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The Menstrual Cycle

Supporting a healthy menstrual cycle and ovulation goes well beyond just wanting to have a baby. The hormones that are naturally produced and released throughout the cycle carry out many significant roles within the body and are vital to our overall health as women, regardless of the desired outcome.


Understanding the menstrual cycle and these hormonal fluctuations not only gives you the upper hand going into and navigating your cycle, but a deeper understanding of the incredible interplay occurring on a monthly basis, that ultimately prepares the body for one of nature’s most amazing gifts; that of new life.


The menstrual cycle can be divided into four distinct phases, including menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation and the luteal phase; with each of these phases involving complex communication between the brain and the ovaries. This communication results in the secretion or inhibition of hormones which carefully controls each phase.


The Menstrual Phase

The menstrual phase begins on day one of your period and is the result of an egg not being fertilised, or an unsuccessful pregnancy. When this happens, in response to the drop of progesterone and oestrogen levels, the uterine lining that had thickened in preparation for implantation of an embryo sheds; resulting in the bleeding you experience.


The Follicular Phase

The pituitary gland is a small gland that sits within the brain and on day one of your period, it releases a hormone know as follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). As its name suggests, FSH is responsible for stimulating the ovaries to make a number of follicles, all which house an immature egg or primary oocyte. Throughout each cycle, one of these follicles will mature in preparation for ovulation, while the others will die via a process known as atresia. As the follicles develop, oestrogen levels increase which begins to thicken the uterine lining in preparation for a possible pregnancy.


Ovulation

Ovulation will typically (but not always), occur around 14 days before your period starts. The higher levels of oestrogen production in the follicular phase signals to the hypothalamus (an area of your brain), to release another hormone known as Gonadatropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH), which causes more FSH to be produced. When oestrogen levels get high enough, they then signal to the hypothalamus to stop producing GnRH and another hormone called Luteinising Hormone (LH) surges, causing the mature egg to be released from the follicle.

***If you have used ovulation kits before, it is LH in the urine that is measured***

Around 1.5 to 2 days after the LH surge is detected, the egg is released into the fallopian tube where it awaits potential fertilisation and makes its way to the uterus. There is a small window here for the egg to be fertilised, as it will usually die within 12-24 hours.


The Luteal Phase

This is the time between ovulation and your period, and typically lasts for 14 days. Throughout the luteal phase, the outside of the ruptured follicle shrivels into a mass known as the corpus luteum which then secretes another important hormone, progesterone. Progesterone is the main hormone responsible for thickening the uterine lining in preparation for pregnancy.

If fertilisation of an egg takes place, then the embryo will embed itself into the lining of the uterus and the corpus luteum will continue to produce progesterone until the placenta takes over at around 10 weeks gestation. However, if pregnancy does not occur, the corpus luteum will shrivel and die causing progesterone levels to drop, ultimately causing the uterine lining to stop thickening and begin to shed, beginning the menstrual cycle again.





Do our nutrient requirements change throughout our cycle?

Just as a growing child has many different nutritional requirements throughout each stage of growth, so do we as women moving through each stage of our menstrual cycle. As hormone levels fluctuate, cells divide and replicate, eggs mature, we ovulate, our wombs prepare for pregnancy, the demands for specific nutrients changes and therefore what we eat, and how we treat our bodies has the ability to support or hinder these processes greatly and ultimately affect how we feel.


Here are a few simple recommendations to keep you feeling your best throughout the entire menstrual cycle.


The Menstrual Phase

Due to blood loss, your need for iron and vitamin C becomes higher. Iron from meat sources is readily absorbed into the blood stream, however, for non-meat sources of iron, we need vitamin C to help it across the brush border of the small intestine.

What should you eat?

Iron: Red meat, spinach, asparagus, silverbeet, turmeric and thyme.

Vitamin C: Kiwifruit, red capsicum (eat the white bit), broccoli, strawberries, citrus and tomatoes.

Hormonal/liver support: Cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, onion and garlic.

Anti-inflammatory foods: Turmeric, ginger, brightly coloured organic berries, oily fish (wild caught salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and sardines.

What should you avoid? Alcohol, sugar, caffeine


The Follicular Phase

In preparation for ovulation (which remember is important even if you're not trying to conceive), the body requires an extra boost of nutrients for egg release, potential pregnancy and cervical mucous production that is favourable to sperm.

What should you eat?

Lots of leafy greens and cruciferous veggies (cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, onion and garlic).

Vitamin C: Kiwifruit, red capsicum (eat the white bit), broccoli, strawberries, citrus and tomatoes.

Calcium (to help boost cervical mucous production) cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, onion and garlic.

Good fats (for hormone production): Walnuts, chia seeds, avocado, wild-caught salmon, ghee and coconut oil.

What should you avoid? Alcohol, sugar, caffeine (again, I know!) As these will drive inflammation and make your cervical mucous "anti-sperm!".


The Luteal Phase

Remember progesterone production is on the rise which will thicken the uterine lining and require different nutrients again.

What should you eat?

Progesterone requires magnesium, B6, Zinc and vitamin C - think good quality dark chocolate, cacoa, leafy greens, sunflower seeds, wholegrains, capsicum, kiwi, bananas, chicken, turkey and oysters!!!

In addition, increase your intake of vitamin A rich foods (think anything orange) - carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin to help balance hormones and support implantation. Add some pineapple to a smoothie as the bromelains help to reduce inflammation and may also help with implantation.

What should you avoid? Salads, raw fruit and veggies and whole nuts. Salt (to ease fluid retention), alcohol, caffeine and sugar.


In addition, here are a few more non-negotiables for optimising all four stages of your menstrual cycle.


💄Reduce your exposure to toxins as these will increase hormonal imbalances. The easiest switches are pads and tampons, skin care and make up, shampoo/conditioner and the "heartbreaker", fancy perfume.

💦 Drink purified water. My patients know this is my number one. You want to be drinking at least 0.03 x your body weight in kgs and aiming for mostly clear urine (It can be harder in Winter, so remember that herbal tea counts!) 😴Get enough sleep. This is particularly important in the luteal phase when our sleep can often be disturbed due to the hormonal fluctuations. (If this is you, try some magnesium and see how you go.) 🤸🏻‍♀️Move daily. It doesn't need to be strenuous exercise. 🥕Wash your fruit and veggies. (Even if they are organic).


It is important to remember that supporting a healthy menstrual cycle and ovulation goes way beyond just wanting to have a baby. As women our bodies are naturally supposed to produce these hormones that carry out many significant roles within our bodies.


It is unfortunate that our modern day provides us with so many challenges against our natural state of being; but it is exciting to see women becoming more aware and taking greater charge and responsibility of their cycles, both as individuals and as a collective.


Megan xx


PS - If you haven't already, download your free 3 day Hormone Balancing Meal Plan here



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