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Understanding your menstrual cycle: how to support your health at each stage

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

Lady smiling with head out of car window
From your energy levels to your sex drive, your menstrual cycle can affect your body in all sorts of ways. Learn how to support your health at every stage here.
Your menstrual cycle is so much more than just premenstrual symptoms and getting your period. From your energy levels to your sex drive to the appearance of your skin, your cycle can affect your body in a whole host of different ways. 

There are four distinct phases of the menstrual cycle, and each one is characterised by different hormonal processes and fluctuations. 

Understanding what’s happening during each of these stages can not only support your overall health and wellbeing, but also help you with everything from streamlining your work life to boosting your energy levels.

In this article, we aim to do exactly that, providing you with some useful hints and tips on how to keep healthy throughout your menstrual cycle.

The four phases of your menstrual cycle 

Your menstrual cycle is made up of four distinct phases: menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase.

Below, we’ll take a look at what happens in your body during each phase. We’ll also give you helpful tips on how you can tailor your food, exercise, skincare routine, rest requirements, and supplements to optimise your health on a stage-by-stage basis.

1. Menstruation 

Day one of your menstrual cycle is the first day of your period. For most people, this typically lasts between two and seven days, with the heaviest bleeding occurring on the first two days.1 

Throughout the menstrual cycle, your uterine lining builds up to prepare for a potential pregnancy. If you don’t get pregnant, your hormone levels drop and the lining of the uterus starts to shed, triggering your period. 

During menstruation, your hormones are at their lowest, so it’s likely that your energy levels are also low and you may feel anxious or depressed. You might also have cramps and experience some leftover symptoms of PMS, such as bloating, muscle pain, and mood swings.2 

Our top tips for menstruation
  • Food: one study involving 120 participants found that omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce period pain when compared to ibuprofen.3 Choose foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like oily fish, flaxseed, nuts and algae to possibly help soothe PMS cramps.
  • Exercise: you don’t have to limit yourself, but if you’re feeling tired and achy, listen to your body to see what feels right. Dr Jodie Moss, sports physiologist and expert operations lead for H&B and Me, says: “When your period starts, oestrogen levels are at their lowest, and women can experience cramps and fatigue. Just going for a walk can be enough.” So, consider gentle activities like yoga, pilates, walking, and light cardio.
  • Skincare: during menstruation, your skin will likely look duller and drier than usual, thanks to low levels of oestrogen and progesterone.4 Now is the time to focus on nourishing your skin by drinking plenty of water.
  • Rest: you’ll likely need a little more rest than usual, so make sure to prioritise a good night’s sleep.
  • Supplements: many women choose to incorporate supplements into their routine during their menstrual cycle to help manage symptoms. While some supplements, such as iron for anaemia, have strong scientific evidence backing their use, others may lack robust clinical studies. Additional supplements include curcumin (found in turmeric) and ginger, which according to some small studies might have the potential to promote blood flow to the uterus and help relax cramps (but more research is needed).5,6

2. Follicular phase 

The follicular phase begins on day one of your menstrual cycle (overlapping with your period) and ends with ovulation. During this phase, your ovaries will produce follicles (each containing an egg). 

Your oestrogen levels will also start to rise, elevating factors like your energy levels and sex drive. 

Our top tips for your follicular phase
  • Food: if you’re making the most of your exercise routine, eat accordingly. Complex carbohydrates (like whole grains and legumes) and plenty of protein will help promote muscle growth and recovery while helping you stay full.
  • Exercise: as your energy levels increase, it’s a good time to ramp up your exercise routine. Dr Jodie Moss, sports physiologist and expert operations lead for H&B and Me, says: “During the follicular phase – days one to 14 – your energy levels may increase as oestrogen rises.” So why not consider choosing some high-intensity exercises like cardio, HIIT and strength training?
  • Skincare: your skin will have likely recovered from the PMS blemishes and the period-induced dryness from menstruation, and your skin should be a lot happier with its usual routine.
  • Rest: while you might feel like you don’t need any extra rest, it’s important to get into good sleeping habits and make time for yourself after all your high-energy plans. 
  • Supplements: most people won’t need to take additional supplements, but if you have very heavy periods, your iron levels could be low.7 As such, your doctor might recommend a daily iron supplement to help prevent iron deficiency.

3. Ovulation 

Your ovary releases a mature egg during the ovulation phase. This can only survive for about 24 hours while it travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. 

The exact time you ovulate will vary based on your unique cycle. Generally speaking, however, ovulation typically occurs 10‒16 days before your period.8
Oestrogen is at its peak in this phase, meaning you’re likely feeling confident. Since your ovulating body is preparing for pregnancy, your sex drive may also be at its maximum levels.

Our top tips for preparing your body for ovulation
  • Food: this is a good time to eat plenty of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and pak choi that can help support healthy oestrogen metabolism.9 Augusta Gray, registered nutritionist, H&B and Me, says: “When oestrogen rises before ovulation, increase your fibre intake – try foods like flaxseeds, greens or lentils.”
  • Exercise: high energy levels mean you’re in for another week of powerful performance.
  • Skincare: increased oestrogen levels should help give your skin a healthy glow. However, as you head towards the luteal phase, oil production may increase, so try to use non-comedogenic products and maintain a good diet to prevent your pores from clogging.4 
  • Rest: while you should have ample energy to carry on with your usual day-to-day routine, don’t exhaust yourself. 
  • Supplements: if you’re trying for a baby, there’s growing evidence that B vitamins (such as B1, B2, B3, B6, folic acid, and B12) may be associated with better fertility. You should be able to get most of your B vitamins from a varied diet. Some good sources are: eggs, bananas, chickpeas, and many other green leafy vegetables.10,11

4. Luteal phase 

During the luteal phase, your oestrogen levels decline dramatically, and progesterone starts to rise. This fluctuation can leave you feeling lethargic and vulnerable to low moods.12 

As menstruation approaches, your PMS symptoms may begin to set in again. For this reason, you might start to experience symptoms like low mood, bloating, breast tenderness, and food cravings.13,14 

Our top tips for preparing your body for the luteal phase
  • Food: mood swings and food cravings can cause you to reach for the sweets and salty snacks, which can actually make certain PMS symptoms worse.13,14 To avoid this cycle, focus on eating complex and whole-grain carbs, which take longer to break down in your body and keep you feeling fuller for longer. Augusta Gray, registered nutritionist, H&B and Me, says: “This is because in the luteal phase progesterone is higher, which can lead to blood glucose levels becoming more unstable. When glucose levels drop, we want high-carbohydrate and sugary foods for a quick energy release.”
  • Exercise: light exercise, stretching, and yoga can help to keep you moving and heighten your mood without making things too strenuous. 
  • Skincare: rising progesterone levels mean you’re more prone to breakouts.4,13 Take care of your skin by keeping it clean and using gentle, non-comedogenic products
  • Rest: you’ll likely be more tired and experience poorer-quality sleep just before your period, so make sure to prioritise rest and establish a healthy sleeping pattern.
  • Supplements: there’s emerging evidence to suggest that vitamin B6 and magnesium may help alleviate some PMS symptoms such as depression, anxiety, bloating, breast tenderness, headache, lower back pain, and acne. More research is needed to determine this, however, magnesium does help reduce tiredness and fatigue so it may still come in handy during this phase.15 

How does the contraceptive pill impact the menstrual cycle? 

Hormonal contraceptives like the pill or a hormonal IUD work by preventing ovulation. Depending on the exact type of contraception you use, you might still have a period. But it’ll likely be lighter, and you might experience spotting between periods.16 

Hormonal contraceptives prevent you from experiencing the natural hormone fluctuations of a menstrual cycle, so this option might be recommended to women who experience irregular, heavy, or painful periods. However, if this is something you’re experiencing, you should speak to your doctor so they can help find the right solution for you.17 

Dr Sharon Wong, consultant dermatologist, says: “There's a tight relationship between hormones and skin. The progesterone-only mini contraceptive pill can lead to greasy skin, while the combined or oestrogen-only pill can be useful acne treatments.”

So make sure you consult with your GP on what’s best for you and your skin!

Take control of your menstrual health

While everyone experiences their period differently, understanding the hormonal changes that happen as you move through menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase can help you optimise your health and wellbeing. For further advice on taking control of your menstrual health, consult your GP. They’ll be able to discuss your symptoms with you and make tailored recommendations to help.

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
 

Sources

  1. NHS. Periods [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2024 Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods/.
  2. Reed BG, Carr BR. The Normal Menstrual Cycle and the Control of Ovulation. [Updated 2018 Aug 5]. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Blackman MR, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279054/
  3. Zafari, M., et al. Comparison of the effect of fish oil and ibuprofen on treatment of severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea. Caspian Journal of Internal Medicine. 2011;2(3):279–82. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3770499/.
  4. Flo. Spots, Dry, and Oily Skin: How Hormones Affect Your Skin Before and During a Period [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2024 April 10]. Available from: https://flo.health/menstrual-cycle/health/period/oily-skin-before-and-during-period
  5. Khayat S, Fanaei H, Kheirkhah M, Moghadam ZB, Kasaeian A, Javadimehr M. Curcumin attenuates severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2015;23(3):318–24. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26051565/
  6. Negi, R., et al. Efficacy of Ginger in the Treatment of Primary Dysmenorrhea: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Cureus. 2021;13(3). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8021506/.
  7. Munro, MG., et al. The relationship between heavy menstrual bleeding, iron deficiency, and iron deficiency anemia. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2023. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0002937823000248.
  8. NHS. Periods and fertility in the menstrual cycle [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods/fertility-in-the-menstrual-cycle/.
  9. Manchali, S., et al. Crucial facts about health benefits of popular cruciferous vegetables. Journal of Functional Foods. 2012;4(1):94–106. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1756464611000843.
  10. Chavarro, JE., et al. Use of multivitamins, intake of B vitamins, and risk of ovulatory infertility. Fertility and Sterility. 2008 Mar;89(3):668–76. Available from: https://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282(07)00828-X/pdf.
  11. Thornburgh S, Gaskins AJ. B vitamins, polycystic ovary syndrome, and fertility. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2022 Dec 1;29(6):554-559. doi: 10.1097/MED.0000000000000773. Epub 2022 Sep 27. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36165609/
  12. Mesen TB, Young SL. Progesterone and the luteal phase: a requisite to reproduction. Obstet Gynecol Clin North Am. 2015 Mar;42(1):135-51. doi: 10.1016/j.ogc.2014.10.003. Epub 2015 Jan 5. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4436586/
  13. NHS. PMS (premenstrual syndrome) [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2024 April 10]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pre-menstrual-syndrome/
  14. BBC. What to eat on your period and when [Internet]. [cited 2024 April 10]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/articles/periods.
  15. Fathizadeh, N., et al. Evaluating the effect of magnesium and magnesium plus vitamin B6 supplement on the severity of premenstrual syndrome. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research. 2010;15(1):401–5. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3208934/.
  16. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Combined Hormonal Birth Control: Pill, Patch, and Ring [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/combined-hormonal-birth-control-pill-patch-ring.
  17. NHS. Combined pill [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2024 Feb 22]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/contraception/combined-contraceptive-pill/.
 

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