What we put into our body matters. Whether it’s food, drink or other substances- it all has an effect on our overall health and wellbeing, and when it comes to diet, there are many side effects linked to having a bad one. You probably know what we’re talking about here: heartburn, indigestion, digestive distress- all signs that the food we’ve eaten isn’t doing us any favours. But does diet affect the menstrual cycle?
According to Laura Southern nutritional therapist at London Gynaecology, the answer is a very firm yes. Laura told us,
“I work with many women who have disrupted /lost cycles, or painful, heavy periods with PMS and digestive issues, and find that nutritional therapy is really helpful.”
Dr Shashi Prasad, a specialist in integrative women’s health and bioidentical hormone balancing for the Marion Gluck Clinic, agrees, telling us:
“A healthy well balanced diet rich with proteins, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals are essential for normal production of hormones.
Healthy gut microbiome also plays an important role in oestrogen detoxification. Unhealthy microbiome produces an enzyme called beta glucuronidase which affects oestrogen metabolism, increasing its level and hence contributing to heavier periods.”
So let’s take a look at nutritional therapy, and how tuning in to our body’s specific nutritional needs could benefit our menstrual cycle.
What is nutritional therapy?
Nutritional therapy refers to the practise of adopting a whole body approach to health and wellness. Therapists work to assess and identify underlying causes of poor health and other symptoms, promoting wellness through nutrition. Its more of a prevention rather than cure approach.
There are many ways that nutritional therapy can help support your hormones and ease PMS symptoms if you experience them. This study looked at the impact of nutritional therapy on PMS and found that a personalised approach is the best way to treat patients, due to the extent and variety of symptoms associated.
The report concludes that “Diet is an essential modulating factor in reducing and managing PMS symptoms.”- which supports the theory of cycle syncing.
What is Cycle Syncing?
What if you were able to take control of some of your PMS symptoms, simply through what you eat? That’s what cycle syncing is all about.
Nutritional therapists work closely with patients to help them choose the foods which will benefit their own specific needs- eating foods which work in harmony with the fluctuating hormone levels throughout each stage of your cycle.
And it makes sense too. We know that there are some foods that are guaranteed to make us feel worse when we’ve got period cramps, or maybe there are some foods that always bring on a headache at certain points in our cycle too. But do we know which foods might actually benefit us, and bring relief to PMS symptoms?
Over to Laura:
Foods to support the follicular phase (days 1-14)
“Usually the week straight after the period (bleeding) finishes is when you are least symptomatic, and usually feeling good. For some of my clients this can be the only time in the month when they feel ‘themselves’.
For this reason it is useful to try and focus on adding nutrient dense foods to your diet – this might be a time when there are few sugar/food cravings, and a time when your body wants fresh produce. I recommend trying to think about balance and freshness.
“You’re also wanting to provide your body with building blocks to manufacture the new hormones it will need for the rest of the cycle. Try to ensure that each meal and snack contains protein (to help build hormones and balance blood sugar), good fats (to help build hormones and support mood) and lots of fibre rich plant foods (to provide blood-sugar supporting energy and nutrients).
“I’d suggest overnight oats for breakfast packed with seeds for protein and good fats (pumpkin and flax seed can support follicular phase according to ‘seed cycling’ advocates) and fresh berries. Lunch might be a fresh salad with quinoa, feta/eggs, pine nuts and a variety of salad veg. Dinner could be chicken stir fry with buckwheat noodles.
“Make use of having energy and fewer PMS symptoms in the follicular phase- get cooking and meal prepping. You’re aiming for an abundance of different colour fruits and veggies in your day and if you can start your menstrual cycle with a balanced blood sugar and nutrient dense foods you might reduce symptoms later in the cycle.”
Foods to support the ovulation and luteal phases
“The second half of the menstrual cycle (ovulation and luteal phases) can be where symptoms occur. It’s important to seek medical help to find the cause of any symptoms, but in nutrition we look at ensuring that the body has enough building blocks to manufacture hormones (we need protein and fat), and the ability to detoxify and excrete old circulating hormones.
If ‘old’ hormones are not broken down properly or excreted properly then they can recirculate, and this can cause period problems (e.g. breast pain, bloating, mood changes).
“It’s useful in the second part of the menstrual cycle to really focus on supporting the liver as this is the main detoxification organ in the body. The liver loves brassicas – so this is a good time to add in kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi – you can steam them, roast them, stir fry, add to soups etc – just try and eat a portion daily.
The liver also loves dark pigmented fruits and veggies – think beetroot, berries, dark plums. Then to ensure good excretion you need to support your gut – seeds are great here – especially chia seeds if you’re prone to constipation (if you’re seed cycling then this half of the cycle is for sesame and sunflower seeds).
“The gut needs fibre rich foods – so again, a variety of veggies. Don’t forget to eat skins, stalks, leaves – the more parts of the plant you eat the better for our gut. You can also include some ‘fermented’ foods to support our gut microbes – sauerkraut, kimchi and live yoghurt can all be supportive. And don’t forget to drink water! Water supports both detoxification and excretion – sparkling water, herbal teas and broths will all add to your hydration levels.”
Can a low calorie diet affect periods?
So can a low calorie diet affect your period too? According to Dr Prasad,
“Calorie and nutrient deficiency turn off the functioning of ‘Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Ovarian Axis’, the main hormone producing system in our body. The effects are quite complex. Levels of oestrogen and progesterone hormones, which are produced by the ovaries drops, ovulation may stop and menstruation ceases. This condition is called ‘Hypothalamic amenorrhoea’. It can be reversed by careful reintroduction of a well-balanced healthy diet.”
If you’re concerned about your period and you think your calorie intake could be too low, speak to your GP for advice.
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What foods affect your period?
There are some foods which are best avoided during your period- anything that’s heavily processed and high in sugar and salt can cause inflammation, which can intensify period cramps. Foods which are good to eat include whole foods, those which are high in protein, fibre and healthy fats.
Try to eat a balance, with five portions of fruit and vegetables daily- and not just during your period, it’s important to eat well throughout your whole cycle.
Can low calorie diets affect your period?
Your body needs fuels and for some it may need extra calories during your period too. If you don’t support your body and the physiological processes that it needs to perform during your cycle, you may notice changes in your cycle. Speak to your doctor if you’re concerned about your diet and its affect on your period.
Does eating unhealthy make your period worse?
Eating foods which are high in sugar, salt and fat can cause inflammation, which can make period cramps worse. Foods that don’t support your hormones can also play havoc with your cycle; making changes to your diet could well bring about positive changes to PMS symptoms.