As a nutrition coach 2 areas that I totally nerd out on are digestion and hormones and they are areas I will continue to develop my education in so I can further benefit my clients . The impact both areas can have to our overall health is huge . How hormonal or digestive issues in males and females can impact our health, fat loss, muscle gain, performance and even mental health . Today however the focus will be on us girls and primarily how the menstrual cycle can impact training, nutrition and fat loss.
Women are not small men is a simple but fantastic way to begin this blog. I first read this phrase in the brilliant book Roar by Dr Stacy Sims. I really recommend this book as an insight into nutrition and training for performance totally tailored to women and our specific physiological needs. It looks at not only the menstrual cycle but also how throughout our life and the subsequent changes in our hormones, how to approach training and nutrition & get the best out of our bodies. Ignore the “Shrink It and pink it” marketing aimed at women and understand what it really takes to eat to perform at our optimum at any age .
With this in mind today I want to create a little more understanding of what happens in our bodies throughout our menstrual cycle and why some suffer from extreme PMS or even why we just have off days when you feel weak or clumsy in training and yes even why you may crave all the carbs and sugar!!
Knowledge and understanding help you learn how to work with your cycle and tailor your nutrition and training around it to get the best out of your body or at least prevent you from the frustrations of things not quite going to plan!
So here goes, without getting too much into the science of it all lets start with the fact that women find it more difficult to lose fat than men. We can thank nature for that one. As the men went a hunting and gathering women had to last without food for long periods of time and make sure the kids still got fed . Due to this we store fat very differently and our bodies also respond differently to dieting than men. Put simply thanks to how male hormones work they tend to build muscle quicker and when on a caloric deficit they lose fat easier . The plus side of this for us is that we tend to survive longer in a famine due to those stubborn reserves (trying to see the positive side!!)
Men have 10-30 % more testosterone than women it being their dominant sex hormone. Men’s hormones remain steady with no dramatic changes week on week, unlike women who have a lot of changes occurring monthly due to our menstrual cycle.
The 2 dominant female hormones are oestrogen and progesterone. Looking at the menstrual cycle from day 1(when your period starts) to the next one is typically viewed as a 28-day cycle. Our hormone balance varies throughout this cycle and can have varying impact from one woman to the next. For those who struggle with symptoms like cramps, headaches, low mood, feeling weak, clumsy etc. (to name but a few) here’s why!
The first phase of your period is known as the follicular phase. This kicks off day one of your period. Here oestrogen is dominant which decreases appetite, improves insulin sensitivity (process carbs / sugars better whoohoo) and your recovery from training can feel better. You may also notice you feel stronger and training can feel realy good. Gains making PB time!! The first few days of your period there is a little spike in testosterone and here we are at our most similar to men hormonally.
Slowly however progesterone starts to become more prominent as you move into the luteal phase or 2nd 2 weeks of your cycle. Progesterone is the no craic hormone. Although our metabolic rate increases along with our caloric needs during this phase, due to the sugar and carb cravings that kick in there can be a tendency to overeat. The sad news is that while we are craving sugar and carbs during this phase of our cycle we actually become more insulin resistant and don’t process them as well as we do during the follicular phase. So consider decreasing your starches and sugars during this phase and focus more on protein , good fats , lots of veggies and starches around training when fat loss is a goal .
You may also start to notice as you move closer to the end of the luteal phase that you start to feel tired, sluggish & uncoordinated when training. This is when those who suffer from PMS start to feel symptoms (typically the final week before you menstruate) .
So perhaps be more understanding of your physiology during this phase if you can’t hit that max or your coordination seems a little off. Adjust your training accordingly. Endurance athletes tend to find it less impactful on their training compared to those focusing on sports that require primarily strength / coordination (weightlifting / CrossFit etc.). So this may be a good time to focus on Aerobic work.
Our hormones make it harder for us to build and maintain muscle and this is something we really need to take into consideration in our nutrition. Protein consumption is so very important to help us sustain, maintain and build lean muscle mass. If you want to lose body fat – you need to eat enough protein, if you want to gain muscle mass – you guessed it, you need to eat enough protein!
Ladies please do not under estimate protein, I still get asked if it will make clients bulky which is a really unfortunate message that is still doing the rounds. IT WON’T!!! Protein is also an important componant in many other bodily functions . EAT IT !!! ( please and thank you 🙂 )
Protein pre-and post- training is important particularly proteins that are high in Leucine (Amino Acid). Some sources of leucine are whey, casein, BCAA, meat, fish, dairy even seeds and beans to a varying degree. You can get sufficient Leucine from a balanced diet rich in a variety of proteins however your fastest easiest sources around training are BCAA or Whey. B.C.A.A I would suggest for anyone training fasted to prevent muscle breakdown otherwise you will get enough leucine from your protein shake post session or food.
Show your body some love by fueling it correctly, showing it some understanding and appreciating it for all it can do!
Some final considerations throughout your cycle are if you are working towards body composition goals and use weight and tape measurements as opposed to body fat % as your progress gauge . Try stick to the same time of the month / your cycle for consistency and accuracy of readings . Our water levels, body weight etc. can change throughout the month giving a false sense of fat gain. Sticking to a monthly review at the same time will give you a much more realistic view of your progress.
As always any questions please reach out 🙂