How to Eat for Your Cycle: Four Phases
Learn how to eat for all phases of your menstrual cycle to help your body be as healthy as possible. Cycling women can use nutrition to help support hormone balance and ease of symptoms throughout the month.
Menstrual Cycle Meaning
For cycling women of all ages, it’s important to be aware of the ways that nutrition and food choices can support our hormones.
Our menstrual cycles can be a quick measure of our overall health. The relative ease and regularity of your menstrual cycle is an amazing piece of information that gives you insight about your overall health. In fact, some health professionals consider it to be the 5th vital sign.
The menstrual cycle is so important because it indicates whether or not a woman is healthy and safe enough to reproduce. Reproduction is not essential to survival, so it is often the first system to “shut off” in times of illness or stress.
This ability to stop menstruating is the body’s protection mechanism not to get pregnant in a less than optimal environment. Historically, this often occurred due to famine or other life-threatening circumstances. Today, a lack of a normal cycle occurs due to stress, imbalanced hormones, or lack of nourishment.
Most women between the ages of 12-50 have between 10-12 cycles a year. Menstrual cycles should generally be between 28-35 days, though this number may vary slightly. As long as your cycle is normal for you and is consistent, that is a good sign.
As always, however, it’s important to consult your healthcare provider if you have changes in your cycle or if you miss more than a couple of cycles and you aren’t pregnant.
It is normal to have some variations in our cycles. Even the season can cause changes. Certainly, one’s age, stage of life, and level of stress can also cause changes.
Overview of Four Menstrual Phases
We often think of menstruation as the main event of a cycle, but there are actually four phases in a cycle. One way to monitor your changes from phase to phase is to keep a journal of how you are feeling each day and what food cravings or mood changes you have.
Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5)
The first day of bleeding marks the first day of your entire cycle. Menstruation should occur from days 1-5, though your specific period length may look different. Anywhere from 2-7 days is considered normal, though most women bleed between 3-5 days.
During the menstrual phase, you are shedding your uterine lining from the previous cycle. All hormones are low for the first few days, with estrogen and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) begin to rise towards the end. Your body is also busy maturing several eggs for ovulation.
Follicular Phase (Days 7-16)
After you stop bleeding, you move into your follicular phase, which occurs from days 5-14 (or from the last day of bleeding to ovulation). During this time, your body selects one dominant follicle to nurture and grow in preparation for ovulation.
Estrogen rules this part of your cycle, along with luteinizing hormone to trigger ovulation. The end of the follicular phase is marked by ovulation, when the follicle bursts and releases an egg ready for fertilization.
Luteal Phase (Days 16-21)
Immediately after ovulation, your body remains hopeful for a fertilized egg to implant itself in your uterus. The luteal phase lasts from the end of ovulation to the premenstrual phase, roughly days 16-21.
During this luteal phase, progesterone rises, prompting the continued growth of a nutrient-dense uterine lining ready for implantation. The dominant follicle, now referred to as the corpus luteum, is primarily responsible for secreting the progesterone that will ensure a successful pregnancy if the egg has been fertilized.
Premenstrual Phase (Days 21-28)
From days 21-28, or the week before your next period, your body has gotten the message that is is not pregnant (if the egg is not fertilized). Thus, it begins preparing to shed the uterine lining and repeat the cycle again. As the corpus luteum begins dying, it takes progesterone with it. Estrogen remains lower as well.
This phase is when many women experience premenstrual syndrome, or PMS. PMS often occurs due to low progesterone levels, usually a result of poor follicle creation and/or unsuccessful ovulation (meaning the egg was not healthy enough or you did not ovulate at all.)
Your premenstrual phase ends with the first day of real bleeding, marking the first day of your next cycle.
How to Eat for Each Phase
Your diet is a great way to optimize each phase of your cycle. Not only do you get to target potential symptoms with key nutrients, but your cycle is a built-in way to rotate your foods and ensure variety in your diet.
Don’t worry if you can’t incorporate specific foods during each phase, but you might want to test if cycle syncing at least a few meals helps manage any unpleasant symptoms that you experience.
Foods for Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5)
Your menstrual phase is a time to rest and replenish. Your body is undergoing a controlled inflammatory response to shed your uterine lining, so nourishing yourself with nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods will help support you at this time.
Due to blood loss, iron-containing foods are the most important. Most women also need an iron supplement (see my recommendations of supplements for women of child-bearing age).
- A sample meal for your menstrual phase could include Instant Pot Sweet Potato & Beef Chili and a salad filled with iron-rich spinach, high-antioxidant berries, and healthy fats like sliced avocado and olive oil.
- Steer clear of inflammatory sugary foods, but you can nourish your magnesium levels and your mood with a few daily squares of dark chocolate or my recipe for Healthy Hot Chocolate.
Foods for the Follicular Phase (Days 7-16)
A lot of women feel best during their follicular phase when the body’s fertility efforts are more behind the scenes. Enjoy a normal balanced diet during this phase, incorporating plenty of nourishing foods to provide nutrients to a maturing follicle.
Play around with new recipes and foods during this easy phase of your cycle!
- A sample meal for your follicular phase could include nutrient-dense foods like eggs, broccoli, fruit, and nuts.
- Some women find themselves prone to dehydration during their follicular phase due to the high levels of hormones, so incorporate more mineral-rich sea salt and water during this time (try my recipe for Cucumber Lemon Infused Water).
Foods for the Luteal Phase (Days 16-21)
During your luteal phase, you want to start supporting your detoxification pathways to make it easy to metabolize and eliminate the used hormones from your follicular phase.
Focus on liver-loving foods like cruciferous vegetables, antioxidant-rich berries, and protein. Incorporate plenty of fiber to ensure you’re able to eliminate properly. You may consider eating easily digestible foods since some women can start to have digestive issues during this phase.
- A sample meal for your luteal phase could include a pureed soup, which is typically easy to digest. A dairy-free broccoli pureed soup is a great option (see all of my dairy-free soup recipes).
- You can also try eating more foods with natural probiotics such as sauerkraut and coconut yogurt to help with any digestive issues during the luteal phase.
Foods for the Premenstrual Phase (Days 21-28)
To help stave off cramps, headaches, and difficulty sleeping, you should definitely include magnesium-rich foods while continuing to support your detox pathways. Foods high in magnesium include nuts and seeds, leafy greens, avocado, chocolate, and bananas.
- A sample meal for your premenstrual phase may include a soothing smoothie made with magnesium-rich banana, cacao powder, almond butter, and avocado. Toss in some cruciferous kale or cauliflower for extra detox support. Adding in collagen peptides should supply you with the amino acids necessary to support great sleep.
Seed cycling, or the practice of ingesting different seeds for the two major phases of your cycle, can help support hormone balance for some women. However, there has never been a large-scale study performed to investigate the benefits of seed cycling.
Not all women will need to take iron during their menstruation phase, but most women do need it. You should always test your ferritin levels before taking an iron supplement (learn more about which lab tests women should get).
It’s important to consult your doctor to determine what ferritin level is optimal for you. Ferritin is different than iron; it is a protein that controls the capacity of your body to store and release iron as needed. If ferritin levels are low, you won’t be able to store or release adequate iron into your bloodstream.
Ferritin is important for many different mechanisms in your body. Iron is required for adequate T3 and T4 production and utilization. If the body senses low iron storage from low ferritin levels, it won’t produce adequate thyroid hormones. Low ferritin levels can also lead to low energy, weakness, lightheadedness, and brittle hair and nails.
If you have the above symptoms, or if you have especially heavy periods, it’s wise to get your ferritin levels checked. Learn more about the reasons why you might always be tired.
There is no one-size-fits-all hormone protocol. Every woman is different and should get individual advice from a qualified practitioner. Having an adequate nutrient intake with a varied, whole foods diet and supplementation is the first step in balancing your hormones. Learn more about how to reverse estrogen dominance naturally.
Clean Eating for Women Course
If you want more help eating to support your hormones, be sure to check out my Clean Eating for Women course.
Eating for your cycle can be a nourishing way to support your hormonal health at every phase of your menstrual cycle. Focus on nutrient-dense foods that can help you move through each phase with ease, from iron-rich foods in your menstrual phase to magnesium-rich foods in your premenstrual phase.