Our hormones ebb and flow each week, rising and falling, cycling like the seasons, month after month. And, whether we like it or not, these hormonal fluctuations impact our mood, energy levels, appetite, brain, and so much more! If you’re someone who menstruates, my guess is you know exactly what I am talking about.
One day, you’re feeling on top of the world, racing around like the Energizer bunny, checking off everything on your ‘to-do’ list, only to wake up the very next morning feeling crampy, moody, and depleted. That gallon of coffee, often our go-to during PMS, might seem like a quick fix, but it barely scratches the surface of what’s needed. But what if I told you that one simple way to support hormonal imbalances throughout your menstrual cycle lies in incorporating hormone-balancing foods into your diet? Obviously, this is not the end-all-be-all solution to the intricate complexities of hormonal health, but it’s an excellent place to start – and it’s exactly where my journey began.
My Journey into Hormone-Balancing Foods & Cycle Syncing
For most of my life, I just “suffered” through the ups and downs of these “random” bouts of moodiness, fatigue, crampiness, etc. I knew they were somehow related to hormones, but I really had no idea why or what was causing this hormonal rollercoaster ride I was on – because, honestly, that’s what it felt like. Maybe you can relate, maybe not. Everyone’s hormonal experiences vary widely. In my case, this was the reality I faced – a continuous, unpredictable ride driven by my body’s hormonal shifts.
However, this all changed when I discovered the power of cycle syncing and the role of hormone-balancing foods.
I was first introduced to the practice of cycle syncing about five years ago when I came across Alissa Vitti’s book, The Woman Code. Since then, I’ve been digesting as many science-based publications, books, and podcasts on all things hormone health and cycle syncing. Even going as far as reading publications that dismiss the cycle-syncing method. I am doing my best to leave no rock unturned. Above all, I’ve come to realize the transformative potential of integrating hormone-balancing foods into daily life as a vital component of managing hormonal health.
What is cycle syncing?
The cycle syncing method, a term trademarked by Alisa Vitti, “starts with deepening your familiarity with your 28-day hormone cycle and then tailoring your food, movement, supplements, and lifestyle choices to your unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs during each phase of your cycle.”
In short, cycle syncing is the practice of syncing your diet, exercise, social calendar, etc., to the strengths and weaknesses of the four phases of your menstrual cycle. However, it’s crucial to mention that while the concept is gaining popularity, it might not be universally accepted or extensively researched in the scientific community.
That said, cycle syncing has been a game-changer in my life. Not only has it opened my eyes to the importance of hormone health, but it has also helped me better understand the changes taking place in my body each week.
It’s a practice that has given me the tools to support and balance my hormones naturally while also providing me with the knowledge and confidence to effectively track my cycle. Best of all, cycle syncing has helped me experience less painful, more regular periods after years of menstrual irregularities.
How does cycle syncing work?
To truly understand how to cycle sync, we have to start with the basics – the four phases of your menstrual cycle.
Four Phases of Your Menstrual Cycle
Understanding this simple concept is key to helping you cycle sync. While the typical cycle is 28 days, everyone’s body is different. Some women experience longer luteal, follicular, or menstrual phases than others. So, it may take a few months of tracking your cycle to gain a better understanding of what is “normal” for you and your body.
But, generally speaking, here’s how it’s broken down.
Follicular: Phase 1 (usually lasts 7-10 days)
Ovulation: Phase 2 (usually lasts 3-4 days)
Luteal: Phase 3 (usually lasts 10-14 days)
Menstrual: Phase 4 (usually lasts 3-7 days)
Cycle Syncing & Seasons
I find it easier to remember each phase by likening them to the four seasons of the year, a concept based on Traditional Chinese Medicine, which uses seasonality to differentiate the phases — inner winter (menstrual phase), inner spring (follicular phase), inner summer (ovulatory phase), and inner autumn (luteal phase).
Using the seasons to define each menstrual phase is a beautiful and gentle way to visualize and embrace the continual ebbing and flowing of our hormones.
You have your energizing follicular phase (inner spring), followed by the sexy ovulatory phase (inner summer), your introspective and introverted luteal phase (inner autumn), and, of course, your cozy menstrual phase (inner winter).
Important Note: Using seasonality to differentiate between each phase of your menstrual cycle should be used more as a guide rather than a hard and fast rule. Everyone’s body is different. For instance, a few days after I ovulate, I sometimes experience a bit of anxiety as my hormone levels, my estrogen levels, to be more specific, drop. Did you know your hormone levels drop twice in one cycle? More on that below.
Let’s dive in.
Follicular Phase: Welcome Inner Spring
Hello, spring. Budding flowers, new leaves are sprouting, birds are building nests, and the world is slowly coming back to life. This is how you could describe your follicular phase — the phase that starts on the first day you’re no longer bleeding and continues until you ovulate. Generally speaking, the follicular phase lasts anywhere from 7 to 10 days.
During this phase, your pituitary gland releases follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH helps to activate your ovaries to start producing follicles, the fluid-filled sacs where your eggs can mature.
Each month, one “lucky” follicle (known as the dominant follicle) will beat out all the other follicles and begin to grow. As the follicle matures, it starts to secrete more estrogen. This increase in estrogen triggers the pituitary gland to decrease or inhibit the release of FSH. The negative feedback of FSH causes the other follicles to begin to wither away and reabsorb into your body, allowing the dominant follicle to reach full maturity.
Quick reminder: estrogen is a sex hormone that plays an important role during your menstrual cycle. During the follicular phase, estrogen, which is primarily made in a woman’s ovaries, helps to thicken and prepare the lining of the uterus, the endometrium, for potential implantation.
Hormone Balancing Foods: Follicular Phase
During the follicular phase, you’re looking to support your body with foods that will help support rising estrogen levels, egg quality, and estrogen metabolism.
What is estrogen metabolism?
The metabolism of estrogen takes place primarily in the liver through two phases – phase 1 (oxidation pathway) and phase 2 (conjugation pathway). These phases help estrogen to be detoxified and excreted from the body via urination and defecation. If estrogen is not metabolized efficiently, it gets reabsorbed back into the body. This can become problematic as high estrogen levels can lead to irregular menstrual periods, anxiety, headaches, acne, hair loss, fatigue, as well as digestive issues.
While diet and lifestyle modifications are not the only changes you can make to support estrogen metabolism, it’s a great place to start.
Foods you might consider including in your diet to support estrogen metabolism include foods rich in phytoestrogens, vitamin C, vitamin B, folate, and magnesium.
Eating cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli or broccoli sprouts, Brussel sprouts, or watercress “have been found to help promote C-2 hydroxylation (the “good” estrogen) over C-4 and/or C-16α hydroxylation of estrogens.” Cruciferous vegetables are rich in 3,3-Diindolylmethane, or DIM. This compound has been shown to reduce high estrogen levels and support estrogen detox in the liver, which helps balance estrogen levels overall. DIM has been found to be most supportive of Phase 1 detoxification of the liver. Although, you’d need to eat a whole lot of vegetables to obtain the medicinal value of DIM.
Eating foods rich in phytoestrogens, plant-derived compounds with both estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effects, such as flaxseeds, pomegranate, berries, pumpkin seeds, or grapes, have also been found to help balance estrogen levels in our bodies.
Flax seeds are one of the richest sources of phytoestrogens (lignans). Lignans are phytoestrogens, plant-derived compounds with both estrogenic and anti-estrogenic effects, which are abundantly available in fiber-rich plants. That being said, while lignan-rich foods are part of a healthy diet, the roles of lignans in the prevention of hormone-associated cancers, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease are not yet clear, shares the Linus Institute. Flax seeds also contain healthy fats (omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)) and fiber, both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber. Note: Ground or crushed flaxseeds are easier to digest and absorb than whole.
In general, eating foods rich in probiotics, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, or yogurt, helps to support your overall gut microbiome. But when it comes to your endocrine system, probiotic-rich foods have also been found to help support your estrobolome. The estrobolome is the aggregate of enteric bacterial genes (i.e.,e. gut flora) capable of metabolizing estrogens. These bacterial genes’ sole mission is to help your body regulate its estrogen levels, especially during the first half of your cycle. Adding more fermented foods helps to increase the diversity of microorganisms found in your gut, which in turn helps support your estrobolome and regulate your fluctuating estrogen levels.
Why eat lighter and “cooling” foods during your follicular phase?
Interestingly enough, some studies have found that women’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) varied significantly throughout the menstrual cycle.
For instance, during your follicular phase, your metabolism slows down, as opposed to your luteal phase, where you tend to burn (and consume) more calories – PMS cravings, anyone!!? While more research needs to be conducted around the intricacies of how our hormones impact our metabolism (most studies have been done on a small sample size of women), it’s believed that our BMR tends to be at its lowest a week before ovulation, in other words, our metabolism slows down.
According to a small study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Basal metabolic rate decreased at menstruation and fell to its lowest point approximately one week before ovulation, subsequently rising until the beginning of the next menstrual period.” (PMID: 7124662)
Another study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, which examined 259 healthy, regularly menstruating women aged 18–44, found that there was not only an increased intake of protein, specifically animal protein, during the luteal phase but a significant increase in reported food cravings. This suggests, according to the researchers, a “plausible link between macronutrient intake and menstrual cycle phase.”
In short, many women tend to experience a decrease in appetite during the follicular and ovulatory phases due to rising estrogen. This is one of the reasons why health experts recommend eating lighter foods such as chicken or raw (uncooked) fruits and veggies and using lighter cooking methods, such as steaming and sautéing, during your follicular and ovulatory phase.
Ovulation Phase: Hello inner summer
Are you feeling energized, social, active, and a tad bit (or a lot) frisky? Sounds like you just entered your ovulation phase. Or, as some call it, your inner summer phase. Generally, the ovulation phase lasts anywhere between 1 and 3 days.
During ovulation, the dominant follicle continues to secrete and produce estrogen. As estrogen levels peak, the pituitary gland releases luteinizing hormone (LH). A surge in LH causes the ovarian follicle to rupture and release a mature egg from the ovary. Your matured egg will make its way from your ovary through your fallopian tube to your uterus, leaving behind the empty follicle known as the corpus luteum.* It can take anywhere from 1 to 2 days for the egg to leave the follicle.
During this phase, testosterone levels also rise and fall. This surge in testosterone helps to increase your sex drive, which explains why your libido may be higher than usual.
Did You Know?
Estrogen levels rise during the mid-follicular phase and then drop precipitously after ovulation. This is followed by a secondary rise in estrogen levels during the mid-luteal phase with a decrease at the end of the menstrual cycle. (PMID: 25905282) If you’re someone who is “sensitive to dropping levels of estrogen,” shares Gabrielle Lichterman, an award-winning health journalist, in her book 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals About Your Moods, Health, and Potential, “the first few days of week 3 can be a bit more challenging….These cycle days can be accompanied by a bit of irritability, the blues, anxiety, and/or increased physical discomfort as estrogen sharply descends.”
Hormone Balancing Foods: Ovulation Phase
During the ovulation phase, you’re looking to metabolize any excess estrogen, support egg quality, and reduce aberrant/abnormal inflammation (inflammation during the ovulation phase “has a physiologic role creating a weakening in the follicle wall and eventual rupture.” But too much inflammation can become problematic.).
During this phase, consider incorporating foods high in zinc, folate, magnesium, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids, among others, into your diet.
- Zinc: Zinc: Consider zinc-rich foods like lamb, chocolate, eggs, and lentils. Zinc is vital for egg quality, as a deficiency can disrupt its maturation, according to Biology of Reproduction.
- Folate: Boost your diet with folate-rich foods such as dark leafy greens, liver, beets, strawberries, and lentils. For example, 3 oz of cooked liver provides 54% of your daily folate needs.
- Omega-3s: Increase omega-3 fatty acids through fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring. Avocados, chia seeds, and flax seeds are excellent for healthy fats, though their alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content is less efficiently converted to EPA by the body. To learn more about how healthy fats, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, impact pregnancy, and women’s overall menstrual health, check out podcast episode 96: 3 Reasons Why Women Should be Consuming More Omega-3 Fatty Acids, with Ayla Barmmer, MS, RDN, LDN.
Liver Supporting Foods
Similar to the follicular phase, during the ovulation phase, consider adding liver-supporting foods, i.e., foods that help boost bile formation. One of the many reasons for this is that your liver, also known as your body’s “filter,” plays a large role in the breaking down of and elimination of excess hormones, in this case, estrogen. See the estrogen metabolism note above.
Liver-supporting foods include artichokes, milk thistle, bitter greens (dandelion greens, mustard greens, arugula, etc.), and beets.
Luteal Phase: Slowing down for Autumn
The morning air is crisp, the leaves are slowly changing colors, and the days are getting shorter. It’s time to pull out your cozy sweaters and gently retreat indoors with a warm cup of tea. Your inner autumn is here; you’ve entered your luteal phase—a time for nesting, decluttering, and tying up loose ends. Generally speaking, the luteal phase lasts anywhere between 11 and 14 days.
What’s going on?
During the first half of your luteal phase, the remnants of the ovarian follicle that enclosed the developing egg form a small yellow structure called the corpus luteum. The primary purpose of the corpus luteum is to create progesterone, though it also continues to pump out some estrogen. You can think of the corpus luteum as a “temporary endocrine gland.”
The rise in estrogen and progesterone helps to keep the lining of your uterus thickened, preparing the endometrium for potential pregnancy. It also signals that the pituitary and hypothalamus glands slow down the production of FSH and LH hormones. Progesterone also prohibits the muscle contractions in the uterus that would cause the body to reject an egg.
If an egg is not fertilized (no pregnancy occurs), the corpus luteum breaks down, thus decreasing the levels of progesterone and sparking menstruation. If an egg is fertilized, your body will start to produce human gonadotropin (hCG). HCG enables the corpus luteum to keep producing progesterone (for about 10-12 weeks) until the placenta starts to take over progesterone production. No longer needed, the corpus luteum will then get smaller and break down.
Hormone Balancing Foods: Luteal Phase
During the luteal phase, you’re looking to include foods rich in vitamin B, zinc, magnesium, complex carbs, protein, and fiber.
Why are complex carbs so important during your luteal phase?
Complex carbs from whole foods, such as sweet potatoes, rolled oats, millet, etc., have been found to help stabilize blood sugar and improve overall mood. They increase the availability of the feel-good mood stabilizer chemical serotonin in your brain.
One study I came across in the American Journal of Public Health reported that “increased fruit and vegetable consumption was predictive of increased happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being.”
The key here is to keep your blood sugar levels balanced throughout the entirety of your menstrual cycle but, most importantly, during the luteal phase so as to help reduce energy and mood dips.
It’s also important to note here that a decrease in estrogen and progesterone levels can also lead to a corresponding drop in serotonin and dopamine levels in women, i.e., our “feel good” chemicals. This is one reason why you may feel more irritable, moody, tired, or depressed the week leading up to your period. (PMID: 28751855)
Supporting serotonin levels with tryptophan-rich foods?
Supporting your diet with foods rich in Tryptophan (TPH), an essential amino acid found primarily in proteinaceous food such as cheese, eggs, tuna, turkey, oats, cheese, nuts, and seeds, is one possible way you can support your serotonin levels. Note: tryptophan can be converted into a molecule called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is used to make serotonin. (PMID: 26805875)
How much tryptophan-containing foods can affect serotonin levels in the brain is ongoing! And, as Kathleen Robins, RDN, notes: “No one amino acid or vitamin or mineral is the cure-all for anything… especially happiness, i.e., serotonin in the brain. It’s a healthy combo of food, good sleep, exposure to natural light, exercise, and being around family and friends!”
Vitamin B6-Rich Foods
Another essential vitamin to include in our diets during this phase (and anytime, really) is vitamin B6. Vitamin B6, a water-soluble vitamin, may help increase and support progesterone levels.
According to a study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, women who experience PMS seemed to experience fewer overall symptoms when taking vitamin B6. In fact, the study states, “Administration of vitamin B6 at doses of 200-800 mg/day reduces blood estrogen, increases progesterone, and results in improved symptoms under double-blind conditions.” (PMID: 6684167)
Foods rich in vitamin B6 include fish, beef liver, chickpeas, and other starchy vegetables, as well as fruit. Note: B6 must be obtained from external sources such as foods or supplements, since our body can not produce it.
Menstrual Phase: Time to cozy up for winter
Sit yourself by the fireside, read a good book, and rest by the hearth while the cold wind blows outside. Winter is here; your menstrual phase has begun. During this phase, your hormone levels are at their lowest, and your bleeding has started. So, permit yourself to rest. Your menstrual phase is also an excellent time to tune- in with yourself, journal, and spend quality time reflecting. Saying ‘no’ to social events and setting boundaries to protect yourself during this phase is more than OK. Your body needs it – winter is a time to hibernate. This phase generally lasts anywhere between 3 to 7 days.
About ten days after the egg has left the dominant follicle, the corpus luteum will start to break down if no fertilization has taken place. With this breakdown comes a drop in progesterone and estrogen, which leads to the shedding of your endometrial lining.
Your hormone levels are at their lowest the week of your period, i.e., the phase where you shed the endometrial lining if conception hasn’t occurred.
Typically, a menstrual period lasts 3 to 7 days, often heaviest in the first 2 to 3 days. Blood loss usually ranges from 30 to 72ml, although some women bleed more heavily than this.
Note: See your doctor if you’re concerned about your period health.
Hormone Balancing Foods: Menstrual Phase
During the menstrual phase, women’s bleeding levels can vary. Consuming foods rich in iron, zinc, copper, and healthy fats is beneficial. These nutrients aid in replenishing what’s lost and help in re-mineralizing the body.
Some of my favorite foods to help me restore lost nutrients during my period include:
1. Oysters: Great source of iron and omega-3 fatty acids
2. Seaweed: Rich source of several vitamins, including vitamin A, and minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and copper. Also a good source of iodine.
3. Beets: Great source of folate, magnesium, potassium, vitamins c, betalains, dietary nitrates, and fiber.
4. Sardines: Great source of Vitamin B-12, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and calcium.
5. Liver: Packed with zinc, choline, iron, and vitamin A. Note: You don’t need to eat much; 3 oz weekly is plenty!
6. Buckwheat: Great source of complex carbs. Eating foods rich in complex carbs has been found to help stabilize blood sugar and improve overall mood. Eating complex carbs increases the availability of the feel-good mood stabilizer chemical serotonin in your brain.
7. Dark chocolate: Rich in magnesium, which has been found to help alleviate period cramps.
Not sure how to incorporate these hormone balancing foods into your diet? Good news! I am working on a cookbook packed with delicious and simple recipes that include all these ingredients!
General Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. Hormone health is a complex field with significant individual variations. It’s important to consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice and treatment. This content is meant to complement, not replace, professional medical advice and your relationship with your healthcare provider.
Check out these delicious healthy recipes in the meantime!
To learn more, check out the following episodes of The Wise Consumer Podcast:
- 4 Phases Of Your Menstrual Cycle – What you need to know! with Krista King MS,RDN, LDN
- 5 Nutrients To Include In Your Diet If Pregnant or TTC with Ayla Barmmer, MS, RDN, LDN
- Why You Should Be Tracking Your Period with Valerie Agyeman, RD, LD
- Why Gut Health Matters When It Comes to Supporting Hormones! with Brooke Boskovich, MS, RD, LD
- How To Optimize Hormone Health with Jenna Longoria, FDN-P
- 4 Things Every Woman Struggling with Endometriosis Should Know with Cindy Dabrowska, RD, MAN
- 3 Reasons Why Women Should Be Consuming More Omega-3 Fatty Acids with Ayla Barmmer, MS, RDN, LDN
- Cycle Syncing 101: What is it, how to get started, and what are the benefits? with Gabrielle Lichterman @myhormonolgy