Are You Biohacking Your Menstrual Cycle Yet?
Especially in a fast-paced city like Hong Kong, people are often on the lookout for ways to hack their physiology and squeeze a little more out of each day. One major component to our energy levels is our biorhythm. Most of us know the circadian rhythm: the 24 hour day and our general tendency to wake, eat, sleep at the same times everyday. However, half the population experiences another rhythm for a large portion of their life: an infradian rhythm.
An infradian rhythm is a biological cycle that lasts longer than 24 hours. The menstruation cycle is an example of an infradian rhythm. In the case of menstruation, it is about 28 days long (but there is healthy variation allowing for longer or shorter cycles depending on the individual). Over those 28 days, the body moves through various phases.
What are the phases of menstruation? The easiest way to remember these phases is to think about the purpose of your cycle: to procreate. Your body is designed to prepare for a baby. Regardless of your choice whether or not to have children, your body doesn’t care; its mission is to keep the human race alive.
The 2 major phases of the menstrual cycle are the follicular phase (first half of the cycle) and the luteal phase (second half). Follicular refers to the follicle from which you release eggs. Luteal refers to the Further divided:
Day 1-5 Menstruation. Your uterine lining, the tissue that makes up the uterus, sheds as your body realizes it is not pregnant.
Day 5-10 Follicular Phase. Your uterine lining starts to thicken in preparation for growing a baby. Remember your body doesn’t care if you want to get pregnant or not; it has a biological imperative. Estrogen reaches its highest point at the end of this phase.
Day 11-18 Ovulation. The egg is released and ready for impregnation; during these couple of days you can get pregnant.
Day 19-28 Luteal Phase. The uterine lining continues to thicken; your body prepares whether you are pregnant or not.
(These are ranges and can vary person to person.)
An important consideration is if you are on a hormone contraceptive. If you are, you do not have a menstrual cycle or a period. The bleed that can occur once per month is ‘pill bleed,’ and is not the same as a natural period. Remember that the purpose of a hormone contraceptive is to trick your body into thinking it is pregnant, so it does not go through the same cycle of hormonal changes.
Once you know where you are in your cycle, you can start to use that to your advantage by supporting yourself nutritionally and with appropriate exercises.
Many women think menstruation is the worst time to workout because of cramping, headaches, and other symptoms. The beginning of your cycle is remarkable for the overall low hormone levels, which may make you feel like you want to rest. Take the time to chill out if you need to. However, during this time we have the highest testosterone to estrogen and progesterone ratio, which gives us an athletic advantage. During your period is the best time to reach your personal best with a workout. During the follicular phase and ovulation, go for intensity with cardio and strength training to build lean muscle.
In terms of fuel, during the follicular phase you want to support your rising estrogen levels with probiotic-rich foods like kimchi and sauerkraut; fresh vegetables; and lean protein. As you move into ovulation, eat more glutathione-rich berries, which provide antioxidant effects to detox excess estrogen.
In the second half of your cycle, during the luteal phase, you may notice a craving for carbs. That’s your body telling you what it needs. But rather than going for the sugary treats or junk food, eat complex carbohydrates (try brown rice and sweet potatoes). Toward the latter end of the luteal phase, closer to menstruation, the body is preparing to bleed and releases chemicals called prostaglandins. Magnesium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein (especially leucine found in parmesan cheese, tofu, and navy beans) support you and may mitigate menstrual cramping and headaches. Getting adjusted before your period is also vital for keeping motion and good nervous system communication in your low back and pelvis.
Exercise is vital to keep the tissues and joints in the lower abdomen healthy and moving. Low impact workouts like strength training and working on flexibility with Pilates and yoga are best during the luteal phase. Always remember to listen to your body first, though, and if it’s telling you it wants to go on a run, go for it. Getting any movement in is more important than forcing yourself to do a workout you may not be in the mood for.
In the beginning, it may be challenging to recognize how long you are in each phase. But as you keep count of the days, you will begin to feel the slight changes in energy and mood. You may also start to feel mittelschmerz, which is the sensation of ovulation. Some people even feel which side is releasing an egg that month. Your body is always communicating to you; you just have to be ready to listen and respond.
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