Tears, anger, cramps, chocolate cravings, bloating – whatever it is, few of us get away scot-free at THAT time of the month. Recently Heather Watson, the top female British tennis player, put her loss at the Australian Open down to low energy and just feeling a bit rubbish thanks to her period. It is reassuring to know that even elite athletes struggle and it got us thinking about how we should be exercising and eating during that rather uncomfy time of the month.
There are two phases to a woman’s menstrual cycle and it is the changing levels of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone which affect how we feel. Day one (the day on which a period starts) up to ovulation (day fourteen) is known as the low hormone follicular phase. Day fourteen through to the next period is known as the high hormone luteal phase and it is during this phase that we start to feel different (period pains, night sweats, random crying, screaming at the boyfriend for no reason). These hormonal changes can affect the levels of nutrients which our body needs as well as our capacity to exercise. To find out what we should be doing during this rather uncomfortable time of every month, we spoke to a couple of our favourite nutrition and fitness experts.
Owner of The Urban Kitchen, Toral Shah, is a woman who likes to exercise and eat good food. She also knows her stuff when it comes to women’s bodies as she has a BSc in cell biology and a Masters Degree in Nutritional Medicine. According to Toral, food and mood are directly linked and this is especially true during menstruation.
What should we eat?
Toral recommends that a period-diet should contain plenty of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, brown rice and oats which will boost serotonin levels, lifting mood and preventing cravings. Toral also suggests eating regular, protein-rich meals as it is important to steady blood sugar levels. Maintaining stable blood sugar levels can affect the adrenal glands, stopping them from releasing a lot of adrenaline which blocks the use of progesterone and can worsen symptoms of pre-menstrual tension (and who wants more cramping?). In addition, Toral recommends drinking lots of water and limiting salty foods to reduce bloating and fluid retention.
Some people may also experience very heavy periods and as a result could benefit from eating iron-rich foods or taking an iron supplement (consult your doctor first). Foods rich in iron include red meat, liver, fish, spinach and seeds.
Should we eat more?
And what about that insatiable hunger we experience? Unfortunately, Toral told us that women don’t require extra calories during menstruation and actually, we require less due to slight changes in our metabolism (so, no scientific excuse for eating an entire jar of peanut butter). However, as serotonin levels might be lower, we may experience cravings for foods which will boost our mood (dark chocolate, obviously).
For some of us, nothing gets in the way of our exercise routine. However, for others, just getting out of bed on period-mornings can be a challenge. But should we be taking those 4 or 5 days off from physical activity or should we pushing through and training hard? Plus it doesn’t make it easier when most fitness coaches are men who really do not want to talk about it. For a little guidance we spoke to personal trainer, Pilates teacher and all-round wellness guru, Sarah Lockhart-Martin.
Should we be training?
Each individual is different but generally, Sarah advises light to moderate exercise during menstruation as it can help to alleviate symptoms such as cramping and the resulting endorphins can kill that angry mood. Sarah emphasises the fact that energy levels can be less than usual and it is important not to be too hard on yourself – listen to your body and rest when you need it!
Also, it is likely that balance and co-ordination can be affected by our monthly cycle so Sarah suggests being a little cautious when doing exercises which require more focus and co-ordination!
It is important to remember that every person’s experience will be unique. If you are training seriously, Sarah recommends keeping a diary to track how your body feels and changes over your cycle. By doing this, you will be able to see patterns emerging which will help you to optimise your training and health.
What type of exercise is best?
Any light to moderate exercise is great. Sarah is an advocate of gentle jogging, walking, pilates and yoga. Here at H & H, we think swimming is brilliant too. However, you may be someone who is hardly affected by that time of the month, in which case you can keep sprinting and squatting as if nothing’s up (yes, we are jealous). In short, find what’s for you by listening to your own body (not Instagram fitspos, Twitter or what the girls in the office tell you!).
words: Kathleen Fleming