How To Optimize Your Cycle
Here is one thing all women know: during different phases of our menstrual cycle, we look and feel different. Mood, skin, hair and weight, they all fluctuate thanks to the hormonal cycles which run on a give-or-take 30-day cycle.
For some women, this doesn’t really impact them all that much. But there are so many women who struggle with irregular or absent periods, unusually heavy periods, irritability, mood swings, bloating, acne, insomnia etc. Bleh. Who needs it?! Ehm, no one!
Feeling stressed or overwhelmed? Read our blog article on 5 Ways to Biohack Your Way To Less Stress
Cycle syncing (also known as Cyclical living) is a method grounded in scientific evidence which allows you to harness the power of your menstrual cycle rather than being a victim of it!
The basic concept: identify the four phases of your cycle and adapt your lifestyle (diet, exercise and scheduling) accordingly. Easy peasy!
Basic example: in the luteal phase, women typically experience low energy, irritability and have a greater need for sleep.
Your response: recognise that this is probably not the time to set PB’s in the gym or go on a first date. Instead, walking the dog, yoga and a little more sleep is in order. In the follicular phase, you have more energy, so try a new gym class and stack that social calendar!
I’ll be honest, I was a bit sceptical at first. Like we don’t have enough to worry about, I now need to adjust my training and food choices too? The types of food you focus on also change cycle to cycle. It turns out that I think there is massive benefit to be derived from this kind of cyclical living. For example, the food recommendations certainly aren’t restrictive, merely suggestions of what to add based on scientific research.
Hormones & Mental Health
Working with your hormones is crucial for good mental health. It costs you nothing other than some planning, plus, it’s all made really easy with cycle syncing apps and a myriad of other online resources and evidence-based literature.
The most popular app and the one I use is called MyFlo. I’ll give you an example of what it is currently telling me:
- I am in Phase 3 (Ovulation), which means that there is a rise in luteinising hormone to stimulate the follicle to release an egg.
- Oestrogen is increasing to thicken the uterine lining.
- Testosterone is surging which works to drive sexual desire (this is ancestral living at its best: your body knows that you are ready to make ‘em babies so your hormones do their part to make this happen!).
MyFlo recommendations during ovulation: the verbal and social centres of your brain are stimulated by these hormones, so now is a good time for important conversations both professionally and personally. You should be at the top of your game so connect with people during this time. It's also a great time for sex given all the cervical fluid that is present. Focus is sharp and you’ve got energy to burn, so choose high impact and energy workouts. Food-wise, fill up on raw veggies and fruit to boost glutathione levels so your body can easily eliminate any oestrogen surplus. Ovulatory foods promote the antioxidative well-being of your ovaries.
Pretty useful stuff I didn’t consider before!
Cycle Syncing 101
A quick biology 101: there are four menstrual phases:
- menstruation (your period),
- the follicular phase,
- the ovulation phase
- and finally, the luteal phase (right before you start bleeding again).
The length of each cycle differs for all women (this is normal), but for simplicity, let’s say it’s 28 days.
Day 1-7(ish): Menstrual Phase AKA Winter
This starts on day 1 of bleeding. Your hormones are at their lowest levels, so you feel more fatigued or withdrawn than usual. Don’t be hard on yourself, it’s completely normal not to feel like keeping the plans you made previously. Because oestrogen is low, your skin will be drier, so prioritise good hydration. Slow down. Oestrogen is also responsible for the happy hormone serotonin, so accept that your mood will be lower, which somehow makes it easier to cope with.
Delta brainwave activity is high during this phase, which means our brains are activating a desire for rest (for rejuvenation) and also leads to increased levels of creativity. Experts say that this is a good time for self-reflection and strategising, because both sides of your brain are highly engaged with each other.
Food: Healthy fats are important because they assist with typical PMS symptoms like low mood, tender breasts and bloating. An Omega-3 supplement or Krill oil can help or load up on wild-caught salmon as a spoil. Dark leafy greens, comforting soups and iron-rich foods like grass-fed meat (or an iron supplement) are a win, given that you’re literally losing blood and therefore, iron.
Exercise: Your hormones dropped to trigger menstruation, leaving you fatigued. Pampering is needed! Walking is always a brilliant exercise but especially so during your period. If yoga or pilates are your jam, stick to it and don’t crucify yourself for giving the run a skip.
Day 8-13(ish): Follicular Phase AKA Spring
Yippee, hormone levels are rising! Your brain’s pituitary gland releases Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH), which is responsible for growing little sacs of fluid on your ovaries (around 30 follicles or so). These follicles each hold an egg, ready for fertilisation! As hormones rise, so do our energy levels and confidence, phew! Even your skin is improving, so time to rock & roll!
Mentally, you are on fire. Problem-solving is optimised, you feel like the belle of the ball and if you’ve been putting anything off, now is the time to go out guns blazing to achieve your goals! At work, it’s time for strategising and socially, it’s time to try something new or go all out on your favourite activities.
Food: To regulate your rising oestrogen levels, it’s advisable to load up on protein and veggies in this phase. High quality fish and eggs are good, as are Vitamin E rich foods like almonds, green leafy veggies, avocadoes and sweet potatoes (good for follicle growth).
The Whole - Plant Based Shake from VIVO is a vegan, nutrient dense protein shake with 20g of plant protein and includes essential fats such as Omgea 3, 6 and 9.
Exercise: Intense workouts are the order of the day. Testosterone and oestrogen are rising, so lift heavy weights, do some HIIT training or anything that feels tough. You can smash it.
Day 14-21(ish): Ovulation AKA Summer
Summer has arrived! The follicle ruptures from the release of luteinising hormone, causing the egg to be released, travel down the fallopian tube and possibly run into a passing sperm that winks his eye at your egg. There are basically five days in a month when a woman can actually get pregnant: you are most likely to get pregnant on the day of ovulation (when your ovaries release an egg) or the 5 days before it.
You’ll know you’re ovulating when your vaginal discharge becomes like an egg-whitey colour and texture. You can also test for ovulation, either through monitoring your temperature at rest (when waking), called your Basal Body Temperature (BBT). Progesterone causes your temperature to rise after an initial dip when the egg is released. There are ovulation tests available from local pharmacies.
Ovulation: your beta brainwave activity is high, which supports learning and alertness. Now is the time to network, to start new projects, hell, even public speaking and karaoke are just easier right now! You’re probably also feeling decidedly frisky at this time, so this is the best time for date night!
Food: You want glutathione, a master antioxidant, for flushing out toxins, which includes excess oestrogen. Load up on cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli, as well as avocadoes and asparagus. You can also level-up and supplement with glutathione together with MCT oil (for absorption). To balance oestrogen and progesterone during this time, magnesium is a winner so here’s your chance to add some extra dark chocolate to your day! Quality eggs and meat (vitamin B) are going to particularly good for you during this period, especially if you are trying to fall pregnant.
NeuroActives N-Acetyl Cysteine can assist you body to make glutathione which is vital during this period.
Exercise: High intensity training, especially in groups like a spinning class, are what is called for now. Connection is important, so amp up the intensity and do it with a group where possible.
Day 22-28(ish): Luteal Phase AKA Autumn
After your oestrogen was at record highs, the levels slowly start to drop, and progesterone production starts in earnest. Both progesterone and oestrogen levels are high in this phase, helping to thicken the uterine lining for a potentially fertilised egg. The higher progesterone has a calming effect on your body, so you start to slow down again.
Instead of wanting a vibey night out, your attention turns inward and a dinner with mates or “nesting” is what you want. We tend to be more creative and innovative in this phase of lower energy. Towards the end of this phase, you may, however, start to feel moody and bloated and find your skin gunning for a breakout. To minimise these symptoms, try the below food and exercise recommendations.
Food: Like in autumn, turn your attention to hearty soups and root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes). Berries are nutritional powerhouses for you during this phase because they support healthy progesterone production and can actually help decrease cravings without spiking your blood sugar significantly. To beat PMS, continue eating quality meat, healthy fats and broccoli.
Exercise: Fun fact, your womb actually doubles in weight before you start bleeding. This is a phase in which you should do whatever exercise feels good. Because movement assists with relieving bloating, it’s good to keep moving, but do what you feel up to, whether that’s a light run or yoga, honour how your body feels.
There you have it – see, easy changes that could have a real impact! There are a few other options for biohacking your cycle, namely things called Seed Cycling and Moon Cycling.
Seed cycling is purported to balance hormones, assist with imbalances (like PCOS, infertility or PMS), aid with menopause and all around restore balance. It’s a natural way to do so, which I think is always worth a shot before taking pharmaceuticals to modulate your hormones.
There’s isn’t a lot of research to back it up, but women who have tried it, swear by it. Seed cycling prescribes two tablespoons of seeds per day (you can grind them down and add them to a smoothie). The seeds you eat depend on where you are in your cycle:
First two weeks of cycle (from when bleeding starts until the end of the follicular phase): one tablespoon each of flax seeds and pumpkin seeds daily.
The two weeks before menstruation starts: one tablespoon each of sesame and sunflower seeds daily.
It could take a couple of months to begin working it’s magic on your hormones, but if you’re deficient in healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamins, you’re going to start feeling better immediately.
The Science Behind Seeds:
- Flax seeds: lignans (a compound found in flax seeds) assist with oestrogen elimination and the high Omega-3 content aids with hormone balancing
- Sunflower seeds: contain selenium and Vitamin E, which improve progesterone production
- Pumpkin seeds: contain lignans and are high in magnesium
- Sesame seeds: contain lignans, Omega-3 and Vitamin E, so a great hormone-supporting food
There’s insufficient science to back this, but absolutely no harm in giving it a go!
Lunaception or Moon Cycling
OK this one is a bit out there, but many women swear by it to become pregnant or as a natural form of birth control or they just like the concept. The term was developed by Louise Lacey in her book Lunaception and the premise is that you can get your menstrual cycle (28-32 days) in sync with the lunar cycles (29.5 days). Over time, you will know when to have sex to fall pregnant or abstain to avoid pregnancy (as an alternative to hormonal birth control).
The theory is that women should start their period during the new moon (i.e. when you can’t see the moon) and that the light of the full moon will then trigger ovulation around two weeks later. If you sleep in a pitch-dark room and only on days 14 and 15 of your cycle sleep with a 15-25 watt white light, it’s expected that the cycles will merge over a 6-12 month period.
Does it work? It’s a bit woowoo but not inconceivable. There are studies linking the lunar cycle to heart attacks, accidents, suicide and even crime. Animal studies link the lunar calendar to sexual development in many animals, which is thought to be due to relate to the sleep hormone melatonin. There might be something here and it is suggested as another way to track ovulation in addition to temperature or cervical fluid monitoring.
Closing Thoughts on Cycle Syncing
It should be noted that if you’re on hormonal birth control like The Pill (which I think should be taken with extreme caution if there are absolutely no alternatives) or an IUD, then this manipulates your hormones artificially and cycling is less effective.
That being said, all women can benefit from being more in tune with their bodies and their cycle. Whether we suffer from a period that’s disappeared, too heavy, mood and irritability challenges or infertility, or if you’re just looking to optimise your best female self, acknowledge the cycles of your biology, treat yourself with compassion and apply the suggestions for each phase of your cycle to see if these can manage your symptoms better!
- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!
This information does not serve as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is for informational purposes only and does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the different compounds. Always consult your doctor first when making any changes to medication or supplementation.