Diet, Exercise and... YOUR PERIOD
Noticing changes in your cycle?
Or even more mind numbing- having period symptoms but never ever actually getting your cycle?
Wonder what's normal for a period?
Wonder what's NOT normal?
The truth is, what's considered "normal' will vary from person to person.
What's more, some variation is normal. Regardless.
But while there can be underlying issues that create menstrual abnormalities (PCOS, thyroid imbalances, etc), often, changes to your cycle result from lifestyle choices. How we eat, train, and live impacts our hormonal profile and that, in turn, impacts your cycle.
WHAT'S CONSIDERED NORMAL?
The average cycle is 28 days (that's 28 days between the first day of one period and the first day of your next period) but typically anywhere in between 24 and 31 days is considered "healthy/okay/normal/no reason to panic."
What about PMS? Well, to be honest, no matter how many women you know who deal with cravings, mood swings, and other "typical" symptoms each month, PMS is not the norm.
I'm serious. Most physical and emotional PMS symptoms like bloating, breast pain and swelling, mood swings, anxiety, cramps and acne are usually manifestations of an imbalance between estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol.
Interestingly, progesterone makes a woman's body more sensitive to blood sugar swings during the second half of her cycle — and the symptoms of blood sugar instability are almost exactly the same as PMS symptoms.
This can be helped through diet. Make sure to keep your blood sugar stable by eating protein, complex carbs and healthy fats at each meal.
What are some other ways that your bodyweight, diet, and exercise can cause shifts in your hormones, which consequently, will impact your cycle? Consider the following.....
1. Being overweight or carrying a high level of body fat
Excess fat cells can result in elevated levels of estrogen, which can ultimately stop your ovaries from releasing an egg. This can result in a condition called Luteal Phase Defect, which is characterized by a short luteal phase (the second half of your cycle after ovulation). This condition is caused when the body becomes estrogen dominant or when estrogen levels rise too high in relation to progesterone levels. Despite this estrogen dominance, the endometrial lining continues to thicken, which is why overweight or obese women usually experience heavy, longer lasting, yet infrequent periods.
2. Being under-weight or having very low body fat
Being underweight or having very low body fat typically has the opposite effect. Naturally, women carry more fat than men do. While it can seem unfair, this fat is necessary to help regulate your hormones and support your reproductive system. If you're under-weight or very very lean this often this results in low estrogen and you need adequate levels of estrogen to build your uterine lining and have a period. If you're lean or verging on being underweight you may experience long cycles (more then 35 days between periods) or missed periods (I get into this more at the end of the blog). You're more likely to notice a difference if you've recently lost a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. If you've dropped serious pounds, but you're still within a healthy range, your body should adjust within a few months. If you've lost a lot of weight and are now significantly underweight, you may want to consider gaining a few pounds to help your body produce adequate levels of estrogen.
Iron deficiency, or anemia, is common in women of reproductive age. This is often due to not consuming enough iron, heavy periods (ironically, since a side effect of anemia can be no period at all), or an inability to absorb iron properly. If your body doesn’t have enough iron, it can shut down your menstruation process. You may also experience fatigue, dizziness, headaches and irritability. One way to tell if your body is low in iron is through bloodwork. If your red blood cell count is low its usually a strong indicator that you are low in iron.
4. Physical or Psychological Stress
Stress impacts EVERYTHING, even your cycle. While much still is not known about the relationship between stress and periods, what IS KNOWN is that the hypothalamus controls the pituitary gland, which controls the thyroid, adrenal glands, and ovaries. All of these factors work together to manage the hormones that affect your cycle—estrogen, progesterone, follicle-stimulating hormone, and luteinizing hormone. Stress can throw your hormone levels off and, as a result, disrupt your menstrual cycle. You can skip a period, or miss a period for several cycles depending upon stress severity, yet still experience the symptoms of a period like fatigue, upset stomach, insomnia, moodiness, etc. If you’re feeling stressed, take some time to learn coping mechanisms, rest, and reset your body and mind.
5. Rigorous Exercise
An intense exercise program may throw your hormones off balance and cause you to miss your period. Unless you’re exercising too much and not getting enough nutrition, this is likely just temporary and once your body adjusts to your new lifestyle, your period should return. However if this rigorous exercise program is also coupled with an extreme caloric deficit it could result in amenorrhea, or the the ABSENCE of your period for several cycles. I should mention that TYPICALLY amenorrhea occurs as the result of a variety of factors, not just exercise. It's usually a combination of low weight or bodyfat, stress, and high energy expenditure.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Don't overlook shifts or changes in your cycle, they can tell you a lot about what is going on in your body. And if what was once considered normal in terms of your cycle is now no longer normal, don't leave it unaddressed. To help yourself keep tabs on irregularities, and to make sure you have a healthy cycle, I recommend looking into a period-tracking app like Kindara and iPeriod. Look for correlations between lifestyle factors like diet, stress, and exercise and changes to your period.