1987 was a good year for me. I did the New Zealand Ironman competition, which in those days was held in Auckland. I took a few days off work and as you did back then, put my bike, running shoes and togs in my little car and drove nearly the length of New Zealand from Dunedin to Auckland. I couldn’t afford the air-fare. When I did all that training way back then, I had no idea how to eat or train for my hormonal cycle – it wasn’t talked about. But as part of ‘Peri-menopause’ week on my private coaching pages for women who join me on the programme, I’ve been talking about how to eat and exercise for our peri-menopause transition. This research is only just evolving now and how I wish it was around when I was training and competing.
The Ironman event had only been around a couple of years, but I was used to doing shorter half-marathons and possibly when I was out drinking one night, some bright spark suggested that I do it and I said, “yes”. So over the next 3-4 months I trained for it – a 2.3km swim in the Auckland harbour, 160km cycle and back in those days, the run was not quite a full marathon, but ‘only’ 32 km (20 miles). It was the culmination of a summer of training without a Sports Nutritionist, Exercise Specialist or Triathlon Coach in sight. Those disciplines hadn’t even arrived in those days.
My nutritional intake whilst out cycle-training in those days in and around Dunedin in the beautiful South Island, was peanut butter sandwiches, some cut up apple wedges, some lovely Central Otago dried apricots, two bottles of water and oh, someone mentioned that you should use ‘flat’ coca-cola so I had a small bottle of this in the back of my cycling top too. Way back then I was a young student nurse and was used to being on my feet for 8 hours a shift, so the only mental preparation I did was to tell myself to ‘KEEP GOING’! So, I did and came in the top 10 women.
I have no idea where I was in my menstrual cycle when I was training back then.
In fact, I didn’t know much about my menstrual cycle at all. Nobody talked about it. With the 1980’s being the start of a changing landscape for women’s sporting events, such as triathlons, there was no sport science, no sports nutrition and definitely no discussion about the type of training and nutrition to better suit the ebb and flow of our menstrual cycle. In fact this research about women’s hormonal health didn’t exist until a few years ago.
If you are just entering menopause, then you are in ‘peri-menopause’. This happens normally any time from mid-life, which the World Health Organisation [WHO] defines as ‘halfway through the average life-expectancy of the population’. For most Western countries, women’s life expectancy is around 84-86 years of age, so mid-point is around our mid-40’s.
That’s why for those of you who are still menstruating and in peri-menopause, I thought you might like to have a little focus on eating and exercising for our menstrual cycle this week. I just wish this info was around in my day. 😊
Our female physiology is complex … and it’s riddled with fluctuations in sex hormones from one month to the next as we move through our menstrual cycle. Even as we go into menopause our pituitary hormones are still trying to get the ovaries to produce oestrogen, however, there is a dwindling pool of follicles (clusters of cells that produce ova and hormones) due to our ovarian ageing. Some of you will have lighter periods, but some of you may have heavier periods. And it’s all to do with how quickly we lose oestrogen and progesterone as our ovaries (if you still have them) go into decline.
[Photo Credit: ResearchGate]
Your menstrual cycle is typically divided into 3 phases:
1. Your period is called ‘menses’ and occurs from Days 1-5 of your cycle.
2. The follicular or regenerative phase follows and thickening of your endometrial lining in your uterus occurs. This is mainly achieved under the direction of your pituitary reproductive hormones, FSH and LH (follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone).
3. The last phase of the monthly cycle before our period starts again is the luteal or progestational phase. The corpus luteum is readying itself to support a foetus and the endometrium is thickening. Some of you with endometriosis may experience more bloating and pain at this time of the month, and this is when some of you put on fluid weight and experience cravings for sugar and simple carbs, such as baked products. The reason for these cravings, is that this phase is dominated by progesterone so oestrogen is lower.
The luteal phase of your monthly cycle, when progesterone is in control, is when you feel more emotional, bloated, lethargic and yes, you might crave certain sweet, simple foods, especially if you are exercising a lot and not managing your post-exercise blood sugar levels. Even when you are transitioning peri-menopause, you can still experience these mood swings, bloating and cravings too as your pituitary hormones continue to manage the monthly hormonal messages.
How do we eat for our fluctuating hormones in peri-menopause?
Fortunately there is a lot more research around this area these days, and if you have a teenage daughter involved in lots of sports then plug her into the work of Exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, Dr Stacey Sims from the University of Waikato’s Dept of Health, Sport & Human Performance (where my doctorate is from too). Stacey researches female athletes and hormonal cycles. I’ve looked at this research too but from the perspective of the ‘other-end’ of our life cycle – peri-menopause, so here is the nutritional info I have for you.
• Phase 1: (Your period) – Both oestrogen and progesterone are low in this phase, but if your periods are heavy, then eat foods high in folate, Vitamin B12, B6 and iron. Whilst we need lots of deep-green vegies in this phase, some of you might like to have more red meat in this phase too unless you are vegetarian (choose lamb which is less acidic than older beef) which also gives you extra animal fats. Whilst I don’t have a lot of meat-meals in the MyMT programmes, for some thinner/ leaner women or those of you who are exercising, some meat is warranted in this phase. But if you aren’t a meat-eater, then get healthy Omega 3 fats into you via avocado, olive oil & nuts too. Ensure you also stay well hydrated.
• Phase 2: The follicular phase towards ovulation is when oestrogen dominates the hormonal environment. When oestrogen dominates then eat less eggs, dairy products, chicken and soy-based foods which are high in oestrogen. When you eat a lot of high-oestrogen foods, your liver is working harder to clear the excess oestrogens. Add more salads and lighter plant-based meals that don’t make you feel bloated.
• Phase 3: The luteal phase, when progesterone dominates your hormonal environment is often the craziest phase and many women, young and older, experience symptoms related to PMT – typically mood swings and low blood sugar. This is why an often-reported symptom of this phase are food cravings, especially sugar cravings. Research supports adding a bit more protein to your diet and oestrogen-richer foods such as eggs which are high in fats, protein and oestrogen. The goal is to balance up higher amounts of progesterone with oestrogen from dairy and eggs. Adding zinc-rich foods such as fish and salmon is also well documented in your mid-luteal phase. When progesterone is high, this breaks down muscle more readily, so if you are exercising then also add in healthy vegetable carbohydrates as well as more protein as carbs and protein work together to maintain muscle. Research supports that this phase is when you are most likely to crave sugar, so get healthy vegie snacks ready as well as dark chocolate as a snack.
• Perhaps the most important factor in the luteal phase (before your period) is to focus on hydration. Plasma is the watery part of your blood. When hormones are high in the luteal phase, plasma volume drops by approximately 8%, meaning that less is available for blood circulation, sweating and maintaining your blood pressure.
As you move through menopause and into post-menopause, then hormone fluctuations as part of your cycle should become less intense, but as I say in my seminars and to women on the programme, when our menopause changes are also clashing with our modern lifestyles, then symptoms of menopause can stay with us into our post-menopause years as well. This is why the focus of the MyMT programmesare on helping women to transition through this powerful life-stage. When you are ready, I hope you can join me.
Dr Wendy Sweet [PhD]
Gorczyca, A., Sjaard, L. et al. (2015). Changes in macronutrient, micronutrient, and food group intakes
throughout the menstrual cycle in healthy, premenopausal women. Eur. Journal of Nutrition, Published Online 5th June, 2015: Springer.
Sims, S. (2017). ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology. Amazon Publ.