Learning to Listen To Your Body

We are all so used to living our daily lives in a routine that we often don’t consider that there could be a better way. How often have you woken up feeling absolutely exhausted but pushed on through your regular day because you didn’t want to let the team down? Think about what would happen if you allowed yourself a day off sometimes, and then when you did feel good, you really gave everything you had. Would you get the same amount done overall? Probably. You might even get more done because the days when you feel inspired could start to happen more often.

In many ancient cultures it was understood that life was lived in cycles. The cycles of tides, days, lunar months and seasons were part of every day life and a way to measure time. Many people now have lost this connection to natural cycles and live as if every day is the same. We’ve made ourselves so busy we don’t have time to stop, rest, and think about whether our hormones are affecting us. There is social pressure to be on point every day and we haven’t been taught to listen to the subtle messages our bodies give us about how we should care for ourselves differently on different days.

Women of child-bearing age still live by a monthly cycle, whether they acknowledge it or not. It can be a source of great frustration for women that are unaware of the influence their monthly hormone cycle has on them. If you have ever asked, “Why can’t I be high-energy every day?”, then you need to read on. You simply aren’t built to be high-energy every day.

Menstrual Phases and How They Influence You

The menstrual cycle is divided into four phases, each relating to different points of hormonal activity. It’s counted from the first day of your period, not because this represents a significant reproductive event, but because it’s an obvious sign of where the cycle is at so it’s an easy day from which to reset the calendar.

Very simply put, hormones surge and decline every month, and they take our energy levels with them. At the start of your period, oestrogen and other hormones are low, creating a quiet, reflective mood. They then begin to surge and peak about two weeks later, during which time we feel generally happy and upbeat. The decline that follows this, back to the start of the cycle, is known as the premenstrual phase (luteal phase), and this is where a lot of women have symptoms. There are many complex reasons for this, usually relating to progesterone deficiency.

Let’s look at each of the phases in more detail and try to get a feel for what it would look like if we worked with the hormonal fluctuations rather than against them.

Menstrual Phase (period – days 1-4)

I have long been an advocate of taking a day off for the first day of your period, if at all possible. It is a low point in the cycle, usually accompanied by fatigue and a general sense of lethargy. If ever there was a day to stay home, close the curtains, turn the phone on silent, and curl up on the couch with your favourite book or movie, this is it! Taking the time to nurture yourself with wholesome foods and having a day for rest and recovery can make a big difference to the remainder of the month.

Important foods to eat at this time are nutrient-rich, light foods such as salads, superfood smoothies, fresh juices and leafy greens. The cramping associated with your period will affect your digestion too, so light, easily-digestible but nourishing foods are best. Gentle exercise is best at this time – walking, stretching, or yoga.

According to ancient traditions, this is a potent time of renewal and introspection. It’s a good day to seek solitude and spend time checking in with yourself. Ask yourself, how is your health? Have you been living a balanced life this month? Is there anything you want to do differently this coming month? If you’ve been waiting for the time to do some goal setting or create your vision board, this is the perfect opportunity. The body may be fatigued, needing nourishment and rest, but the mind is preparing for the coming month, knowing that in a couple of weeks you will be surging with creativity and inspiration. How do you want to use that energy?

Pre-ovulation (follicular phase – days 5-11)

The build up to ovulation is usually a positive and productive time as oestrogen levels rise and lethargy fades. This is your time to shine. Whatever you put your focus towards at this time of the month is likely to benefit greatly as you have a lot to contribute and your creativity is at it’s peak. Make the most of this energy and enthusiasm, and really go for what you want. All the planning and evaluating that you did while you were resting and recharging can now be put into action. Your focus is on the external world – family, friends, work, hobbies, sport, and your other interests. Eat protein rich foods such as fish, eggs, and lean meats, balanced with plenty of frresh fruit and vegetables. Drink lots of water and exercise to your limit with cardiovascular workouts, active sports and strength training.

Ovulation (fertile phase – days 12-16)

Ovulation occurs around two weeks after the start of your period. The exact timing is different for every woman, as every cycle is unique. Some women know when they are ovulating, through symptoms such as cramping or nausea, or other more subtle signs such as mood changes. Sometimes it’s not noticeable at all.

Hormone levels spike during ovulation and with them your energy levels and creativity. It’s a great time to be social and engaging, celebrating and enjoying life with your loved ones. The important thing to remember at this time is that you’re about to start the slide down the other side to begin the next cycle. This is when you need to get your mindset right, and prepare for the coming decline. Be aware that your mood and energy is going to change, and think about how you’re going to manage that. Do you need to remind partners and family members that you need extra help at this time?

Eat anti-inflammatory and progesterone-encouraging foods such as good oils – olive oil, coconut oil and fish oil, leafy greens, lean red meat, nuts, seeds and brassica family vegetables (broccoli etc). Keep up the high-intensity exercise.

Premenstrual Phase (luteal phase – days 17-28)

The premenstrual phase is a time for slowing down and being gentle with yourself. The enthusiasm and excitement phase of the cycle is over and is replaced by a range of other experiences that are far less appealing. Confidence is replaced with insecurity, enthusiasm is replaced with restlessness, and your calm sense of wellbeing can be undermined by anxiety and a short temper.

Attempting to remain upbeat and energetic at this time can add stress to a situation that is already tense. Allow the productivity to slide, trusting that you have already given an entire month’s worth of attention to your projects. The last part of the cycle is about looking after yourself – eating well, resting when you need to, exercising moderately, and pulling the focus back to yourself. Your goal should be to make the landing as smooth as possible for yourself.

Withdraw as you need to and allow yourself mental and physical space to process your experiences. If you’ve been holding back unpleasant thoughts and emotions, they’ll surface at this time, demanding attention. The path of least resistance is to address them directly, acknowledging them and expressing them in positive ways.

Most women who experience symptoms with their menstrual cycle find the premenstrual phase to be the most problematic. The most common cause for this is progesterone deficiency (or oestrogen dominance – either way progesterone needs to be increased). Specific nutrients as zinc, vitamin B6 and other B vitamins are known to increase progesterone production. Eating foods that contain these vital nutrients can help to balance progesterone/oestrogen levels. In addition, a natural wholefood supplement can provide the essential nutrients, and a natural progesterone cream from days 12-26 in the cycle can substitute the body’s own progesterone production. Bountiful Bird natural progrsterone cream with certified organic herbs is available HERE

Foods to eat during this phase include moderate amounts of protein foods during this phase, such as eggs, lean red meats, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds, and begin to increase your nutrient-rich foods again. Turn to salads, leafy greens, superfoods, smoothies and fresh juices to give you a boost and help get you through this challenging phase. Focus on moderate cardiovascular exercise – getting plenty of fresh air, increasing circulation, and encouraging your natural feel-good hormones (endorphins).

Working with Hormones Around Menopause

Menopause and peri-menopause is the time of life when your regular hormone cycle comes to an end and is replaced by irregular surges and dips in your hormone balance. The experience is different for everyone, but it’s common for it to bring a whole new set of hormonal symptoms to the fore. The key concept is transition, and as with all big changes in life, the more you surrender to it and embrace it, the smoother your ride will be. Emotional upheaval is a common sensation, and it’s an ideal opportunity to take soem time to reflect on your life so far. Whether you’ve had children or  not, fertility is a potent symbol of youth and vitality. What is your response to the idea of losing this primal part of your identity? Whether you feel relief or sadness or any other emotion, it is worthy of your attention to acknowledge the change. Respect the emotions that come with it, give them some space in your busy life, and then release them as you look forward to the next phase in your life.

It may be difficult to keep up with the abrupt changes happening on a daily basis. Energy levels, body temperature, sleep quality and mood can swing from one extreme to the other in minutes. Exercise when you have the energy, get plenty of fresh air and get your heart rate up. Rest when you feel exhausted, give yourself the time out you need replenish and process your experiences. Many of the symptoms that come from menopause/peri-menopause are caused by progesterone deficiency (similar to PMS), so eating a progesterone-encouraging diet and using menopause-specific supplements or a natural progesterone cream can really help too.

Taking it Further

Learning about the influence of hormones on mood and energy can be a life-changing experience. If you understand that the fluctuations you experience are regular and normal, you can start to work with them. Taking time to yourself for rest and recovery can be difficult but it can make a big difference to your life and can even mean that your productive times are multiplied. Eating for hormone balance and doing the right kinds of exercise for your cycle adds another way to balance your hormones naturally. Most hormonal symptoms stem from a progesterone deficiency so learning what nutrients you need and what foods to eat to encourage progesterone production is worth spending time on. Incorporating this into your daily life can be a very empowering way to gain better health.