By Lauren Ranley, MS, RD, LDN
What is cycle-syncing?
For women and AFAB individuals, the menstrual cycle often leads to various symptoms due to the normal fluctuation of hormones. While research is still new on the effects of cycle syncing, studies show that hormone fluctuations affect energy, mood, appetite, and sleep. The cycle-syncing method involves adjusting how you eat and exercise to better meet your individual needs during each phase of your menstrual cycle.
For those who struggle with disordered eating or chronic dieting, cycle syncing can seem like an acceptable way to place rules on food or restrict intake. So, before you decide to cycle sync, consider why you want to do so in the first place. Is this a way to cut out or restrict certain foods? Or are you tired all the time, experiencing intense mood swings, or interested in using cycle syncing to track fertility? If you experience adverse symptoms throughout your menstrual cycle, consult your doctor to determine the root cause of these issues before deciding if cycle syncing is the best for you.
Benefits of Cycle Syncing
Potential benefits of cycle syncing include the following:
- Increased energy levels
- Improved mood and fewer mood swings
- More effective workouts
- Fertility support and knowing the best time to conceive
Consult your doctor and dietitian if you regularly experience fatigue, low mood, or mood swings throughout your cycle. To maximize the benefits of cycle syncing, prioritize specific nutrients during each menstrual cycle phase. Cycle syncing falls in line with intuitive eating, as you can still eat freely while focusing on adding certain nutrient-rich foods that will support your body during each particular menstrual phase. Incorporating movement during each phase that best suits your energy level is also encouraged.
Let me stress that cycle syncing should be combined with intuitive eating, seasonal eating, and listening to your body. It’s about adding foods in to your diet, rather than taking them out. If you crave a particular food that’s not on the list for your current phase, eat it anyways.
Menstrual Cycle Phases
A menstrual cycle can be divided into two phases: the follicular phase occurs “pre-ovulation,” the time between the first day of menses and ovulation, and the luteal phase occurs “post-ovulation,”” after ovulation and until menses begins. The follicular and luteal phases can be broken down further into two more phases, menstrual and ovulatory. All phases cause hormones to fluctuate and have unique symptoms.
- Menstrual phase: The menstrual phase is when the uterus begins to shed its lining due to decreased levels of estrogen and progesterone, and normal vaginal bleeding occurs. During menstruation, pain, or dysmenorrhea, may occur. This pain can include abdominal cramping due to contractions of the womb as the uterus lining sheds. Some people may also experience headaches, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Often, the heavier the vaginal bleeding, the more intense the symptoms become. This phase of vaginal bleeding can last anywhere from two to eight days.
- Follicular phase: During this phase, the follicle develops in the ovary. Estrogen and progesterone levels start to rise, and estrogen causes the uterine lining to thicken. The follicular phase lasts about nine days, and energy and mood are often higher than in the later luteal phase. Cramping and other symptoms that occur during the menstrual phase are not typically present in the follicular phase.
- Ovulatory phase: The ovulatory phase lasts for about three days and is when ovulation occurs. Estrogen peaks and progesterone levels rise as the egg is released mid-cycle, typically around day 14 of the menstrual cycle. During this phase, studies show sexual motivation is at its highest and is when pregnancy is most likely to occur.
- Luteal phase: The longest phase of the menstrual cycle, lasts about ten days. Estrogen and progesterone levels are high, and if pregnancy has not occurred, these hormones decrease as the body gets ready to move into the menstrual phase again. It is common to experience heightened anxiety, brain fog, or trouble concentrating during this phase in the menstrual cycle. PMS also occurs during this phase and is characterized by abdominal bloating, changes in appetite, acne, muscle or joint pain, headaches or migraines, insomnia, depression, fatigue, mood swings, and more.
Every individual who experiences a menstrual cycle will have varying timeframes for each phase and variations in symptoms. Taking hormonal contraceptives—such as pills, the patch, a vaginal ring, an injection, an implant, or an intrauterine device (IUD)—may suppress ovulation, meaning a person using birth control may not have the four cycles to sync.
How to Cycle Sync
To begin cycle syncing, track your cycle to help familiarize yourself with each phase of your menstrual cycle and to know which phase your body is currently moving through. You can do this by using a calendar or an app.
Incorporating specific nutrients during each phase may help relieve or prevent symptoms like poor mood, period cramps, headaches, or low energy. It is highly suggested that when trying to increase the consumption of certain nutrients, food is the first option, not supplements. Food has other nutritional benefits, such as fiber, calories, and macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins).
Once you familiarize yourself with the phases of your cycle, find ways to add nutrient-specific foods to your overall diet that will support you in your cycle. If you typically like oatmeal for breakfast, what foods can you add to increase its nutritional value, specific to your cycle phase?
Cycle Syncing Nutrition
Studies show that nutrient needs differ slightly depending on each stage of the menstrual cycle. For example, iron levels tend to be lower during the menstruation phase. Add iron-rich foods like nuts, lentils, and meat to support your body during this phase.
During the menstruation phase, increase foods with iron for blood loss. Magnesium-rich foods can help reduce cramps and muscle pain. Focus on adequate protein and fiber to help improve satiety and curb cravings.
In the follicular phase, prioritize fiber, omega-3s, and fermented foods to support the body as it prepares to release an egg during the next phase, ovulation. Omega-3 helps boost mood, maintain cell structure and support brain health. Fiber and fermented foods keep things moving through your digestive tract and keep gut bacteria healthy.
During the ovulatory phase, you may experience a decrease in appetite, so your goal is to choose nutrient-dense foods over calorie-dense foods. Also, focus on foods rich in zinc and vitamin D. Zinc plays a critical role in the reproductive system and helps with ovulation and normal pregnancy. Vitamin D acts as a hormone and can help regulate reproduction function.
Research shows that the luteal phase usually comes with intense food cravings, particularly sweet or salty. It’s also common for appetite to increase during this phase, and for a good reason. The luteal phase requires more energy to help rebuild your uterine lining. Prioritize mood-boosting healthy fats, energizing B vitamins, and complex carbohydrates. This will help you feel full and satiated and may help combat intense cravings.
While all this can help support the body through the changing waves of hormones, meeting your nutrient goals is the priority. No matter what phase of your menstrual cycle, ensuring adequate protein, fiber, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and other nutrient intake is crucial to overall health.
How Long Does Cycle Syncing Take?
You may begin to see the effects as your body starts to work with the natural fluctuation of hormones rather than against it. Like with any change in eating or exercising, consistency is key. Give yourself a few cycles to get into a rhythm with your body, hormones, food, and movement patterns. Cycle-syncing should be used to further expand the concept of intuitive eating and support your body, not try to change it.