Nutrition and exercise to suit women's menstrual cycles

Bad skin, dips in energy, food cravings, mood swings...every month, women experience a roller coaster ride that is triggered by different hormones over the course of their menstrual cycle. Each menstrual cycle lasts around 28 days. Hormonal fluctuations in men do not last nearly as long. Learning about your own cycle, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstruation itself can help you understand what is going on in your body, and allow you to adapt your diet and exercise habits accordingly.

Find out more and get some tips for adapting what you eat and your exercise regime to your cycle.

Sex differences in medicine: women's health versus men's health

Until now, medical studies have always considered men to be the default. This means that studies and diagnoses have been based on a height of 180 cm and weight of 75 kg. It is quite clear that these measurements apply to very few women. This medical focus on male patients can lead to misdiagnoses and incorrect prescriptions for women. The most well-known example of a condition with sex-specific symptoms may be a heart attack. Lots of people know that they should call an ambulance as soon as possible if someone experiences sudden chest pain and starts sweating, because these symptoms are signs of a heart attack. Seeking medical attention seems less urgent when it comes to general complaints such as throat or jaw pain, pressure in the chest, back or stomach areas, nausea and shortness of breath. But these are also typical signs of a heart attack – albeit mainly in women.

Why are medical studies mainly carried out on men?

Cycle-related hormonal fluctuations, the menopause and the possibility of pregnancy are just three of the reasons why women are often left out of medical studies. It is generally easier to research men's cycles than women's. Men's hormonal fluctuations are shorter and more intermittent, because sperm production is constantly being triggered on a large scale from puberty onwards. As a result, any fluctuations are much less apparent.

There is, however, a growing trend in the field of medicine towards researching the differences between the sexes, with the goal of achieving more targeted diagnoses and effective treatments for men and women. This is known as "sex differences in medicine". "This is also preventive in nature," says Silke Schmitt Oggier, Medical Director at santé24, to emphasise the importance of sex differences in medicine.

"There are genuine gaps in our knowledge when it comes to sex differences in medicine, so further, large-scale research is absolutely essential."
Silke Schmitt Oggier, Medical Director at santé24

You can find out more about sex differences in medicine here.

A simple guide to the menstrual cycle

The menstrual cycle is divided into four phases, the length of which can vary between women. The four phases are:

  • Menstruation
  • The follicular phase
  • Ovulation
  • The luteal phase

The menstrual cycle starts on the first day of menstruation, and lasts between 25 and 35 days on average. Hormones activate a range of bodily functions. Some have a more pronounced effect than others, depending on the phase of the menstrual cycle.

Women who use hormonal contraception may experience different symptoms to those described below as some of these symptoms may be alleviated by taking contraception.

Phase 1 of the menstrual cycle: menstruation

Duration: Three to seven days

The first day of menstruation marks the start of a new cycle. Menstruation lasts between three and seven days on average. In the absence of fertilisation, the level of progesterone drops, and the uterine lining is shed and discharged during a woman's period (menstruation). What we call menstrual blood is actually a mixture of discharged uterine lining, the unfertilised egg cell, tissue, vaginal secretion, blood, immune cells, stem cells and various nutrients.

Good to know:
Women lose an average of 150 ml of blood during their period.

During menstruation, the levels of many hormones are at their lowest point. This has an impact on the woman's physical and mental state. Tiredness, feeling worn out, depression, mood swings and irritability are just some of the possible symptoms. And that's not all. One in three women suffers from period pains such as stomach cramps or headaches. These can occur before menstruation (known as pre-menstrual syndrome or PMS) or during menstruation.

Phase 2 of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase

Duration: Seven to ten days

The follicular phase comes after menstruation. In this phase, the hypothalamus (which controls the autonomic nervous system) sends a signal to the pituitary gland (which plays an important part in controlling hormone levels), to send follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to the ovaries. With the help of the hormone, the ovaries select an egg to prepare for fertilisation. Every month, between five and fifteen egg cells mature in the ovaries. These are surrounded by a protective sac called a follicle. Usually, only one egg cell reaches full maturity during each cycle. At the same time, the oestrogen level rises and the uterine lining thickens in preparation for receiving an egg cell.

The rising oestrogen level boosts the woman's motivation and lifts her mood. She has more energy, feels better, and has an urge to get things done.


Phase 3 of the menstrual cycle: ovulation

Duration: Three to six days

During this phase, only a single follicle makes the cut while the others are abandoned. The brain sends a signal to the body to produce more luteinising hormone (LH), which triggers ovulation. The follicle is given a signal to grow and then burst, releasing the egg cell that can then enter the fallopian tube. This is known as ovulation. In the fallopian tube, the egg cell can only be fertilised within the next 24 hours.

To aid fertilisation, the body increases the amount of testosterone that it produces in order to enhance the desire for sexual intercourse.

Most women ovulate about fourteen days after the first day of menstruation.

This phase represents the peak of the cycle: the woman feels confident and has bags of energy.

Phase 4 of the menstrual cycle: the luteal phase

Duration: Ten to sixteen days

This phase of the cycle is named after the corpus luteum. Once the follicle has burst, the body transforms the remains of the follicle into an endocrine (hormone) gland called the corpus luteum. The luteal phase doesn't usually extend beyond 18 days. The only reason it continues for longer than this is if the woman is pregnant.

The corpus luteum starts producing the sex hormone progesterone. The progesterone causes the uterine lining to be preserved so that the fertilised egg cell can implant itself in it.

If the egg is fertilised, the body produces the pregnancy hormone hCG. The corpus luteum is given a signal to keep producing progesterone and oestrogen in order to maintain the pregnancy, and it carries on doing so until the placenta takes over. The fertilised egg cell continues on into the uterus.

If the egg cell has not been fertilised, the corpus luteum produces progesterone for another 14 days before the gland decays and the hormone levels drop.

The levels of progesterone and oestrogen fall, and menstruation starts. A new cycle begins.

A brief guide to pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)

Particularly severe symptoms experienced between ovulation and menstruation are known as pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS. It is estimated that one in three women of childbearing age suffers from PMS. The most common symptoms include stomach pain, back pain and headaches, fatigue, fluid retention, food cravings, irritability, anxiety and depression. A diagnosis of PMS is made if five of these symptoms are present. The reason why PMS happens is still unknown, but hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle are thought to be the culprit. Women with PMS experience particularly severe reactions to these fluctuations.

Follow this link for some tips on how to relieve period pains using natural remedies.

Adapting your diet to your cycle

The menstrual cycle is made up of four phases and lasts about 28 days. The body has very specific needs during each phase. By adapting your diet to your cycle, you can alleviate or even prevent a lot of complaints such as low energy and bad moods. It is important to note that what suits one woman may not be right for another. So a good thing to do is try things out yourself and see if you experience improvements in your wellbeing. Unfortunately, there is still no official recommendation for a diet that is adapted to your cycle. Discover tips and possibilities for a cycle-based diet that may improve your wellbeing.

Tips for phase 1: menstruation

Menstruating women lose a lot of nutrients, for example between 15 and 30 mg of iron. That is why foods rich in iron are particularly important during this phase.

  • Seeds, kernels, nuts, oats and meat are good for replenishing your iron levels.
  • Magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids work well against cramps experienced during menstruation (period pains). Important omega-3 fatty acids can be found in natural oils, while cocoa powder, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashew nuts and hazelnuts, spinach, pulses and Brussels sprouts contain lots of magnesium.
  • Orange, dark green and red fruit and vegetables are rich in vitamin A, which helps the liver process hormones during menstruation.

Tips for phase 2: the follicular phase

Energy levels start to rise again following menstruation. At least one egg cell matures in the follicular phase, and proteins help it to grow.

  • Protein can mainly be found in pulses such as chickpeas, beans, soy beans and lentils, but also in seeds, nuts and cereals. Meat, fish, cheese and other dairy products contain animal protein. You can find out more about protein here.

Tips for phase 3: ovulation

Women generally feel more energetic when they are ovulating. This means that the body does not require food that is excessively high in calories. Calcium, fibre and antioxidants are very good for the body during this phase.

  • Calcium is found in dairy products, green vegetables like broccoli, pulses, cereals such as oats, spelt and amaranth, and in seeds and nuts.
  • Dark berries, apricots, tomatoes, spinach, peppers and pomegranate are rich in valuable antioxidants, which protect the body.
  • Fibre aids digestion, and can be found in vegetables, fruit, whole-grain products, pulses, nuts and seeds.

Tips for phase 4: the luteal phase

Energy levels fall again, the woman feels tired and her digestion can go haywire. The body needs a lot of energy during the luteal phase. Magnesium, vitamin B and calcium can help with this.

Good foods for the luteal phase include:

  • Nuts
  • Pulses
  • Seeds
  • Whole-grain products
  • Fruits and vegetables such as avocado, apples, bananas, dried fruits, pumpkin, potatoes, etc.
  • Dark chocolate
  • Bananas, dates, beetroot and ginger

Adapting your exercise regime to your cycle

Cycle-based training has not yet become widespread because not enough studies have been carried out on whether performance-boosting effects are to be expected. That is why it is a topic that is increasingly gaining the attention of the scientific community. Researchers are interested in filling this gap in our knowledge in order to be able to offer some guidance to professional and amateur athletes alike.

With the right kind of exercise that is adapted to your cycle (high or low intensity), you can relieve pain and send your body the right signals. When women understand the phases of their cycle and adapt their regime accordingly, they may be able to get more out of their exercise and enjoy improved wellbeing. You should track your own cycle in a journal and pay attention to how you feel in order to adapt your exercise regime accordingly and take your own individual needs into account.

A new cycle begins when menstruation starts. Many women can at times suffer from severe complaints during menstruation that make it impossible for them to do strenuous exercise or indeed any form of physical activity. Gentle activities such as going for a walk or a relaxed swim can help relieve pain.

Other women experience a boost to their performance during this time. This is because levels of the hormone oestrogen rise during the first half of the cycle. Progesterone levels stay the same. Researchers assume that this gives women's performance a boost. Maximum strength training should be particularly effective during this phase.

Ovulation takes place in the middle of the cycle. Levels of the hormone oestrogen peak, making ligaments more elastic. This could increase the risk of injury. Coordination training, such as stability exercises, is recommended during this phase in order to maintain muscle mass.

The second half of the cycle lasts about 14 days and is often associated with unpleasant sensations in the last few days leading up to menstruation. In the second half of the cycle, the level of oestrogen falls while progesterone increases. More fluid accumulates in tissues. Many women feel more lethargic, and their eating habits may change. During this phase, it is worth focusing on recovery and less vigorous exercise sessions.

You can find a guide to cycle-based training published by Swiss Olympic here.


Women experience their cycles differently. There are variations from individual to individual, and depending on the phase of life. What's right for one woman may not suit another. A cycle journal can help you record the changes you experience during your cycle, keep track of them, and ultimately gain a better understanding of them. Living in harmony with your cycle also means viewing your cycle as an opportunity, and being more accepting of yourself.

Adapting your diet to your cycle can significantly improve your wellbeing, and alleviate or even prevent symptoms. Of course, it makes sense to eat a healthy, balanced diet throughout your entire cycle.

If you know your cycle, you can adapt your exercise regime and experience a range of benefits, such as pain relief.

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