Hannah Munnings: The Menstrual Cycle, Exercise And Diet
To celebrate Internationals Women's Day on 8th March, we've dedicated an entire week to hearing from some of the most influential and inspiring female voices that we've been fortunate to work with.
Celebrating their sports, their training and their unique takes on the wellness industry, with advice and practical tips for both the current crop and future generations of women in fitness.
Hannah Munnings is a health coach, chef and advocate for nourishing your body and mind from the inside out.
Here Hannah shares with us her insight into the different phases of the menstrual cycle, how they can affect your energy levels and how you can work with them to optimise your performance.
Have you ever wondered why some days you feel like you could run a marathon and take on the world and other days its a struggle to even get out of bed, let alone pull on your trainers to workout? If you’re anything like me a few years ago, you possibly beat yourself up, thinking that you’re being lazy or don’t have enough willpower. Well, you’ll be pleased to hear that there could be a biological explanation!
Unlike men, who typically run on a 24 hour circadian rhythm, us women actually operate cyclically. Not many women realise that throughout each cycle we go through 4 phases; menstrual, follicular, ovulatory and luteal. In fact, it’s quite scary how little this is talked about as we grow up. Especially as which phase we are in can affect how we train, perform, sleep, eat and function. Therefore getting to know our own cycle and adjusting for each phase is not only necessary, but can really help to optimise performance, especially when trying to put together a training regime. We definitely shouldn’t suppress what makes us women, we need to celebrate it and use it as a superpower!
The MENSTRUAL phase
The first day of each period marks the start of a brand new cycle and the phase known as the menstrual phase. This phase usually lasts for 3-8 days. During this phase our hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, are at their lowest, which often reflects in our energy, especially during the first 1-3 days. It is a good time to give ourselves permission to take things a little slower, prioritise rest and eat plenty of healthy fats and protein.
The FOLLICULAR phase
During the next phase, the follicular phase, our oestrogen levels start to rise again, along with our energy levels, as our ovaries are preparing to release an egg during ovulation. This phase runs from the end of each period until just before ovulation. For many people, running and cardio feel great during this phase and recovery is typically quicker. Towards the end of this phase, and throughout the ovulation phase, eating plenty of cruciferous veg like rocket, broccoli and kale, as well as a good amount of fibre, will help sweep out any excess oestrogen. If left to build up, excess oestrogen can lead to symptoms of oestrogen dominance, aka the dreaded skin breakouts, mood swings and tender breasts to name a few. Getting a sweat on here can also help excrete excess oestrogen through our pores.
The OVULATORY phase
Next up is the ovulatory phase, which lasts around 3-4 days in the middle of our cycle. During this phase, the egg is released into the fallopian tube. This is the part of the cycle where we feel most sociable and energetic and can handle a higher-intensity of training. I’ve often heard this phase referred to as the ‘Beyonce’ phase, which I love!!
The LUTEAL phase
During the final phase, the luteal phase, our progesterone levels rise and our metabolism speeds up which explains why we often feel hungrier in the week leading up to our period. Eating slow-release carbs like sweet potato and brown rice help to keep blood sugar levels (and mood swings!) stable during this phase. A lot of people enjoy more strength-based training during this time. Towards the end of this phase, in the days leading up to our period, our hormone levels drop, leaving our energy levels depleted, so listen to your body and take it easy if thats what you need.
It is important to remember that each of us is individual and these are not solid rules. We each tolerate exercise and diet differently so it is more important to really get to know our own body and listen to its own needs. Having had my own battle with hormonal health for many years, I know the pain and frustration of feeling as though your body is in control of you, instead of it being the other way around. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be the case. Diet, exercise and lifestyle play a huge role in achieving more balance. Just knowing where we are in our cycle, alone, is life changing and allows us to be more compassionate of our own journey. There are plenty of apps available now that can help us track our cycle so we know which phase we are in. Despite it being very common, symptoms like irregular periods, breast tenderness, mood swings, hormonal acne, headaches and PMS are not normal. If you are experiencing these symptoms regularly, I would seriously encourage working with a nutritional therapist specialising in hormonal health to run some tests and direct you onto a personalised supplement plan to give your body a boost and get you back in balance.
My top 5 hacks for healthy hormones
- Download a cycle tracking app. Do your research to find which app or method of tracking your cycle most suits your lifestyle. Many apps now, also allow you to track symptoms such as headaches, breast tenderness etc.
- Eat a balanced breakfast. Try to eat breakfast within an hour of waking up to fuel you and keep your hormones balanced.
- Eat a rainbow. Fill each plate with plenty of colourful whole foods to ensure you are eating a range of nutrients.
- Don’t shy away from healthy fats. Fats like nut butter, avocados, olive oil and seeds are big friends of hormones and can help curb cravings.
- Take time every day to calm the nervous system. Perhaps try experimenting with meditation, breathing exercises or yoga to find something that works for you. Stress impacts the hormonal system in a big way so finding precious time to unwind is key.