20 Mar How to work with your menstrual cycle – Female Fat Loss.
Rather than getting frustrated by it, I want to show you how you can work with your menstrual cycle to optimise fat loss.
Have you ever wondered why you get cravings at certain times of the month? Or why some weeks you seem to be more hungry than usual?
The cool thing about being female is that there’s a physiological reason for these symptoms.
Get comfortable because this article is going to be a long one.
I’ve split it up into 2 parts:
Part 1: How your menstrual cycle affects training and dieting.
Part 2: How to work with your menstrual cycle for optimised fat loss.
Your menstrual cycle may be inconvenient but it’s a blessing; you wouldn’t be able to make a human without it!
That’s pretty special.
Not to mention that not having a regular cycle has a number of negative health consequences which I won’t be discussing here. I also won’t be discussing the pill as it’s too complicated.
The aim is to keep this simple so that you can understand how to work with your menstrual cycle to optimise fat loss.
The key word is optimise.
Male and female fat loss is the same in principal.
You both need a calorie deficit for fat loss.
By working with the phases of your menstrual cycle, you can alter your training and diet to improve adherence and motivation.
This will enable you to be more consistent which will lead to better fat loss results in the long term.
PART 1: HOW YOUR MENSTRUAL CYCLE AFFECTS TRAINING AND DIETING
The basics of your menstrual cycle
Your menstrual typically lasts for 28 days but a normal cycle can be anywhere from 24-32 days.
It can be split up into 2 main phases:
- The Follicular Phase
- The Luteal Phase
These phases are marked by two events:
Each phase involves changes in the primary female reproductive hormones, estrogren and progesterone.
Menstruation is day 1 of your cycle and when you get your period. After this ends, the follicular phase begins.
During the follicular phase, a number of follicles develop and the uterine wall thickens to prepare for an egg to be implanted there. Progesterone remains low throughout this phase. Estrogen is low at the start and begins to rise.
A large surge of estrogen in the last few days causes one of the follicles to release an egg. This is termed ovulation. Estrogen drops rapidly when this happens. Ovulation occurs 12-16 days before your next period so the exact day depends on the length of your cycle.
The luteal phase begins after ovulation. The remainder of the follicle that released the egg (called the corpus luteum), secretes lots of progesterone and some estrogen causing both to rise during the first half of the luteal phase. The aim is to continue to thicken and maintain the lining of the uterus.
If the egg isn’t fertilised, the corpus luteum is broken down. This causes progesterone and estrogen levels to fall again, and the uterine lining to disintegrate. This is when PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) occurs. It generally lasts for 4-7 days until you get your period. Then the cycle begins all over again.
How the different phases of your menstrual cycle affect training and dieting
When you look at some of the effects estrogen and progesterone have on the body, things get more interesting. Many symptoms like cravings and water retention are a result of the changes in estrogen and progesterone throughout your cycle.
Estrogen is the dominant hormone during the follicular phase. Progesterone’s effects are most pronounced in the luteal phase. Whilst estrogen rises in the luteal phase, progesterone cancels out its effects, making it even more potent during this phase.
Here’s some things that occur thanks to estrogen:
- Your insulin sensitivity is improved meaning your body can utilise carbohydrates better in the first half of your menstrual cycle.
- Leptin production increases as does leptin sensitivity in your brain. This results in better hunger control in the follicular phase.
- Your body retains more sodium when estrogen is highest (just before ovulation), which can result in water retention and bloating around ovulation.
- You may have an increased appetite and cravings for foods high in sugar after ovulation. The fall in estrogen results in lower serotonin and dopamine in the brain.
Meanwhile here are some things that happen thanks to progesterone:
- Your basal body temperature increases when progesterone rises in the first part of the luteal phase. With this comes an increase in your resting metabolic rate and overall energy expenditure.
- A hormone called aldosterone is blocked from binding to a receptor involved in water retention. In doing so water retention is limited. When progesterone decreases in the second half of the luteal phase, there is a rebound effect which can cause an increase in water retention and bloating.
- Your insulin sensitivity is reduced resulting in your body not utilising carbohydrates as well. Blood glucose levels can become less stable. This affects your mood, energy levels and hunger.
There are some big differences between the two phases of your menstrual cycle that can affect training and dieting:
- Metabolic rate
- Insulin sensitivity and nutrient utilisation
- Appetite and hunger
- Cravings, especially for carbohydrates
- Mood and energy levels
- Water retention
PART 2: HOW TO WORK WITH YOUR MENSTRUAL CYCLE FOR OPTIMISED FAT LOSS
Being aware of how your menstrual cycle affects your training and dieting can help you:
- time when you start your diet for better adherence
- prepare for cravings and increased hunger
- implement diet breaks at better times
- know what week is going to be the best time for a deload
- understand scale weight fluctuations better
- measure progress accurately
You don’t have to change your diet and training.
You’ll lose fat if you’re in a calorie deficit no matter what.
If you struggle with cravings or fatigue, it could be beneficial to work with your menstrual cycle by making some small changes to your training and diet throughout the month.
How to work with your menstrual cycle- Training
One of the most common questions I get from my online coaching clients is “Can I train on my period?”
Yes you can. It’s not as fun squatting but you can still do it if you feel up to it.
Some of my clients find they feel great training when they have their period and some of them feel weak.
What I find commonly, is that the week leading up to your period is the hardest.
You’ll go to the gym and struggle to lift the weights you did the previous week. You might also find that your workouts make you more sore that usual.
This week is not the right time to push yourself to the limits and aim for PBs.
Instead, it’s the best week to schedule a deload in your training. This can be a proper deload where you cut the volume in half in your training program. Or you can just aim to go a bit lighter with the weights you choose based on how you feel.
It’s also a good time to start a new training program. In the first week of a new training program I recommend you go lighter and focus on your form anyway. That way, you have a solid base to make progress on in the coming weeks.
Starting a new program on the week that you feel weakest can help with motivation. You’ll already be feeling moody so you don’t need to compound that by having training sessions that suck. If you’re deliberately working on your form, you’ll feel good for getting the session done. You’ll also have a better session since you weren’t trying to push yourself to use heavy weights that you weren’t able to lift.
Once your period is over, or maybe even during it, you’ll start to feel stronger. That’s when you can start aiming for strength gains each week.
How to work with your menstrual cycle- Diet
If you’re someone who gets intense cravings or if you don’t deal well with being hungry during your menstrual cycle, it may be beneficial for you to sync your diet with your cycle.
The differences between the follicular phase and luteal phase can guide you in doing this.
- Easier to control appetite and hunger
- Your body will use more carbohydrates for fuel (insulin sensitivity is higher)
- Your metabolic rate increases slightly
- It may be harder to control appetite and hunger since they are increased
- Your more likely to have cravings
- Your body uses more fat for fuel (insulin sensitivity is lower)
The first thing to consider is when you begin a diet. To set you up for success, it makes more sense to start a diet during the first half of your cycle when hunger is better controlled.
The next thing to consider is cravings.
You can prepare for cravings and increased hunger in a number of ways.
It could be beneficial to allow yourself an extra 100-200 calories per day on the days you have more intense cravings. This will give you more room in your diet for chocolate or whatever you need to satisfy those cravings. It’s better to satisfy them in a controlled way rather than letting them take over and binging.
Thanks to the increase in your metabolic rate in the luteal phase, it’s unlikely you’ll come out of your calorie deficit. Note that this increase in your metabolic rate is only by a small percentage (2.5-10%), so it will only add an extra 100-300 extra calories per day max.
Another way to deal with hunger is to change your macros slightly during each phase of your cycle. In the follicular phase when your body uses carbohydrates better, you might want to have a higher carbohydrate and lower fat diet. Then in the luteal phase, you can switch to a higher fat and lower carbohydrate diet to help with fullness.
As long as you stick to your calorie requirements overall, it won’t make a difference if you change up how much fat and carbohydrate you eat. Note that your body still needs fat during the first half of your cycle and you shouldn’t remove it altogether. Simply choose to swap some fats with some carbs.
If you were wondering about protein, your requirements don’t change throughout your menstrual cycle. You should aim to hit the same target regardless of what week it is.
If you want to learn more about your individual calorie and protein requirements for fat loss you should read this.
Diet breaks can also help you deal with hunger and cravings. A diet break is where you go back to eating at your maintenance calorie intake for a period of time (usually 7-14 days).
Timing a diet break for the week before you get your period can be as helpful as adding an extra 100-200 calories on a few random days. The difference is that a diet break will bring you out of a calorie deficit and it will go for longer. You won’t gain fat but you won’t lose it either. Your rate of fat loss will be slower as a result. If it means you stick to your diet better rather than falling off track, you might end up making faster progress long term.
If you utilise a full diet break to sync your diet with your menstrual cycle, your diet would look like this:
- Calorie deficit
- Regular protein
- Higher carbs and lower fat
- Maintenance calories
- Regular protein
- Higher fat and lower carb
You don’t have to use a diet break every month. If you do use one, it makes sense to schedule it in when you’re likely to be most hungry.
How to work with your menstrual cycle- Measuring progress
Scale weight and even body measurements can fluctuate a lot as a result of water retention occurring at different stages of your menstrual cycle. Even the way you look and the way your clothes fit can be affected. This needs to be taken into account when measuring fat loss progress.
Water retention generally follows this pattern:
- Early follicular phase (Week 1): least affected by water retention and scale weight is lowest
- Late follicular phase (Week 2): common to have some water retention
- Early luteal phase (Week 3): less water retention but scale may still be slightly higher than week 1
- Late luteal phase (Week 4): common to have water retention and scale weight is highest
The fluctuations can be daily or weekly which can hide the progress that you might be making.
For example, if you take your waist measurement in week 1 and then again in week 4, you might find your body weight has gone up in week 4 and your waist has too. This is despite the fact that you’ve been super consistent with your diet.
That’s why I ask my online coaching clients to take their body weight daily and their body measurements once a month (ideally near the start of the follicular phase, after their period). Progress photos are also taken once a month at the same time as their body measurements.
When it comes to body measurements, especially around your waist, it’s more effective to compare week 1 of your cycle with week 1 of your cycle the next month.
With the daily body weight data, you can get weekly averages to compare and also a monthly average. For fat loss, what matters is that the trend is going down month to month. Often the trend week to week will also be going down, but it may plateau some weeks or even go up. This is due to water retention and is not fat gain.
Even though it can be disheartening to see the numbers going backwards some weeks, you have to stay consistent and trust that they will come down again.
If you want to learn more about the basics on measuring fat loss progress you should read this.
How to work with your menstrual cycle- Recommendations
Your menstrual cycle is individual to you. There are different variations of normal. Each month might be different too.
For example, your cycle may last 26 days one month and 29 days the next month. That’s normal.
Your friend’s cycle might be 28 days every month. That’s normal for her.
Start tracking your cycle and pay attention to how you feel during each phase.
There are so many free apps available that can help you do this. Otherwise just use your calendar.
You may find that you don’t really get cravings but you get extreme fatigue. In that case you might want to alter your training and keep your diet the same. You might find you adhere better by taking a diet break for 7 days each month leading up to your period or you might find you don’t need to. You might feel better eating more fats during the second half of your cycle or you might feel fine eating the same as you do in your first half.
Whatever you do, you need to take into account changes in water weight when tracking your progress.
Pay attention to when you’re feeling puffy or bloated and how the scale changes around those days.
Lastly, stress can impact your cycle in different ways. Some females seem to be more sensitive to stress than others. If you’re going through a stressful period, understand that this could be contributing to more water retention and changes in your cycle.
Overall, having an understanding of what is going on in your body can help you feel less frustrated by it. It’s up to you to experiment with this guidance to find what works best for your body.
If you have any questions or need further guidance, you can reach out here.
The Women’s Book by Lyle McDonald
Any basic human physiology text book
The Menstralean Diet Study