Our hormones affect our well-being and our propensity to put on weight. Looking at the menstrual cycle first, there’s basically two halves. The follicular phase starts with the first day of your period and lasts for around 14 days, with ovulation in the middle. Oestrogen levels are high so you have lots of energy, feel quite confident, sexy even (am I allowed to even say that word? …dammit, I’m going to).. If you’re starting a shape-up plan, this is a great time to do it as your mind and motivation are sharper. Interestingly, there’s a lot of research equating high oestrogen with insulin sensitivity. That means that when you eat carbohydrate, your body will use it efficiently and produce the right amount of glucose for your energy levels, rather than bucket loads which will just get stored as fat. Everything’s looking groovy, although you might have skin breakouts (that’s the rise in testosterone) and a bit of fluid retention. There won’t be much in the way of PMS.
After your period and ovulation comes the luteal phase (around day 14). Oestrogen drops and our body ramps up the progesterone. This causes a rise in metabolism and hunger. Together with increased insulin in-sensitivity and overwhelming tiredness, we find exercise harder than usual and all we want to do is eat. We then beat ourselves up. Don’t. Just understand your body and keep a diary. Try and avoid those buckets of mini choc rolls from M&S and choose more fruit instead. The sweetness will take the edge off your cravings. Anxiety and PMS may also take over your mood.
If you’re peri-menopausal (menopause symptoms have hit but you’re still having periods) then oestrogen levels will be dropping just as in the luteal phase, and progesterone will be unpredictable. This means less insulin-sensitivity, which translates into weight gain. Focus on strength training and for heaven’s sake lose the sugary foods. Anxiety and depression may rise and you might want your partner’s head for breakfast. Understand what is happening, focus on healthy food, get regular exercise and seek professional help for HRT. It isn’t failure. It’s just topping up hormone levels.
If you’re trying to lose fat, then some people adopt a 2 weeks out of 4 plan. Track your food tightly during the first 2 weeks (follicular phase) and get the most out of your exercise programme and your energy, but then aim for maintenance (rather than fat loss) during your luteal phase, focusing instead on well-being (and sanity!). Ramp it back up when you next reach your follicular phase.
A good app to get acquainted with is Balance. It was designed by Dr Louise Newson (ref the Davina McCall menopause documentary on Channel 4 back last year) specifically for women in the peri-menopause and menopause stages of their lives. It’s a fantastic source of information but also can be used for tracking symptoms, periods, moods, nutrition and exercise. https://balance-app.com/
(originally written for ‘Woman’ magazine May 2021)