Love and cycles
This month, we’ll consider a very monthly matter: the menstrual cycle.
I hope this post will help you, or someone you know, begin to make the most of their menstrual cycle - and perhaps even come to love it.
People who menstruate have an ever-shifting experience. Every week or so looks hormonally different from the previous one.
While there are painful medical conditions (such as endometriosis) which do require serious attention and support, even for non-sufferers, periods are often thought of as a monthly bore to suppress or ignore as much as possible.
But what if monthly cycles could be a kind of super-power, offering a way to navigate life well, instead of just getting in the way?
These are the radical questions posed by two books, Maisie Hill’s Period Power and Alisa Vitti’s In the Flo who argue that we need to pay more, not less attention to the menstrual cycle, in order to unlock its potential.
They describe it rather like a fabulous car; once you’ve learned how it works, it can become a powerful and useful tool.
For example, the hormone oestrogen is highest at and after ovulation, which means optimism, sociability, verbal skill, and communication are also at their highest then. And when it declines at the end of the cycle, more critical and analytical powers come to the fore.
Thanks to hormonal shifts, therefore, one situation could be viewed from a number of different angles within one cycle.
Alisa Vitti usefully explains the four phases of the menstrual cycle by comparing them to a 24-hour day:
- the follicular phase, when the body prepares for ovulation, is like the morning, lending itself to focused planning and work
- ovulation and the early luteal phase, when an egg is released from an ovary, is like the afternoon, where one may feel a little more sociable and relaxed
- the luteal phase, at the end of which the body either prepares for a baby, or prepares for the next period, is like the evening: a quieter, task-finishing time in preparation for rest
- finally the menstrual phase is like night-time. A good moment for hibernation!
Knowing how our bodies work, and what they need, can empower us to look after them not only more effectively, but with more compassion and love.
For example, in the past I would berate myself for sometimes wanting to avoid socialising. But I never observed that this desire always occurred in the menstrual phase.
If I had understood that a period is the monthly equivalent of night-time (when we quite legitimately want to hide under a duvet) perhaps I would have treated myself with more compassion!
So at certain times of the month, I will boldly avoid not-strictly-necessary invitations, knowing I’ll need a little more rest.
Where possible I schedule my more challenging appointments towards my ovulatory phase, knowing I’ll be most social and optimistic.
And when it’s not possible to reschedule a big meeting in the middle of the menstrual phase, I will prepare to compensate for it.
So, rather than try to accomplish my entire to-do list on top of the big meeting, I’ll do a little strategic prioritising and postponing, knowing that in a week or so, the list will get done in half the time.
In this way, menstruators can be just as productive as non-menstruators. It’s just that the output intensity is spread unevenly across a cycle, in the same way that our productivity within 24 hours is spread unevenly to include both work and sleep.
To do all of this, we need to get to know our own cycle. For some, period-tracking phone apps are the way to go. For others, simply noting the first day of their period in a diary is enough to remind them where they’re at.
Once our cycle feels familiar, we can anticipate its phases and support ourselves wisely.
It’s also an important way to connect with, and own, our own biological rhythm, so that we’re not just holding ourselves to other people’s schedules, but mindfully building our own life.
For me, the most useful nutrition insight is knowing that food metabolism speeds up after ovulation. Hence the cravings as a period approaches: we’re literally burning through fuel faster.
Once we know this, in the days before our period we could be especially careful to eat filling, nutrient-dense protein foods such as eggs, beans with grains, organic meat, fish, nuts and seeds, and access plenty of fibre from a good variety of vegetables.
We could also make rich, comforting dishes such as hearty soups and stews. Or in summer, eat filling salads with ingredients like pulses, nuts, seeds and olive oil, so that we’re less likely to want the ‘quick fix’ of sugar or refined-carb snacks, which in turn can trigger irritability.
There are a whole host of other things we can do to make the most of the menstrual cycle.
As we begin to love and support the body’s shifting needs, I hope that we will increasingly discover the amazing potential that comes with it.
To your best of health,
Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT
Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC
References and resources
Benton, M.J., Hutchins, A.M., Dawes, J.J., 2020. Effect of menstrual cycle on resting metabolism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One 15, e0236025.
Dan, R., Canetti, L., Keadan, T., Segman, R., Weinstock, M., Bonne, O., Reuveni, I., Goelman, G., 2019. Sex differences during emotion processing are dependent on the menstrual cycle phase. Psychoneuroendocrinology 100, 85–95.
Haraguchi, R., Hoshi, H., Ichikawa, S., Hanyu, M., Nakamura, K., Fukasawa, K., Poza, J., Rodríguez-González, V., Gómez, C., Shigihara, Y., 2021. The Menstrual Cycle Alters Resting-State Cortical Activity: A Magnetoencephalography Study. Front Hum Neurosci 15, 652789.
Sundström Poromaa, I., Gingnell, M., 2014. Menstrual cycle influence on cognitive function and emotion processing-from a reproductive perspective. Front Neurosci 8, 380.