be, the less crazy we’ll feel, and the more in awe we become at God’s design.

The phases of the menstrual cycle

There are four main hormones in play in our bodies: Luteinizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, progesterone, and estrogen. To keep things from sounding too complicated, let’s focus mostly on just the progesterone and estrogen (or more specifically estradiol). 

  1. Menstrual phase
    1. Very little estrogen and progesterone are being secreted
    2. Necrosis of the uterine wall is a result of the decreasing progesterone concentrations near the end of the follicular phase 
  2. Follicular phase or proliferative phase
    1. Near the end of this phase, there’s a big increase of estrogen and continues elevate until it reaches its peak at ovulation, when an egg is released
    2. During this phase, progesterone levels are quite low…this is estrogen’s time to shine
    3. Ovulation signals the end of this phase
  3. Luteal phase or the secretory phase
    1. Following ovulation, estrogen levels begin to decline a bit and progesterone levels begin to increase
    2. Progesterone levels remain high throughout the luteal phase and then drop rapidly just before menses, unless pregnancy occurs

 

Usually, it’s the end of this luteal phase that’s the biggest culprit for us feeling our worst. This is generally the week leading up to our period. Many women experience severe mood swings, depression, increased hunger and appetite, cravings, bloating, and general discomfort. And it’s those high levels of progesterone, low levels of estradiol, and then a rapid dive bomb of both of them real quick that makes for this rollercoaster ride. 

So the first thing we really need to do is start keeping track. Not everyone has a regimented 28 day cycle. You can use and app 

Ok, so chalking it all up to our hormones is great, but how exactly? Finally, we’re starting to see that all of this isn’t just in our head. But why is it that when our hormones take a dive that our brain is suddenly craving all the chocolate or has zero desire to train? 

Let’s look at how our hormones affect our eating

Estrogen, estradiol in particular, is a very key player in the amount of food we end up eating. 

  • When more estradiol is present, we feel full and satisfied quite a bit sooner. 
  • When less estradiol is present, it can take a little while longer into a meal to feel full and satisfied. 
    • Some studies have shown that women with less estradiol in their system, during the late stage of the luteal phase, ate anywhere from 250-600 extra calories per day compared to the follicular phase when estradiol is much higher. 
  • I know for myself, I’ll have times of the month when I don’t even think about food and am not really in the mood for eating, whereas other times when I can’t seem to eat enough. I’ll eat a somewhat larger than normal meal, but still feel hungry! 
  • Low estradiol has been shown to not just impact the amount of food we’re eating, but also gives us some pretty intense cravings, too. 
    • These cravings can be different for everybody: protein, fat, carbs, sugar
  • Estradiol also interplays closely with some other hunger and fullness hormones…specifically ghrelin and CCK. 
    • Ghrelin (sounds like gremlin) is made in your stomach and will tell your brain that you’re hungry. This starts to shut off as you begin eating your meal. 
      • Estradiol decreases ghrelin
    • CCK (calm, cool, collected) is also made in your stomach and tells your brain that you’re getting full. This begins to get produced as you’re eating. 
      • Estradiol makes CCK, those hunger cues, more potent
    • So less estradiol, more gremlin and less calm, cool, collected. Bummer. 

 

What you can do:

  1. First of all, recognize that this is not a discipline or willpower problem here. I think we can easily beat ourselves up at times of the month when it feels like we can’t get enough to eat, we’re constantly hungry, and we’re craving particular junk food. So stop beating yourself up and feeling bad. 
  2. Practice eating slowly. It can takes a while for some of the lesser hunger and satiety hormones, like ghrelin and CCk, to get in on the activity. 
    1. The slower you eat, the more of an opportunity you’re giving for these guys to catch up. 
    2. Practice taking about 20 minutes per meal. 

 

    1. Be prepared. 
      1. If you know you have very particular cravings during the luteal phase, be prepared and have that and only that thing available for you. Make sure it’s the best quality and make sure to eat it slowly and mindfully, savoring every bite. 
        1. One or two pieces of really great chocolate or one glass of nice red wine is not going to derail all of your health efforts, whereas locking yourself in the pantry and eating an entire bag of chips that you don’t even like, followed up with the kids leftover rainbow sherbet ice cream… well that might have an impact.  
      2. Recognize that your mood swings might effect your motivation to cook healthy food, so have a meal plan in place so you don’t have to decide your meals in the moment. And then have food prepped ahead of the luteal phase as much as possible. 
    2. Eat foods that are really high in fiber and bulk. These are going to be veggies, legumes, beans, and even whole grains. 
      1. These foods tend to have lower calorie density…so even if you end up accidentally eating larger portion sizes, you’re not going to overdo it quite as much as if you were eating really calorie dense foods, like peanut butter.  

 

  • Plan to eat smaller, more frequent meals during this phase. 

 

    1. If you normally eat 3 large meals and sometimes a snack, then switch it up and try for 6 smaller meals over the course of the day. 
    2. Remember that just because one strategy works for you during one time of the month, doesn’t mean that you’re forced to stick with that all month long, come hell or high water. 
      1. Purposefully adjust to accommodate the differences in your hunger, cravings, and appetite. 

Alright, let’s now take a look at how our menstrual cycle affects our training

Believe it or not, following training cycles is the most optimal way for our bodies to get stronger, more fit, and adapt to training anyway. So we can use this to our advantage, since our own biology is tracking along with a cyclical rhythm anyway. 

 

Macrocycles – Mesocycles – Microcycles – With good training program design, routines will usually follow cycles.. 

Macrocycles: Generally a full season. (off season training or in-season training.) Tends to be 12-16 weeks long and has a specific purpose….maybe fat loss, muscle growth, strength maintenance, or power development. 

Mesocycle: Cycles within a season or a macrocycle. Tend to be 4-6 weeks long. To keep things tidier, it usually makes the most sense to make them 4 weeks long. So, this could be your entire month of workouts at a glance. 

Microcycle: These are the 5-10 day cycles within your months. Usually, it makes the most sense to keep these microcycles to 7 days, but in some cases we’ve extended weeks out to 10 days long, too. 

  • Week one: Easy, de-load week. Recovery from the difficult weeks prior to it. A great time to learn new exercises and just slowly practice them. 
  • Week two: Still easy, but building on what you learned in week one. Now you know the technique and get the feel for the work, you can cement that feeling in. Intensity is still low to moderate. 
  • Week three: More building. We’re going to start pushing it. Technique should feel sound, so we can go a little harder, lift a little more weight, move faster, do more reps, take less rest. 
  • Week four: Maxing out. This is when we really push the limits. Everything over the month has building up to this point. Intensity is as high as it’s going to get. These are the longest workouts, the most difficult, the most challenging. You walk away feeling pretty shaky, but incredibly accomplished, knowing that you had nothing left to give. 

But with every cycle, there’s always an ebb and a flow. There are hard, max out weeks, followed by easier, de-load weeks. This gives your body the opportunity to grow and push hard without exposing it to such high demands of stress for extended periods of time. 

Poorly designed workout plans have no real rhyme or reason to it, instead it’s usually just full-out hard all the time. And since nobody can sustain that for very long, it flips the other way and ends up being way too easy. 

I suggest taking your own menstrual cycle and making it one mesocycle. 

    • This will be approximately one month of workouts, give or take, depending on how long your cycle is.
      • If you have a shorter menstrual cycle, then your month of workouts should be shorter.
      • If you have a longer menstrual cycle, then you can spread out your month of workouts over a few more days. 
    • So, this is where it gets a little bit tricky, because if have you begin your week one, that easy, recovery week, on the same week as your menstrual phase, then week four (the hardest week of the month) is going to hit at the worst week of your menstrual cycle…that late luteal phase. 
      • Plan on doing week one the week just prior to when your period starts. 
      • Plan on doing week two the week of your period. 
      • Plan to do week three the week after your period, the first week of your follicular phase. 
      • Plan to do week four, your hardest workouts, the second week of your follicular phase or right about when you’re ovulating. This will line up to when you have the most energy and the most motivation, coupled with the least amount of mood swings. 
        • But be careful here, because remember your appetite? You might not have much of one. So make sure you’re still fueling your body well, especially because you’re working out really hard. 

 

  • Now, what if you have really severe cramping or back pain or just discomfort in general during that late luteal phase or while you’re on your period? 

 

    • I suggest doing what feels good for now. It could be gentle stretching, or yoga, or foam rolling, or merely going through your dynamic warm-up. 
    • Sometimes, while it’s happening we think it’s going to last for an entire week, and completely derail us. But in reality, the severe cramping is just 2 or 3 days at most, and we still have several days in the week to get a couple workouts in. 
  • So, if during that PMS week or when you’re on your period, you feel absolutely awful and simply can’t bust your butt in your workout space, then you can be confident that you planned for this already. It’s not going to be a big deal! It’s part of your mesocycle to have a de-load week anyway, and all you need to do is keep moving at a fairly light intensity, and you’ll be fine. 
    • Consciously give yourself more grace during the week that you feel your worst. 
      • Instead of 5 workouts, aim for 2 or 3. 
      • Instead of high intensity, lots of sweat, super hard workouts, aim for light. 
      • Be gentle and gracious, trusting that this is part of the process and it’s good for your body anyway to de-load. 

What if you no longer have a normal menstrual cycle?

This is typically referred to as secondary amenorrhea. There are lots of causes, but for our purposes here, some common causes of secondary amenorrhea are:

  1. A severe lack of food causes the hypothalamus to reduce secretions of the proper hormones to such low levels that menstruation can’t occur
  2. Or physical stresses from too much training also results in very low hormone secretions from the hypothalamus. 
  3. Couple these together, lack of proper nutrition AND intense physical training, and your hormone secretions become really effected. 

This is definitely something you need to talk about with your doctor. But if you have been punishing your body physically with not enough food and/or excessive training, your lack of a normal period is probably an indicator that something big is going on underneath the surface, and you’re going too hard. 

You may need to take a full macrocycle and focus on eating more and cutting back on volume, the frequency, and intensity of your training. 

I know for some of us women, we can feel like more is better. Going harder is better. And we can wear our physical strength like a giant badge of honor, using it to prove our worth in a way. But we might be doing it at the expense of the actual health of our bodies. Yeah our muscles might be strong and our body fat percentage might be low, but our body is sitting under a giant burden of stress and our hormones are quietly waving the white flag. So listen up. 

At the end of the day, I really just want you to know that your own biology, your own physiology and the way a woman’s body was designed to cycle, is a truly marvelous thing. The specific interplay between all the hormones and how everything has a purpose and a function is quite miraculous. I know for myself, that the closer I look into the way everything works just so, the more I find myself stepping back and saying, “Woah, God you are amazing. You thought of everything. All of this is so beyond anything any of us humans could design and construct on our own, and it’s one more reason to stand in awe of you.” 

And as frustrating and sometimes confusing as your menstrual cycle can be at times, I hope that this episode helped a little bit. I hope it has given you some clarity for why and how you feel and behave the way you do at certain times throughout the month. And mostly, I hope you can feel more prepared and less like a victim of your own body. 

Personally, once I learned all of these things about my body, I was able to recognize symptoms, and just say, “Oh yeah, luteal phase happening right now …no big deal. Just need to pivot a little and be more intentional with this, this and this.” It gave me a new sense of freedom in my body, rather than spending one or two entire weeks out of every single month feeling angry about my bizarre lack of willpower, or discipline, or even the fact that all my clothes felt tighter and I had no desire to workout.  Now I know why, and now you know why, too. And I hope this next month, during this next mesocycle, you feel that same sense of peace and freedom in your body. 

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