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It’s fair to say that wellness trends carry varying levels of gravitas - vaginal steaming, anyone? - but focus on those backed with science and you can garner discernible health benefits. One case in point is cycle synching – shifting your mindset to align your life with your hormones, rather than constantly battling against them.
Too often we’re guilty of perceiving hormones to be the bad guys: sapping us of energy, compromising performance and making us into a human rage machine. But this is a vast misconception of the human anatomy. Hormones are, in fact, critical chemical messengers that control our entire internal hardwiring, transmitting commands throughout the body to dictate vital brain and organ function.
Women anticipate that the handful of days they’re on their period will have them operating below par. But the other three weeks of the month many expect to feel just fine. Not so. Far from being one week of unrest, followed by three of plateau, the female body is continually moving through the phases of the menstrual cycle.
The female menstrual cycle falls (roughly) into four stages:
There are certain days within this sequence where this chemical interplay makes you physically stronger, more mentally capable and even more likeable as a person. Leading female health experts argue that women who work purposefully to tap into their menstrual cycle can optimise their productivity, change their fitness trajectory, better manage social interaction and support their emotional wellbeing. Far from a wellness fad, cycle synching is a smarter, more intentional route to becoming a better version of yourself.
By ascertaining which stage you’re in at any one time, you can recognise and utilise your strengths. Clearly we cannot fit our entire work schedule to suit our cycle but we can maximise our chances of success.
Days 1-7 are well-suited to working from home or solo projects. Oestrogen makes us more outgoing and sociable, so when there’s a dearth of it, we naturally focus inwards and don’t overly welcome interaction. Put off big meetings at work until next week and, if it’s not feasible to WFH, choose a desk in a quieter part of the office and put in earphones when at your desk. A huge positive of this stage is that tolerance is low and there’s little bandwidth for B.S.; though reacting right now is not necessarily wise, you can use this mindset to identify frustrations and workplace inefficiencies and note what needs to change.
Days 8-13 is when the body transitions into the follicular phase. Gradually increasing hormone levels make you more biologically disposed to feeling balanced and increase mental clarity, so this is the time to plan ahead and get organised. This arrangement of hormones also puts you in an ideal spot for generating creativity and problem solving. Now’s the time to attack that new project and throw yourself into brainstorming with colleagues.
Days 14-17 are peak ovulation and you’re likely to be firing on all cylinders; confidence levels are at their maximum, communication skills are primed for approaching difficult conversations and you’re your most likeable self. (Side tip: Oestrogen boosts blood flow and feeds nutrients to the skin, so this is the stage you will be most physically appealing and biologically programmed to attract a mate. Best lock in that romantic date for these days).
When it all starts to wind down again and hormone levels gently decline, you’ve entered the longest of phases, the luteal phase (days 17-28). Energy levels often dip so you may experience sudden bouts of tiredness. The lowering of progesterone also causes night time waking and poor quality sleep. Reassuringly though, you’re often at your most methodical during these days, making it a great time for analysing, working through a to-do list and getting your head down.
It’s something commonly encountered by women – one day you can run for miles, the next you can barely muster the energy to walk to the local shop. Often, these energy fluctuations can be tracked to changing hormonal levels. So significant are these shifts that female professional athletes monitor them continually to predict their performance. British Olympic runner Jessica Judd is one of the fastest females on the planet right now and her 3000m time can vary by as much as 15 seconds depending on where she is in her menstrual cycle – for her that's the difference between a gold medal and last place.
Knowing when to work out can also improve your fitness faster. A study from Umeå University in Sweden found that women who did high-frequency leg training during the first two weeks of their menstrual cycles got stronger than those who did the same workouts during the second half of their cycle. This performance hacking is what’s lead Dame Jessica Ennis to launch Jennis; a Cycle Mapping fitness app that plots out your fitness routine according to where you are in your menstrual cycle. By taking on the best workout approach to match your hormonal state, you can design your training sessions to better reach your fitness goals.
|CYCLE STAGE||Hormones Are…||Work Your Workout|
|MENSTRUATION||At their lowest. Oestrogen and progesterone drop significantly and much of the body’s energy reserves are being expelled, which is why you often feel wiped out.||Keep movement slow but strong. Yoga, Pilates and full body stretching are ideal. Take running down to walking, switch out strength training sessions for swimming on your own, preferably in the evening.|
|FOLLICULAR||Slowly on the rise again. Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are all climbing steadily. Follicle stimulating hormone is released in preparation for egg release.||Energy levels are buoyed and motivation kicks in. Channel this into high intensity training (HIIT) classes, circuits, spin classes and challenging hikes.|
|OVULATION||Both oestrogen and testosterone are peaking. You’re at your most physically strong, energy levels are optimal, generating motivation and a positive mindset.||Push yourself further with cardio or take on a bootcamp. Attempt a PB, look to increase your weight-lifting targets or perhaps increase your running distance this week.|
|LUTEAL||Steadily decreasing. Most noticeable will be the lowering of progesterone which is the balancing hormone. Towards the end of this stage is the likelihood of PMS.||Increase serotonin and combat PMS through being active outdoors. Early morning walks and runs for a daylight hit will help sleep.|
Workout with a friend to keep you positive (but not in a packed gym class.)
Taking advantage of the body’s natural chemistry is a hugely advantageous side to cycle synching. But there’s also the other side of respecting what the body is going through and nourishing it accordingly. Joanna Ellner, former Beauty Editor at Sunday Times Style, turned her life’s focus onto acupuncture and retrained in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Having recently taken residency at 180 Health Club - a brand new curated health and movement space accessible only to 180 members and Soho House members - Joanna treats individuals from both physical and emotional standpoints, with a special interest in women’s health.
“From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, the luteal phase is when our yang rises to its highest (which provides the fuel for any PMT/anger), so this is the time we want to counterbalance it by engaging in 'yin activities'; those that require our hands to be busy and our minds quietly occupied, like journaling, cooking, drawing,” she explains. “I suggest these are engaged with alone, so that we can truly restore ourselves, rather than having someone draw our qi/yin from us.”
Conversely, she argues, the follicular phase is when we want to nourish the kidneys and liver to help with healthy ovulation. “The kidneys love seafood, white rice, chicken and eggs. We also want to nourish and restore the blood that the body has lost through menstruation - in terms of diet this is, ideally, high quality red meat, or aduki beans, kidney beans and dark green leafy veg.” Activity wise, adds, Ellner, “we want to incorporate gentle movement, stretching, yoga or qi gong, preferably at home, to help restore and move blood and tonify yin.”
Menstruation: Grounding foods that have roots in the earth such as beetroots, parsnips, carrots and mushrooms. Iron-rich foods to fortify the effects of blood loss, dark leafy kale, mussels or red meat if you prefer, magnesium-rich foods like nuts, flax and pumpkin seeds.
Follicular: Feed the body oestrogen-rich seeds and soya beans to further increase reserves. Add in protein to support hormone restoration with eggs, lean chicken, wild salmon, cashews, whole grains and fermented foods.
Ovulation: Fuel this optimal stage with clean carbohydrates and ancient grains. Quinoa, lentils, bulgur wheat, along with fatty rich oils and avocados are ideal for supporting joints with the increased exercise.
Luteal: Boost progesterone in the body with leafy greens, broccoli and peas for vitamin B. Low progesterone disturbs sleep, so stock up on magnesium-rich foods such as spinach, almonds, milk and dark chocolate.
It’s now possible to fortify the body even further with evidence-based nutraceuticals that support hormonal function, to reliably increase mental and physical performance. The LYMA supplement, although equally for men and women, contains ten patented ingredients highly supportive to hormone health and of significant benefit to every stage of the menstrual cycle.