As much as we try to be productive, energized, and perfectly peppy people on the regular, we menstruators cannot copy and paste that version of ourselves into our daily lives.
Our hormones fluctuate over the course of a month or so, rather than a 24-hour period. Those hormones are responsible for a lot — so naturally, when they change, so do we.
You are simply not capable of the same exact things every single day because of how your cycle impacts energy levels, hunger, sleep quality, immune health, libido, mood, stamina, and more. What might feel easy while you’re ovulating may feel like torture a couple of weeks later.
Understanding how your body changes throughout the month allows you to prepare and adapt so you can take the hell out of menstrual health.
How the menstrual cycle works
I’ve written in detail about what actually happens throughout your cycle in this article, but here’s a brief overview. I’ll mention the dominant hormones that you’ll need to know to understand how they impact your hunger, mood, sleep, and more.
There are two halves to your cycle (follicular and luteal) and each half is separated into two additional phases based on your hormonal fluctuations.
- Follicular phase: Estrogen is the dominant hormone in the first half of your cycle, starting off low in this phase and gradually rising, providing growing energy as well.
- Ovulatory phase: Estrogen reaches its peak at ovulation, along with luteinizing hormone (which triggers ovulation).
- Luteal phase: Progesterone becomes the dominant hormone in the second half of your cycle, and gradually rises through this phase. It’s calming and provides more of a sense of relaxation.
- Menstrual phase: The beginning of your cycle, overlapping for a few days with the follicular phase. Hormones drop back to their lowest levels.
How the menstrual cycle impacts hunger
Your appetite as well as your caloric needs shift throughout the month. Estrogen tends to suppress your appetite, so you may notice you’re not as hungry as you are in the second half of your cycle. Also, when you’re feeling naturally energized at this time, there’s less of a need to rely on carbohydrates to power through the day, compared to the luteal phase when it’s likely all you can think about!
If you’re experiencing cravings in the follicular or ovulatory phases, consider incorporating more foods into your diet that contain phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that can modulate estrogen levels. These include flax seeds, sesame seeds, legumes like split peas and mung beans, dried fruit, whole grains, and cruciferous vegetables like kale and broccoli.
In the luteal phase, progesterone takes over. Post-ovulation your body hangs on to the hope that you’ll conceive and increases this essential hormone for pregnancy (think: pro-gestation). For a healthy pregnancy, you’re going to need more resources, so hunger naturally increases at this time. Serotonin also takes a dip, so you may naturally be craving carbohydrates that can help increase levels of this neurotransmitter.
You may find that luteal-phase hunger equates to specific PMS cravings for things like sweets, red meat, chocolate, and more. Refer to this article to learn what they might mean.
How the menstrual cycle impacts mood
One of estrogen’s effects is making you feel more receptive to other people. It makes you want to care for and be around others. It helps you better communicate and collaborate. It’s the hormone of community. The first half of your cycle tends to be pretty positive.
That’s evolutionary — you gotta find a mate somehow, and it just so happens your libido is increasing at the same time as your estrogen in preparation for ovulation.
Estrogen elevates your mood
Estrogen has a mood-elevating effect that makes us feel outgoing and optimistic. It’s a great time to embrace your social life and pack your calendar, and you’ll probably feel pretty motivated to exercise more too, which has its own mood-boosting benefits. What feels easy-breezy right now might actually stress you out in a couple of weeks, but peaking estrogen lets you brush things off a lot more easily.
If you have low estrogen in the first half of your cycle, it can lead to irritability and anxiety. Try out some of the phytoestrogen foods I mentioned above.
Progesterone calms you down
In the second half when estrogen lowers, so too does your serotonin. This is when you start to turn inward, stop caring so much about being around others, and focus more on self-care and rest. With progesterone having a calming effect, you’ll notice your energy wane, too.
If you’re not aligned with these changes, it can manifest as moodiness and depression. You might not realize what’s happening in your body, so things feel a lot harder and you get down on yourself for not being able to copy-and-paste that peppy attitude you had in your ovulatory phase.
Do you deal with anxiety related to your cycle? You may be able to pinpoint the cause based on when it happens.
If you’re feeling anxious in the follicular half, remember that estrogen boosts your natural energy at that time. If you don’t know what to do with that energy, you can feel on edge, jittery, and irritable. If you’re dealing with estrogen dominance, these feelings may be even stronger.
If you have more PMS-related anxiety, you may be low in progesterone (and yes that will again mean estrogen is high in comparison) and are missing out on that calming effect. Additionally, if you haven’t increased your food intake in the luteal half of your cycle, anxiety could be the result of low blood sugar from not eating enough.
How the menstrual cycle impacts sleep
Sleep patterns tend to shift throughout your cycle as well, more so if there’s a hormone imbalance.
Sleep in the follicular phase
With the natural boost in energy in the first half of your cycle, you may find that you can function on less sleep (and if there is an excess of estrogen, it may cause trouble falling asleep). Menstruators report the poorest sleep quality during the first four days of their cycle and three days prior to that as well. This is often due to estrogen levels being at their lowest at that time, but also menstrual cramps, headaches, backaches, and other symptoms can keep you awake at night too.
Tracking your sleep along with your cycle can help you spot patterns so you can prepare for potential issues. If you know that you have difficulty sleeping in your ovulatory phase, you can make some space in your schedule for sleeping in, for naps, or other restorative practices. You can take a day off from exercise or social obligations, and try to avoid conflict and situations that require extra energy.
Here are a few tips for setting your circadian rhythm so you have an easier time with sleep and energy levels.
Sleep in the luteal phase
After ovulation when progesterone starts to increase, it can be easier to get some zzzs — unless there’s a hormone imbalance like PMS or PMDD.
Fatigue may set in or you may experience insomnia-like problems, as 70% of people with PMDD do. Sufferers are less sensitive to melatonin, the hormone that helps you wind down and fall asleep, during the luteal phase.
And once you do fall asleep, menstruators have less REM sleep than in the first half of the cycle, which can lead to lesser quality sleep.
That doesn’t mean a good night’s rest is impossible. Working towards aligning with your cycle can improve sleep quality, lower anxiety so you’re better able to fall asleep, and can have you waking up feeling refreshed instead of exhausted as well.
If you’re a coffee drinker, caffeine may have more of an effect on you in the luteal phase as you get closer to menstruation. Elimination from the body is slowed down, meaning it stays in your system longer. The earlier you get your cup of joe, the better to avoid any impact on a good night’s rest.
Once you understand how the hormones of the menstrual cycle work in the body, it puts everything into perspective. You finally realize why you’re feeling a certain way and can plan accordingly the next time around for fewer cravings, a happier mood, and better sleep. That’s the beauty of cycles — every one is a new opportunity to level up and get closer to your best self.
Keep me posted on how it goes. Find me on Instagram at @goodwitchkitchen.