Adjusting our diet to support our fluctuating hormones can be a game changer when it comes to taking charge of our own health, but it’s especially helpful if you struggle with PMS, painful periods, or other symptoms of hormonal imbalance.
The reason? All the hormones in our endocrine system that work together to carry out vital functions and promote homeostasis (the state of equilibrium) in the body are influenced by many factors, including what we eat. In particular, the balance of progesterone and estrogen (the primary cycle hormones that fluctuate throughout our monthly cycles) is imperative not only for hormone health but also overall physical mental and emotional well-being.
Certain nutrients help support hormone detoxification, influence hormone activity, or promote their production. It’s fascinating when we look at the symptoms food can help us with. For example, protein provides amino acids — the raw materials needed for making hormones — while foods such as kale and broccoli (sulforaphane-rich foods, if we’re being nutrition geeks) can help support detoxification processes including removal of excess estrogen. Vitamin C, found in foods such as dark leafy greens, citrus, and parsley is key to helping the production of cortisol, which influences our stress response, while magnesium-rich foods such as tofu, dark greens, and nuts may help to support PMS-associated water retention and menstrual pain.
Keeping our blood sugar levels steady also contributes to overall hormone balance, helping to reduce mood swings and better manage weight, sleep, and cravings. To do this, try eating balanced meals filled with fiber and protein at regular intervals, and being mindful of the types of sugars and carbohydrates that we are eating.
Tapping into the intelligence of the female body and responding to its unique needs is a huge act of personal care. Not only can it reduce frustrating period symptoms, but it also optimizes our energy levels and balances our moods so we don’t have to dread that time of the month, but rather appreciate its wisdom. A diet based around whole, plant-based foods, quality proteins, and healthy fats is a good foundation, and include some of these cycle-supporting foods to your shopping cart each week to help with hormone harmony.
PHASE 1: BLEED / MENSTRUATION
FOOD FOCUS: Add nutrients; warmth and comfort
Day one of our cycle is the first day of menstruation. At the start of the cycle, our hormones are at their lowest as they work to shed the uterine lining. Because of this hormonal dip, energy levels are likely to be low, so support the body with plenty of filtered water and unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods that keep energy and blood sugar levels steady. A good mix of lean proteins, healthy fats, and low GI complex carbohydrates such as root vegetables, whole grains, and legume-packed stews can support the energy-intensive process of menstruation. If possible, include cooked, fermented, sprouted, or activated foods as they may be easier to digest, because some of the breaking-down process has already begun. Include plenty of iron-rich foods such as lentils, kelp, pumpkin seeds, dried prunes, and spinach, and, if you eat animal products, grass-fed beef, eggs, and fish are also a good source of heme iron, which helps to replenish iron levels that can be lost during our bleed. This is also a timely moment to make healthier food choices, as lower levels of hormones may make it a time of the month when women often report feeling less hungry.
Menstruation Phase Shopping List Ideas:
- Sea vegetables, e.g., kelp
- Sweet potato
- Activated brown rice
- Kefir or probiotic yogurts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Millet-based cereals
- Wheat germ
- Protein of choice; beef, chicken, lentils, fish, eggs, tofu
PHASE 2: RISE/FOLLICULAR
FOOD FOCUS: Fresh and light
Hormone levels, while still low, are beginning to rise as your egg follicles mature in preparation for ovulation. We may be starting to feel more energized, and potentially including more exercise, so this is a good time to incorporate light, fresh, vibrant foods such as salads and fermented foods like kefir, probiotic yogurt or sauerkraut, which support gut health and detoxification. With rising estrogen, some women find that they have more energy, focus, and willpower at this time, so it may also be an optimal time to begin your healthy-eating plan or give that seven-day cleanse a go.
Follicular Phase Shopping List Ideas:
- Salad vegetables
- Nuts/seed mix
- Probiotic yoghurt
- Zucchini/ courgettes
PHASE 3: SHIFT/OVULATORY
FOOD FOCUS: Fibrous and light
Once the egg has matured, we move into the ovulatory phase. Hormone levels are rising, particularly estrogen, as it aids in the ovulation process. Our basal body temperature also increases, which can impact increased energy levels. Excess estrogen can have negative impact on our cycle, including breast tenderness and increased spotting, so nutrients that support the liver to remove estrogen are good to include and are found in foods such as kale, broccoli, onions, garlic, and radishes.
Ovulation Phase Shopping List Ideas:
- Whole grains: breads, pasta, rice — B vitamins
- Fruits: berries, citrus, papaya
PHASE 4: REFLECT/LUTEAL
FOOD FOCUS: Curb cravings
Hormone levels reach their peak as we approach menstruation and many women experience PMS around this time. It is possible to help manage pre-period moods and discomforts through food choices: If you experience water retention in the form of swollen breasts and bloating, avoid foods high in salt as they can exacerbate the problem due to salt’s anti-diuretic effects on the body. The same applies to sugar; if you are prone to cravings, they may be at their highest during this week, and carbohydrates may be what you are craving. However, just ensure they are complex ones such as brown rice, pasta, or bread (the husks are filled with energy and stress-supporting B vitamins and fiber to help curb cravings and balance those moods). This is also a good time of the month to cut down on caffeine and alcohol, as these stimulants can aggravate PMS-triggered anxiety and mood shifts. Coffee and alcohol can also interfere with the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals required for optimal menstrual health, so try some alternatives like sparkling fruit water, herbal teas, and chicory root, or swap your morning latte for a caffeine-free one.
Luteal Phase Shopping List Ideas:
- Cucumber (water retention)
- Caffeine-free herbal teas
- Sesame seeds
- Brown rice
- Protein of choice: tofu, chicken, lean meats, fish, and seafood
- Turmeric latte blend
- Dark chocolate
Sound like a lot of planning? Don’t sweat it. Aim to make small changes, and keep note of what works for you.