Weight Loss and Your Menstrual Cycle
Don’t let PMS ruin your workouts and undo all of your weight loss progress. By making a few small tweaks to your training and nutrition, you can easily outsmart cravings and get a handle on this time of month.
For many women, the weight and mood changes caused by your menstrual cycle can be significant. The symptoms of PMS vary by individual and can range from a slight inconvenience to feeling like PMS is taking over your life.
The most common PMS symptoms include:
- Water retention and bloating
- Increased cravings
- Appetite changes
- Decreased energy levels
If PMS is leaving you feeling like want to eat chocolate, ice cream, and pizza while lying on the couch for a week, this article is for you.
First up, let’s talk about what your menstrual cycle actually is.
Menstrual Cycle: Two Phases
There are two phases of the menstrual cycle (follicular phase & luteal phase) and the two phases are separated by ovulation and menses. The first day of menses starts the follicular phase, and this phase ends at ovulation. The luteal phase starts with ovulation and ends with the first day of menses.
During the follicular phase, the follicle, which contains the egg, is maturing, and during the luteal phase the follicle becomes the corpus luteum after it releases its egg.
Menstrual Cycle: Hormones
From a hormonal perspective, what you need to know is that the follicular phase is a period of higher estrogen and lower progesterone. The luteal phase is a period of high estrogen AND progesterone, but progesterone is more dominant during this phase.
During your week of PMS and following into menses, most women experience a big drop in both estrogen and progesterone. As you know, estrogen makes women more insulin sensitive while progesterone, because it opposes the action of insulin, makes them more insulin resistant.
It’s important to understand the role of these hormones for a few reasons.
First, both estrogen and progesterone are anti-cortisol hormones so when these hormones drop, cortisol levels often rise.
In addition, because both estrogen and progesterone have receptors in the brain, studies show that when they drop during the PMS time frame, brain chemistry is impacted and women experience lower levels of serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. This change in brain chemistry means increased cravings especially for sweet and starchy foods, hence the usual PMS cravings.
Here’s what’s going on with your hormones during each phase of your cycle:
|Follicular phase||Increase in estrogen|
|Luteal phase starting||Increase in estrogen and progesterone (progesterone dominant)|
|Luteal phase later (PMS)||Drop in estrogen and progesterone|
So what does this mean and what can you do to keep things balanced during your menstrual cycle? Keep reading for a few small tweaks to your training and nutrition that will help you outsmart cravings and get a handle on this time of month.
7 Things You Need to Know about Weight Loss and Your Menstrual Cycle
- Insulin impact & when to drop carbs: Because both estrogen and progesterone impact insulin, it’s important to understand and balance the insulin impact on body composition. This can be done through the manipulation of carbohydrates during specific times of the month. Because estrogen makes a woman more insulin sensitive, most women can get away with eating more carbohydrates during the follicular phase. Normal carbohydrate intake at most meals with carbs coming after exercise to enhance muscle growth and recovery is ideal. In general, women seem to be less tolerant of increased carbohydrate during in the luteal phase, especially the late luteal phase, aka PMS time frame, so if you’re tracking carbs, it may be beneficial go lower in carbohydrates during the late luteal phase.
- Cortisol impact & stress reduction: In addition to impacting insulin, both estrogen and progesterone impact cortisol. Specifically, they are are both anti-stress hormones, so as women enter the late luteal phase (PMS), cortisol levels tend to rise. This means that stress reducing activities such as leisurely walking, foam rolling, yoga, stretching and sleep are very important to keeping hormones as balanced as possible.
- High stress endurance exercise: Long-duration moderate intensity cardio is a stressful form of exercise that directly impacts cortisol. While I don’t personally encourage this type of endurance exercise for optimal body composition, if you’re training for an endurance event and need to fit in long duration, moderate intensity cardio into your routine, this type of exercise would fit better into the follicular phase or the beginning luteal phase when levels are higher and cortisol levels are better balanced.
- More muscle building: Studies show that the follicular phase may be the best time to focus on muscle building as well. Due to the higher cortisol levels during the luteal phase, the body naturally tends to be more catabolic (muscle breakdown mode) during that time. The follicular phase is a naturally more anabolic (muscle building) time so make sure you’re using heavy weights and challenging your muscles to grow during this time. Full body weight training with heavy weights is key.
- Boost Serotonin and Dopamine: Be prepared for cravings to naturally increase during the time of PMS. To deal with the intense cravings during this time, cocoa can be helpful. Cocoa has been shown to raise dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain and to help blunt cravings at a brain chemistry level.
- BCAAs for cravings and cortisol: Another secret weapon for addressing the brain chemistry changes are BCAAs. BCAAs are helpful for minimizing muscle breakdown and lowering cortisol, as well as boosting the brain chemicals GABA (our brain’s number one relaxing chemical) and glutamate. By balancing these stimulating and relaxing responses in the brain at a chemical level, we can stop cravings before they even start. BCAAs also help to control hunger. Read more about BCAAs.
- Increased weight gain from water: Bloating can be a significant issue for women. Some women report gaining as much as 5 to 10 extra pounds of water during their cycle. This jump on the scale is NOT fat. It’s simply excess water retention caused by female hormones, mainly estrogen. Estrogen directly stimulates several compounds called renin-angiotensin from the kidneys that lead to fluid retention. In general, this issue is most common for women who are on the pill. The amount of fluid that is retained is directly proportional with the quantity of estrogen found in the pill. Oral contraceptives that contain around 20 mcg of estrogen are recommended for women who want to avoid fluid retention. If you’re on birth control pills that have a high estrogen level, talk to your doctor about moving to something with lower estrogen levels. Read more about weight gain and birth control. Other ideas for reducing water retention include increasing your water intake, make it your goal to get ½ your bodyweight in oz of water daily, and limiting salty foods.
By more clearly understanding the changes taking place within your body, you can help reduce the chances of them affecting you negatively during your menstrual cycle.
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