It IS possible to make your menstrual cycle work to your advantage! And in your 40s this is ever more helpful and important. And it’s EVEN more important to master this in your 40s than ever before.
Because oestrogen and progesterone are behaving differently now, which means the different phases of your cycle need a little more attention if you want a much smoother hormonal ride.
Throughout your menstrual cycle, oestrogen ebbs and flows, which is normal. However, as you move beyond your mid-late 30s, oestrogen’s fluctuations can become more erratic, which can exacerbate various symptoms and/or create new ones.
The new erratic highs and lows of oestrogen can see levels soaring almost 3 times higher than ever before, then crashing down to almost zero. This is one of the reasons for some of the common perimenopause symptoms such as hot flushes, low mood, irritability, anxiety, and heavy periods.
In addition to this, progesterone is on the decline, which brings it’s own set of symptoms and experiences such as heavy periods, worse or new PMS, breast pain, sleep issues, anxiety, and low mood.
Knowing (tracking) where you are in your cycle on any given day is more helpful and important in your 40s than ever before! Understanding what’s actually happening in the various phases of your menstrual cycle and how you’re likely to feel is a POWER.
In this blog, I’ll break down the different phases of the menstrual cycle, what’s happening with your hormones, and how you’re likely to feel during each phase. Then I’ll outline some nutrition, exercise and emotional wellbeing considerations for each of the phases.
Honouring the phases and the various considerations for each phase, can make your life far more enjoyable and your perimenopause experience a whole easier!
PLEASE NOTE: This blog refers to those having natural menstrual cycles, in other words those who are not on the contraceptive pill, implant, or injection. Monthly bleeds experienced by those on the pill are NOT periods but a withdrawal bleed from the drug itself. The job of the oral contraceptive pill, implant or injection is to block the communication between your brain and ovaries to prevent ovulation from occurring. The result of this is that production of oestrogen and progesterone is minimal and they are flatlined across the month.
Ok, now let’s get your menstrual cycle to work FOR you, not against!
Tracking your cycle
If you’re not already tracking your cycle then now is the time to start! You can do this by simply keeping a note in your diary or cycle tracking app (free) of when you come on your period. From here you will start to see how many days your cycles typically are, and after a few months of data you will always know when you’re going to be in which phase and when you’re due on. This is such powerful information!
I currently use the Cycles app, however there are many other apps. Most apps offer a paid subscription if you want all the bells and whistles, but I personally manage fine with the free version as I simply want to mark the day I start my period and from there I can keep a track of the upcoming phases.
Planning your diary
Knowing (either approximately or exactly) when my period (new cycle) is going to start allows me to mark it in my calendar. This lets me know that the week or few days leading up to that day is a time to keep bigger life events, outings and responsibilities to a minimum as much as possible. I say no to high-energy activities, intense workouts, social engagements, or other obligations that will be more impactful on my nervous system during this week. Instead I say yes to more down time, Netflix, restorative yoga, yin yoga, and walks in nature. The more we start to do this, the more benefits we will see and experience such as easier periods and reduced PMS.
The phases of the menstrual cycle
MENSTRUATION PHASE (ALSO PART OF THE FOLLICULAR PHASE / FIRST HALF)
If we were to liken the menstrual cycle to the 4 seasons, the menstruation phase is the winter of your cycle.
The first day of proper bleeding/flow (not spotting) is day 1 of a new cycle, lasting between 3 and 7 days.
If there was no fertilisation of the egg you released during ovulation, progesterone levels drop, causing the thick, fluffy uterine lining that was built up after ovulation to break down or shed, aka your period.
This shedding signals your body to slow down and rest, as you prepare to start anew.
It’s a time to wrap up, get cosy, hibernate, and go inwards. Oestrogen and progesterone are at their lowest during your bleed and as a result, your energy is likely to be low and your mood a little flat. Keep social engagements, bigger commitments, and high-energy activities to a minimum here.
From about midway through or towards the end of your bleed oestrogen starts to rise and so you should notice your energy levels start to rise and your mood lift.
The menstruation phase sits within the follicular phase. Once your period ends you move into the next part of the follicular phase.
THE FOLLICULAR PHASE (FIRST HALF)
This follicular phase includes the menstruation phase, therefore this phase begins on day 1 of your period and lasts up until ovulation.
The pituitary gland in your brain releases follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates one of your ovaries to produce around 5 to 20 follicles (tiny nodules or cysts). These follicles stimulate your uterine lining to thicken in preparation for a potential pregnancy following ovulation and the fertilisation of an egg later in the cycle.
This week in the cycle is like spring. Oestrogen starts to rise just like when blossom starts to bloom on the trees in springtime. You start to feel a sense of renewed energy, your mood brightens, you feel more optimistic, motivation, strength and creativity go up and you may even find you have clearer skin.
As you start to approach the ovulatory phase oestrogen surges, which usually results in you feeling more attractive, confident and outgoing, with a real spring in your step!
Testosterone levels are also starting to rise here, also helping to boost strength, mood and sex drive.
This is a good time to arrange those social engagements and work on big projects that require more focus, attention and creativity.
THE OVULATORY PHASE (MIDWAY POINT)
This is the summer of your cycle! It’s natural to feel like you have more energy here, to feel much more sociable, open and outgoing, and to be smashing through workouts, work tasks, presentations and creative projects.
It’s a great time to go for a personal best in the gym or in other activities you’re training for. You’ll be feeling and looking great here too with a twinkle in your eye ;-), and of course you’re more fertile here so beware!
Ovulation occurs when/if one of your ovaries releases an egg after one of the follicles
from the follicular phase matures into an egg. This typically occurs around day 14 in an average 28 day cycle, and lasts about 24 hours.
Once ovulation has occurred (and ONLY if it has) the follicle transforms into a structure known as the corpus luteum, and this structure starts releasing lots of progesterone into your system over the following 10-14 days (the luteal phase), along with small amounts of oestrogen.
Progesterone is a calming, soothing, anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory hormone. Unless ovulation occurs, we simply won’t make anywhere near enough of this important hormone, and will feel the negative effects of low progesterone, such as PMS, low mood, puffiness, sleep issues, irritability, and anxiety. Fertility aside, we must support the body to ovulate every month.
THE LUTEAL PHASE (SECOND HALF)
The luteal phase is the autumn of your cycle and a tale of two halves. It begins right after ovulation (approx. day 15) and lasts for approximately 2 weeks, ending the day before your next bleed begins.
In the first week of this phase energy is still good, mood is calm, and you’re feeling grounded whilst you continue to enjoy the wonderful balancing effects of the progesterone you made after you ovulated.
The second week however moves us deeper into autumn as oestrogen and progesterone start to taper down. You might start to notice lower energy, low mood, and perhaps some anxiety and sleep issues. You may also find that your mindset is on the negative side and that you’re rather critical of yourself, other people, or certain situations.
Oestrogen and progesterone continue to drop as the week goes on, reaching their lowest levels just before your next cycle (your period) starts.
Managing your energy across the phases
MENSTRUATION PHASE / BLEED WEEK
Stay close to home, rest more, take naps, get to bed earlier, practice lying-down meditations such as Yoga Nidra, take Epsom salts baths, CHILL!
Manage your rising energy by taking regular breaks during your day. It’s so important not to over-expend your energy here or you’ll feel it later on in the cycle, for example in the form of headaches and exacerbated PMS generally.
A good time to plan your social engagements but do be careful not to over-commit despite all the extra energy you’re experiencing! But do of course enjoy the energy, better mood, and increased zest for life.
During the first half/week here you can still reap the benefits of the extra energy and better mood but it’s time to think about slowing down and taking it easier, especially as you approach the second week.
Be honest with yourself about how much you can do or WANT to do. Check in with your calendar and make sure you haven’t over-committed for this phase, ESPECIALLY the 5-3 days before your period – if you have then get cancelling!
Exercising across the phases
“Women are not small men” (Dr Stacy Sims) and should NOT be put on weekly training plans but menstrual cycle training plans.
MENSTRUATION PHASE / BLEED WEEK
Gentle yoga including yin and restorative, gentle stretching, walks in nature, gentle swimming, gentle cardio.
Weight training and lift heavier, higher intensity workouts such as interval sprints, metcons, HIIT, CrossFit). BUT don’t trade these sessions in for your heavy lifting as this should still be the priority, along with your daily walks. Your body will be more tolerant of carbohydrates in this phase, as your cells are more ‘sensitive’ to the action of insulin meaning they will be better at soaking up the glucose from your bloodstream, plus you should be less inflammatory here and so workouts should feel nicer.
Lift heavy today, go for a PB! Make the most of this high energy day!
First half: gentle cardio, avoid intense workouts (met cons, HIIT, spin, etc.)
Second half (the week before next period): Slow down. Gentle yoga including yin and restorative, gentle stretching, walks in nature, gentle swimming, gentle cardio. Listen to your body! Note that we are generally in a more ‘catabolic’ state this week, which means intense exercise is more likely to cause fatigue and muscle soreness, muscle loss, fat gain, and slower recovery, plus it can disrupt sleep here too. So stick to gentle movements already mentioned here, and if you’re still lifting weights this week just go lighter and less intense. This is NOT a time to go for a PB and it’s definitely NOT a time for HIIT or metabolic conditioning.
Nutrition considerations across the phases
MENSTRUATION / BLEED WEEK (3-7 days)
Remember, this week you are losing a lot of blood and so focus on nutrient-dense blood-building foods such as bone broth, organic liver, quality red meat (grass fed, organic beef or lamb), eggs, and chicken thighs.
This week you can push your fasting window a little longer (e.g. from a 12 hour overnight fast up to 16 hours) Your appetite will generally be lower here so you’ll be able to fast longer overnight without it working against your biology. Your cells will be more resistant to insulin here which means high carb meals and sugary foods won’t be processed as efficiently as in other phases, therefore enjoy (and benefit from) less carbs this week (not NO carbs, just less). Learn more about insulin resistance here.
As you move into the second week of your cycle, your cells are more sensitive to insulin this week, which means your body should be able to process carbohydrates more efficiently, making you better at regulating your blood sugar here.
Don’t be low carb this week, eat more carbs here! If you are training hard in the gym and lifting heavy weights, this is even more important. Also increase your protein here to maintain muscle and encourage growth (through stimulation of muscle protein synthesis). Aim for 2g per kg of bodyweight in this phase (if not already doing so all month long). Split this out across all meals and a post-workout meal that should also contain about 20-30g of carbs to support recovery and prevent muscle breakdown.
This isn’t a week to be pushing your fasting window too long like last week. Go back to a 12-14 (max) hours overnight fast, longer fasts may impact ovulation, which is less than a week or so away.
LUTEAL PHASE – PART 1
Stick with 12-14 hours overnight fasts and/or you could try a couple of 16 hours fasts BUT ONLY if your sleep is optimal and stress is low/well managed.
LUTEAL PHASE – PART 2
Your appetite will be higher this week and likely your cravings too. Increase your calories (food) by about 10-15%, and enjoy it! You need more food this week as your body expends more energy. Restricting/under-eating here will be detrimental to your hormones and metabolism. An increase in protein and (complex) carbs will help you curve cravings. Stick with 12-14 hours overnight fasts.
Working against the phases of your cycle can be detrimental to your physical, mental and emotional health. Pushing during the phases when you should be resting or slowing down puts additional pressure on your stress hormones and your metabolism for example. Both of which can lead to PMS, horrible periods, weight gain and a sense of being ‘burnt out’.
What might you start doing differently after reading this? Have you found this information helpful and supportive? I’d love to hear from you!
Join the Thrive Through Perimenopause programme! TTP is a lifetime access programme for women who want to nourish their body and their hormones and THRIVE in their 40s, and beyond! Choose the live or self study option.