The menstrual cycle is a natural bodily process that many females experience. Some people describe the menstrual cycle as a ‘fifth’ vital sign of health. Painful or missing periods can sometimes indicate a health problem. Anyone experiencing concerns with their menstrual cycle and/or period should always speak to their GP in order for necessary investigations to take place, and any subsequent treatment to be given. Whilst medical approaches can be taken to help regulate the menstrual cycle, many women also explore the potential role of diet and lifestyle in their menstrual cycle.
In this blog, you’ll learn about:
What the menstrual cycle is
Changes to the menstrual cycle
The role of nutrients in supporting the menstrual cycle
What is the menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle is a monthly hormonal cycle that happens in the female body. The first day of the menstrual cycle is marked by the start of a period (i.e. bleeding) and the last day is the day before the next period starts. The average length of the menstrual cycle is 28 days (1). However, many women experience shorter or longer cycles also. Generally speaking, a menstrual cycle lasting between 23-35 days is considered ‘normal’ (1).
The purpose of the menstrual cycle is to prepare the body for pregnancy. There are four stages in the menstrual cycle:
Menstrual phase: This starts on day one of the menstrual cycle. The thickened uterus lining is not needed since there is no fertilised egg to support. This causes the uterus lining to break down, resulting in a period. This phase lasts 2-7 days and approximately 1-5 tablespoons of blood are lost (1).
Follicular phase: This phase also starts on day one of the menstrual cycle. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is released and this causes a follicle in the ovary to produce a mature egg. Whilst the egg matures, oestrogen hormone levels increase causing the uterus lining to thicken. This phase lasts 13-14 days.
Ovulation phase: Luteinizing hormone (LH) is released and helps the follicle in the ovary to release the mature egg. During this phase, pregnancy is possible.
Luteal phase: The follicle becomes a corpus luteum, which releases the hormone progesterone, and a small amount of oestrogen. These hormones continue to thicken the uterus lining, helping the body prepare for a potential pregnancy.
If a pregnancy doesn’t happen, the corpus luteum stops releasing progesterone which causes a period to start, and the return to the menstrual phase.
If a pregnancy does occur, the corpus luteum continues to release progesterone to maintain the uterus lining.
How can I tell if something is wrong with my menstrual cycle?
The menstrual cycle differs slightly for everyone in length, and therefore direct comparison between different women should be avoided. However, some women may notice changes within their only cycle, such as more painful periods, changes in the length of their menstrual cycle or missing periods.
It’s important to discuss any concerns with a GP, who will be able to get appropriate investigations completed. Common health conditions affecting the menstrual cycle include polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis.
Can diet help support a healthy menstrual cycle?
It’s thought that diet and lifestyle can play a role in supporting a healthy menstrual cycle, as well as supporting management of health conditions such as PCOS.
Which nutrients should I think about for my menstrual health?
An estimated 1-5 tablespoons of blood (1) are lost during each period. Blood contains iron and it’s important that enough iron is consumed to replace any that's lost. Iron can be found in red meat, beans and dried fruit.
Vitamin C helps increase iron absorption from plant foods. If you’re on a vegetarian or vegan diet, pairing foods with vitamin C with foods containing iron is important. Vitamin C can be found in oranges, broccoli and bell peppers.
Fibre can be found in complex carbohydrates, such as wholemeal bread or oats, and helps to slow down digestion and the release of sugar into the bloodstream. This helps better sustain energy levels and prevent mood swings.
Managing blood sugar levels through eating plenty of fibre also helps with insulin sensitivity, which is an important consideration for those with PCOS.
The polyunsaturated fat omega 3 has been suggested in some research to help regulate inflammation and reduce premenstrual symptoms (PMS) (2, 3). Omega 3 can be found in oily fish, chia seeds and flaxseed.
The menstrual cycle is a 28 day hormonal cycle which prepares the female body for pregnancy. Diet can help support a healthy menstrual cycle, and can even help in the management of some menstrual health problems such as PCOS.