Cycle Syncing: How to Understand Your Menstrual Cycle to Reduce Period Symptoms

A gynecologist explains the practice of cycle syncing and the benefits of adapting your lifestyle habits to match the phases of your menstrual cycle.

Fatigue, cramps, trouble sleeping, bloating, mood swings, and changes in appetite. Fluctuating hormone levels throughout the menstrual cycle can cause any or all of these unpleasant symptoms. One way to help manage them and feel your best throughout the month is through a practice called cycle syncing.

Cycle syncing involves being aware of the different phases of your cycle, and adjusting your lifestyle, such as diet, exercise, and sleep habits, to support your body during each phase.

“People might want to try cycle syncing for a variety of reasons,” says Dr. Hoosna Haque, an OB-GYN at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “It can be helpful for women who want to minimize intense period or PMS symptoms, for those who are trying to become pregnant, or who want to feel more in tune with their bodies.”

The average menstrual cycle is about 28 days (but can range from 21 to 35 days) and is divided into four phases: the menstrual phase, the follicular phase, the ovulatory phase, and the luteal phase.

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Haque about what you can do during each phase to reduce hormone-related symptoms and improve mood and energy.

Dr. Hoosna Haque

Dr. Hoosna Haque

Menstrual Phase (Days 1-5)

The cycle begins with the menstrual phase, which starts on the first day of your period and typically lasts about five days on average. When an egg from your previous cycle isn’t fertilized, the lining of the uterus is shed as blood (causing your period).

Nutrition: Although it’s always important to pay attention to your overall nutrition, during the menstrual phase it might be helpful to eat extra iron-rich foods because of the blood loss that occurs during your period. Sources of iron include red meat, seafood, iron-enriched cereals, dried fruits, nuts, legumes, beans, and green leafy vegetables. Women of reproductive age should aim to eat around 18 milligrams of iron a day.

“Note that vitamin C can increase iron absorption, while calcium can decrease it,” says Dr. Haque, “so different food pairings may help maximize the benefit. For example, if you’re having steak, consider pairing it with red or yellow bell peppers or broccoli instead of cheese sauce.”

Also, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, flax seeds, and walnuts, may help to reduce menstrual cramping because of their anti-inflammatory effects.

Exercise: In the menstrual phase, you might feel more fatigued due to cramping and blood loss. Some people find that exercising helps reduce menstrual cramps, but others might not feel up to working out. “If you find you don’t have much energy, try focusing on lower-impact exercise, such as yoga or Pilates,” says Dr. Haque. “At the end of the day, your workout should be tailored to help you feel the best.”

Sleep: Many women might feel more fatigued. This may vary depending on how heavy their menstrual flow is, but in general, they might find they need extra rest during these points in their cycle. Adjusting your schedule to allow for an extra hour of sleep or a late afternoon nap could help. Dr. Haque says to consider planning more low-key activities, such as a movie night versus a night out dancing.

Follicular Phase (Days 1-14)

The follicular phase overlaps with the menstrual phase, also starting on the first day of your period and ends when you begin ovulating, usually lasting about 10 to 14 days. During this phase, the uterine lining thickens, and the follicles in your ovaries grow and develop. One of these follicles will eventually produce a mature egg, which will lead to ovulation.

Nutrition: Since this phase overlaps while you’re experiencing blood loss, making sure you have an iron-rich diet remains important. “During both the follicular stage and ovulatory phase, rising estrogen and progesterone levels cause many people to feel more energized,” says Dr. Haque. Eating lean proteins and complex carbohydrates like chicken, fish, brown rice, and quinoa can help support energy, while cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower can help balance the increasing estrogen levels.

Exercise: “Because of increasing energy levels, you may be able to get better power in your workouts at this point in your menstrual cycle,” says Dr. Haque. “Try more high-impact activities like running or biking to take advantage of the energy boost.”

Ovulatory Phase (Days 14-17)

The ovulatory phase lasts about 1 to 2 days, about halfway through your cycle. During ovulation, the mature egg is released from your ovary; this is the point in your cycle when you can become pregnant, and the window for conception lasts about 24 hours.

“If you’re trying to conceive, it’s a good idea to track your cycle to take advantage of your ovulatory window” says Dr. Haque. There are different ways to do so: you can use a regular calendar, period-tracking apps, or taking your basal body temperature. It’s hard to predict exactly when you may become pregnant, but having historical data of when you typically ovulate each month can make it easier to plan accordingly.

For most people, their libido will be higher when their sex hormones estrogen and testosterone increase and will peak around the ovulatory phase. “Taking advantage of that evolutionary benefit can be helpful when trying to conceive,” says Dr. Haque.

Nutrition: If you’re trying to conceive, it’s important to take a B complex vitamin that helps reduce the risk of certain brain and neurological conditions in early pregnancy. Dr. Haque also recommends eating iron-rich foods and foods rich in folic acid, such as green leafy vegetables, eggs, whole grains, and fresh fruits, to support early pregnancy.

Luteal Phase (Days 15-28)

After ovulation, the luteal phase begins. In this phase, the egg travels through the fallopian tubes to the uterus. If it becomes fertilized by sperm, it may attach to the uterine lining, and pregnancy begins. If pregnancy does not occur, estrogen and progesterone levels (which peak in the early part of the luteal phase) begin to drop, and the cycle will start over from the beginning, with menstruation.

Nutrition: In the luteal phase, progesterone can cause your intestines to slow down, which can result in bloating. “Incorporating fiber and anti-inflammatory foods into your diet and limiting salt intake at this point in your cycle can support mood, ease bloating, and lessen menstrual bleeding to an extent,” says Dr. Haque. “Brightly colored vegetables and fruits, as well as healthy fats like avocado, nuts, and fresh fish like salmon are great options. They can also balance out sugar levels and reduce cravings.” Dark chocolate can help satisfy sweet cravings while providing antioxidants and minerals. Additionally, you can minimize bloating symptoms by limiting carbonated beverages, drinking from a straw, and chewing gum.

In general, you’ll want to avoid processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, and foods that are high in salt and sugar that may worsen symptoms associated with the luteal and menstrual phases. Specifically, limiting caffeine and alcohol may help reduce breast tenderness, anxiety, and sleep changes during the menstrual cycle.

Sleep: Some people might be more likely to experience anxiety during the luteal phase thanks to elevated estrogen and progesterone levels in the first half and dropped levels in the second half. This anxiety might affect their sleep or cause a bit of insomnia. Managing caffeine, blue light exposure, and stimulating activities, as well as establishing a relaxing nighttime routine like taking a warm bath and reading before bedtime may help improve sleep quality.

Cycle Syncing Takeaways

“Although cycle syncing has not been formally studied, it makes sense that paying attention to how hormonal fluctuations throughout your menstrual cycle affect your mood, appetite, and energy levels can help you be more in tune with your body,” says Dr. Haque. “Adjusting nutrition and exercise to match phases in your cycle may optimize how you feel and perform.”

It’s important to note that those who take hormonal contraception that prevents ovulation, such as contraceptive pills, patch, ring, implants, or injections, are not able to cycle sync since their menstrual cycle is being suppressed.

Dr. Haque recommends waiting at least three months to see if lifestyle changes or new interventions are having an impact, since the way your body reacts can vary from month to month. If significant symptoms remain persistent even with these adjustments, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor.

“It’s helpful to think of the menstrual cycle as a vital sign, in that it’s a good reflection of your overall health,” says Dr. Haque. “For example, if a patient is having irregular cycles or extremely intense physical or mood symptoms, we’ll want to evaluate to make sure there’s not an underlying condition, like a thyroid issue, polycystic ovarian syndrome, fibroids, endometriosis, or mood disorder which needs additional evaluation.”

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