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Cycle syncing foods: eating to support your menstrual cycle

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

Dr Shree Datta

Reviewed byDr Shree Datta

blonde girl in jeans jacket eating pizza at restaurant
Optimise your diet with our top tips for cycle syncing to beat PMS, balance your hormones, and increase energy levels. Learn more with Holland & Barrett.
Everyone’s menstrual cycles are different. For some, each month goes by like a breeze while, for others, it can be host to mood swings, fatigue, bloating, and various other unpleasant symptoms.

In your search for a way to support your fluctuating hormones, you may have come across something called ‘cycle syncing’.

It’s when you tailor your diet throughout the month to support your body's natural hormonal shifts. As with all things new and trending, research on cycle syncing is still evolving, however anecdotal evidence suggests many women find it helpful to adjust their food choices throughout their cycle. But before you jump in, remember: a balanced diet with plenty of water is always essential.

Here's why cycle syncing might be worth exploring, and how to get started.

Fuel your flow: does food really matter for your cycle?

As you move through your cycle, hormones including oestrogen and progesterone go up and down. These changes are responsible for controlling the arrival of our periods, ovulation, and other important stages of our cycle. They’re also what causes us to crave things like chocolate and pasta one minute, and vegetables and protein the next.1

The term “cycle syncing” was coined by functional nutritionist Alisa Vitti in her 2014 book, WomanCode. The idea behind cycle syncing is that, by adjusting your routine around the four phases of your menstrual cycle, you may be able to support hormonal imbalances and decrease hormonal symptoms.2

Understanding the four phases of your cycle

The menstrual cycle is broken down into four distinct stages: the menstrual phase, follicular phase, ovulatory phase, and luteal phase.3

Each phase is different due to fluctuating levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, as well as luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).3

Menstrual phase

Foods to try: oily fish, nuts and seeds, citrus fruits, and iron-rich veg.

This stage of your cycle is all too familiar, so needs no introduction.

During your period, your oestrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest.4 This may affect your mood, menstrual cramps and any symptoms you have will be at their most intense.

To combat this, try to have a few portions of oily fish like salmon, mackerel or herring. A study published back in 2011 found that young women taking 1000mg of fish oils a day experienced less severe period pain and menstrual cramps,5 likely due to the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids.6 Flaxseed and walnuts are also great sources of omega-3.7

Another study published in 2020 found that eggs and foods containing calcium may alleviate menstrual cramps by changing the production or activity of prostaglandin (the chemical made in the lining of the uterus that can cause cramping).8,9,10

If your periods are heavy, you’ll have a higher risk of iron-deficiency anaemia (low iron levels) which can leave you feeling exhausted.11,12 However, you can boost your levels and combat fatigue by eating iron-rich foods like spinach, beans, peas, and nuts.13 

Vitamin C can help to increase iron absorption, so try to add more citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, and peppers to your diet as well.14

If you get menstrual migraines, this may be caused by a rise in substances called pro-inflammatory prostaglandins.14 Vitamin E has been shown to reduce these levels, so adding peanuts, avocados, and sunflower seeds to your meals and snacks might help make a difference.15,16 If you have a nut allergy or find these foods difficult to eat, there are vitamin E supplements available too.

Gentle exercise like walking or light jogging may improve circulation and soothe menstrual cramps during this time too.

Follicular phase

Foods to consider: food rich in iron and vitamin B2 like spinach and beans.

During the follicular phase, oestrogen and FSH start to rise, and there’s a surge of luteinising hormone as your body prepares for ovulation in the next phase.4

In this stage of your cycle, eating foods that are rich in iron and vitamin B2 could help support energy levels. Spinach, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds are all good sources of both these nutrients.

Ovulatory phase

Why not try: wholegrains and high-fibre foods like sweet potatoes. 

During the ovulatory phase, your oestrogen levels start to peak. Everyone is different, but many people have a higher sex drive at this stage of their cycle.3,4

Continuing to eat more high-fibre foods will help keep your hormone levels balanced. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and legumes could also help with your energy levels.17

If you're trying for a baby, it may help to boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids and plant proteins, by consuming foods like salmon, walnuts, beans, and lentils.18

Luteal phase

Good to include: whole grain carbs like granary bread, brown rice, and quinoa.

In the first few days of the luteal phase, progesterone begins to increase and oestrogen levels remain high. Towards the end of this phase, both hormones decrease to the point where a new cycle begins and you enter the menstrual phase once again.3,4

During the luteal phase, you’ll often feel more hungry and all-too-familiar cravings will kick in.19,20,21

Don’t ignore these cravings – give your body the carbs it craves, but opt for whole grain options like porridge, granary bread, brown rice, and quinoa over processed white varieties. These will help keep your blood sugar levels steady and help curb cravings.22,23

These carbs also contain B vitamins, which can support the production of the feel-good hormone, serotonin, which may help stabilise mood swings.24

The final say

By ‘cycle syncing’ your diet, you might be able to better support your body’s natural processes, potentially ease your PMS symptoms and optimise your overall wellbeing throughout the month.

Cycle syncing is best done in conjunction with exercise, enhanced sleep, and supplements where necessary, to help find relief from period cramping.

This article is for information only, for advice on what to eat during your menstrual cycle, consult a healthcare professional – they’lll be able to provide you with personalised advice related to your symptoms.

Sources

  1. Souza, L., et al. ‘Do food intake and food cravings change during the menstrual cycle of young women?’ Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet. 2018;40(11):686–92. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10316899/
  2. Forbes Health. Cycle syncing: everything you need to know [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/health/womens-health/cycle-syncing/
  3. Thiyagarajan DK, Basit H, Jeanmonod R. Physiology, Menstrual Cycle [Internet]. Nih.gov. StatPearls Publishing; 2022 [cited 2024 Apr 30]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK500020/
  4. MSD Manual Consumer Version. Menstrual cycle – women’s health issues [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.msdmanuals.com/home/women-s-health-issues/biology-of-the-female-reproductive-system/menstrual-cycle
  5. Zafari, M., et al. ‘Comparison of the effect of fish oil and ibuprofen on treatment of severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea’. Caspian J Intern Med. 2011;2(3):279–82. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3770499/
  6. Calder, P. ‘Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes’ Nutrients. 2010;2(3):355–74. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257651/
  7. National Institutes of Health. Office of dietary supplements - omega-3 fatty acids [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
  8. Njoku UC, Amadi PU, Amadi JA. Nutritional modulation of blood pressure and vascular changes during severe menstrual cramps. J Taibah Univ Med Sci. 2020 Nov . Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7858019/
  9. Abdi F, Marjan Akhavan Amjadi, Farzaneh Zaheri, Fatemeh Alsadat Rahnemaei. Role of vitamin D and calcium in the relief of primary dysmenorrhea: a systematic review. Obstetrics & gynecology science [Internet]. 2021 Jan 15 [cited 2024 Apr 30];64(1):13–26. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7834752/
  10. Dawood MY. Dysmenorrhoea and Prostaglandins. Drugs [Internet]. 1981 Jul 1 [cited 2024 Apr 30];22(1):42–56. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6790261/
  11. Kocaoz, S., et al. ‘The prevalence and impacts heavy menstrual bleeding on anemia, fatigue and quality of life in women of reproductive age’ Pak J Med Sci. 2019;35(2):365–70. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6500811/
  12. NHS Choices. Iron deficiency anaemia [Internet]. 2024 [cited 2024 Apr 30]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/iron-deficiency-anaemia/
  13. American Red Cross. Iron-rich foods [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/before-during-after/iron-blood-donation/iron-rich-foods.html
  14. Zeitoun T, Negar Dehghan Noudeh, Bibiana Garcia-Bailo, El-Sohemy A. Genetics of Iron Metabolism and Premenstrual Symptoms: A Mendelian Randomization Study. The journal of nutrition/The Journal of nutrition [Internet]. 2021 Jul 1 [cited 2024 Apr 30];151(7):1747–54. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022316622002528
  15. Shaik, M., et al. ‘Vitamin supplementation as possible prophylactic treatment against migraine with aura and menstrual migraine’ Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:469529. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4359851/
  16. Harvard T.H. Chan. Vitamin E [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-e/
  17. British Nutrition Foundation. Energy balance and weight [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.nutrition.org.uk/health-conditions/overweight-obesity-and-weight-loss/energy-balance-and-weight/
  18. UCLA Health. 6 foods that boost fertility [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.uclahealth.org/news/6-foods-boost-fertility
  19. Krishnan S, Agrawal K, Tryon RR, Welch LC, Horn WF, Newman JW, et al. Structural equation modeling of food craving across the menstrual cycle using behavioral, neuroendocrine, and metabolic factors. Physiology & behavior [Internet]. 2018 Oct 1 [cited 2024 Apr 30];195:28–36. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6251416/
  20. Gorczyca AM, Sjaarda LA, Mitchell EM, Perkins NJ, Schliep KC, Wactawski-Wende J, et al. Changes in macronutrient, micronutrient, and food group intakes throughout the menstrual cycle in healthy, premenopausal women. European journal of nutrition [Internet]. 2015 Jun 5 [cited 2024 Apr 30];55(3):1181–8. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26043860/
  21. Kammoun I, Wafa Ben Saâda, Sifaou A, Emna Haouat, Hajer Kandara, Leila Ben Salem, et al. Change in women’s eating habits during the menstrual cycle. Annales d’endocrinologie [Internet]. 2017 Feb 1 [cited 2024 Apr 30];78(1):33–7. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27634490/
  22. Stefano Marventano, Vetrani C, Vitale M, Justyna Godos, Riccardi G, Grosso G. Whole Grain Intake and Glycaemic Control in Healthy Subjects: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients [Internet]. 2017 Jul 19 [cited 2024 Apr 30];9(7):769–9. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28753929/
  23. Wholegrains and diabetes [Internet]. Diabetes UK. 2017 [cited 2024 Apr 30]. Available from: https://www.diabetes.org.uk/guide-to-diabetes/enjoy-food/carbohydrates-and-diabetes/
  24. Kennedy, D. ‘B vitamins and the brain: mechanisms, dose and efficacy—a review’ Nutrients. 2016;8(2):68. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772032/
 
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