Should You Eat Based On Your Menstrual Cycle?
Can you balance your hormones through diet? Experts say it's possible.
Over the past several years, there's been a sharp rise in interest in nonconventional methods of dealing with health issues. More people are turning to acupuncture for back pain, and there's an upswing in the popularity of functional medicine. Another trend gaining major traction? Biohacking-using nutrition to take control of human biology. (Just check out the #biohacking hashtag on Instagram.)
This includes the idea of adjusting your diet based on your menstrual cycle. Yep-really. Advocates of this nutritional approach claim it not only helps women with regular menstrual cycles feel on top of their game throughout all phases of the cycle, but it may also help alleviate more troublesome hormonal issues like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), PMS, and endometriosis. Here's what you should know before giving it a try.
Why More Women Are Syncing Their Diet and Their Cycle
"With menstrual health issues on the rise, conventional solutions failing women, and natural wellness becoming mainstream, more women are looking for solutions tailored to their unique biology and in line with their values," says Alisa Vitti, women's hormone and functional nutrition expert, author of WomanCode, founder of the FLO Living Hormone Center and the MyFLO period app. Plus, as awareness of hormonal conditions and infertility rises, women are becoming more informed about their options and are more likely to try something new to take control of their fertility and menstrual health.
Vitti says eating according to your cycle phases can help optimize your energy, mood, and skin, and may eliminate symptoms of PMS. She also says it can help with conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, and even infertility-but the support for these claims is not totally science-backed. There's evidence that dietary changes do have an impact on risk of infertility due to ovulatory disorders, like PCOS, although the research doesn't look at eating based on your cycle specifically; it's more about improving overall diet, making healthy lifestyle changes, and in many cases, losing weight.
Still, mainstream health experts aren't *against* the idea by any means. "When reviewing the medical literature, there isn't much evidence to suggest this approach can help you feel better during your cycle," says Christine Greves, M.D., an ob-gyn at Orlando Health. "However, because the foods and activities suggested for 'cycle syncing' are incredibly healthy, I don't see any harm in giving it a try if someone is struggling with their cycle. It is always good to have hope, and if changing your diet helps with that, as long as it is not harmful, then that's great!" It's important to note, though, that she recommends checking in with your doctor first if you're thinking of using this approach to treat a more serious condition (like PCOS or endometriosis). "It is important to get your doctor involved initially is to exclude other causes that could be contributing to problems with your menstrual cycle," she says. (Related: What Is Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder?)
How It Works
Think eating according to your cycle is something you might want to try? Just a heads up: This approach isn't compatible with using certain forms of hormonal birth control that prevent ovulation, like the Pill and hormone-secreting ring. "This medication suppresses the brain-ovary hormonal conversation so you have no cycle," explains Vitti. That means your body doesn't go through the various phases listed below, so while the specific foods mentioned are definitely still *good* for you, they won't help regulate your hormones because your BC already has that on lock. Women with hormonal IUDs may be able to reap some benefits if they still get their periods, says Vitti, since an IUD doesn't necessarily prevent ovulation. If you're not on birth control, it's a good idea to track your cycle using an app or journal for the first few months. (Related: Your Menstrual Cycle Phases-Explained)
Keep in mind, while some women say they've benefited from this approach-like influencer Lee Tilghman's account of how Vitti's approach has helped her deal with PCOS-experts warn that it's not a miracle cure for all menstrual and fertility issues. Still, these healthy-eating tips can help boost your mood and increase energy throughout the month.
Days 1 to 5: Menstruation
The first day of your cycle is the day your period starts. "This is when estrogen and progesterone are low," says Lauren Manganiello, a registered dietitian, trainer, and owner of Lauren Manganiello Nutrition & Fitness in NYC. You probably already know the deal with what's happening during this phase: "The lining of the uterus is shedding and bleeding occurs."
Rachel Swanson, a registered dietitian for Lifespan Medicine, says incorporating certain herbs and spices into your diet can help with symptoms you may experience during menstruation. "Cinnamon has also been shown to exhibit a significant effect on symptoms of dysmenorrhea (painful periods) in young women without side effects, and the spice saffron may be able to improve both emotional and physical symptoms of PMS."
Taking care of your emotional health is also important during this time. "For the majority of us, our monthly visitor makes us feel pretty crappy and when we don't feel good, we often turn to comfort food," points out Whitney English, a registered dietitian nutritionist and trainer. Because of this, English recommends watching out for the impulse for emotional eating during this first week of your cycle. "Instead of reaching for highly processed sugary snacks and treats, try to find whole foods that will quench those cravings," she suggests. "Eating frozen berries with a little dark chocolate is a good way to satisfy your sweet tooth. Another healthy snack and comfort food is popcorn. Upgrade it by popping a bag of plain kernels and then adding your own toppings like extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and nutritional yeast."
Lastly, you may want to increase your intake of iron-rich foods during your period. "Iron is lost in our blood and replacing it can help prevent iron-deficiency-related symptoms like fatigue," says English. "Good sources of iron include lentils, quinoa, leafy greens, and pumpkin seeds. Consume these plant-based foods with a vitamin C–rich food like bell peppers, citrus, or strawberries to help increase the bioavailability of the iron." Since women on hormonal birth control may have withdrawal bleeding that is similar to a period, this is one part of eating for your menstrual cycle that could apply, but mainly if you experience a heavier flow.
Days 6 to 14: Follicular Phase
Once your period ends, follicles in the ovary mature and estrogen levels begin to rise slightly, says Vitti. Now is the time in your cycle to focus on gut-friendly foods. Since one of the ways the body breaks down estrogen is in the gut, adding in fermented foods, sprouted grains, lighter proteins, and steamed vegetables will all help to support the microbiome, she explains. (BTW, here's why you should add fermented foods to your diet no matter your eating style.)
"During the follicular phase, you'll want to make sure you're taking in plenty of B vitamins, which are important for energy production," adds English. "Reach for foods like nuts, legumes, and leafy greens. B12 is specifically important for red blood cell production and is only present in animal foods, so vegans or those on predominantly plant-based diets should make sure they're getting it from fortified foods like nut milk and nutritional yeast or from supplements."
Days 15 to 17: Ovulatory Phase
This is the shortest phase, ovulation. "This is when estrogen levels peak and testosterone and progesterone levels are on the rise," says Manganiello. And FYI, this is the best time to get in some high-intensity exercise. If you do, you'll want to complement that with some high-quality workout fuel. "During the ovulatory phase, your energy levels are at an all-time high," English says. "Make sure to properly refuel after your workouts with a balanced meal of complex carbohydrates and protein to support muscle growth and recovery." Her picks? "Whole-grain oatmeal with protein-rich chia, flax, and hemp seeds is an excellent post-workout breakfast option, or opt for a hearty Buddha bowl filled with nutrient-rich quinoa, legumes, and colorful veggies for a midday meal."
Days 18 to 28: Luteal Phase
The luteal phase begins right after your fertile window ends. "During this time, progesterone begins to rise, which can cause feelings of fatigue to reemerge as well as bring on constipation and bloating," says English. "Toward the end of this phase, when the egg is not fertilized, your body receives its cue to start the whole process over again. Hormone levels plummet and with them, your mood; this is the dreaded arrival of PMS."
Adaptogens such as ashwagandha can be helpful to manage stress, Vitti notes. (If you're curious about them, here's why adaptogens are worth the health hype.) Tumeric may also help during this phase, according to Swanson. "Curcumin has been shown to help relieve the severity of PMS symptoms," she says, "This was demonstrated in a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial, and is likely due to curcumin's ability to modulate inflammation and influence neurotransmitters."
English also recommends drinking plenty of water and eating foods that support a healthy digestive system to combat the bloating and constipation that is typical at the tail end of this phase. "Fiber-rich foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables will help move things along," she says. "Depending on how sensitive your stomach is, you may want to temporarily avoid some healthy foods that can contribute to bloating and gas like broccoli, cauliflower, beans, onions, and garlic." And while she advises people to stay away from artificial sweeteners in general, she especially recommends skipping them during this phase, as they can make digestive issues worse.
Some Final Thoughts
"I would caution women against expecting drastic results based on these guidelines or from adopting a black-and-white mentality about the recommendations," says English. "Eating a balanced diet every day with a wide variety of predominantly plant-based, whole foods is more important than tailoring your diet to your cycle."
In fact, becoming too rigid in your eating habits kind of defeats the purpose of this style of eating, which is to listen to your body and eat accordingly. "Women are trying to get more in tune with their bodies, which is great," Manganiello adds. "But the last thing you want to do is stress yourself out by following specific guidelines."