Female hormones play an important part in sleep, digestion, metabolism, injury prevention, growth, mental well-being and recovery. If your cycle is not regular, chances are, some of these factors are out of line too. Taking care of your general health is the first step in becoming a successful athlete and, as women, we can use our menstrual cycle as an indicator of our overall health. Read on to understand how and why a healthy menstrual cycle is so important for female athletes…
What does a healthy menstrual cycle look like?
A healthy menstrual cycle generally lasts approximately 23-35 days and consists of four phases. It can be split into roughly two halves, pre- and post-ovulation, commonly referred to as the follicular and luteal phases.
Day 1 of your cycle begins on the first day of your period, a normal bleed usually lasts 3-7 days, and around 80ml of blood can be lost.
In the follicular phase, oestrogen is the dominant hormone, and in the luteal phase, progesterone plays a prominent role. These two hormones are the building blocks for bone growth, emotional regulation, muscle growth, metabolism, appetite, nerves and even co-ordination in females.
can I use an app to help me track my cycle?
Yes, absolutely! Try an apps such as the FitrWomen app, which is designed with athletes in mind, to track your cycle. They offer training advice and nutrition suggestions for the different phases and can be a fantastic tool for taking note of your symptoms.
Whilst every woman’s cycle will be slightly different, once you identify your symptoms, you can learn how to manage them. For example, you may find you need more sleep in phase four, in the days before your period, so can factor in the extra rest.
Or you may find your energy levels are greater prior to ovulation (around days 14-16), so you may wish to schedule some harder sessions or strength training – or even a race if you are chasing a PB!
How do hormones play a part in bone metabolism and injury prevention?
In phases 1 & 2 (Days 1-14/16), oestrogen is rising, prior to ovulation. Oestrogen plays an important task in remodelling bone. Athletes who suffer from stress fractures or reactions frequently may be suffering from low oestrogen levels, causing brittle bones and in some cases of long-term amenorrhea, osteopenia or osteoporosis. Your GP may request a bone mineral density scan which is often referred to as a DXA scan.
Bone growth begins as a child and peaks in your mid-30s as a female. Therefore, it is vital to ensure healthy hormones during teenage and early adult years in order to allow your body to build optimum bone health and density.
Once menopause begins, a decline in bone density occurs due to a natural decline in oestrogen levels. During this period a healthy diet and good sleep cycle is essential in order to maintain what bone density we have established during our younger years.
How does nutrition play a part in your cycle?
REDS is a common term used to refer to an energy deficiency relative to energy expenditure. If an athlete is training hard on a regular basis and not refuelling correctly or adequately, there is a relative deficiency in calories, nutrients or both.
This stress, combined with the stress of intense activity itself, can put the body into a fight or flight state, during which some bodily functions are shut down. In the case of many women, this results in disruption to their menstrual cycle and if left to continue over time it can lead to long term health issues.
What can you do if you are not experiencing a normal/regular cycle?
If you are not experiencing a regular cycle or have gone for over 6 weeks without having your period, it is important to seek medical advice. Your GP may refer you to see an endocrinologist or gynaecologist, or may simply be able to check your hormone levels through blood tests and give you a diagnosis.
Often, we also need to be mindful of nutrition and seek advice on diet, which needs to be tailored around training when training intensely or for endurance sports.
Supplements such as magnesium are perfect for healthy periods and can help with PMS, sleep, digestion, muscle soreness and mood. Our Bindi Hot Chocolate Sleep Blend contains magnesium and adaptogens such as Ashwaghanda to help with this.
Zinc and vitamin D are also often highly recommended. If diet is playing a part in your irregular cycle, it is worth consulting with a nutritionist or dietitian to ensure you don’t suffer long term health consequences.
Here is a quick checklist for maintaining a healthy hormone balance :
- Are you eating a balanced source of protein and carbohydrates within 30 minutes of training? (1:3 is an ideal ratio post cardio, 1:2 post strength training)
- Are you eating roughly 1.4-1.7g protein x your bodyweight in kilos per day?
- Are you getting 8 hours sleep per night?
- Are you eating prior to morning training and if you are training fasted, can you minimise this?
- Are you excluding any major food groups and, if so, are you ensuring you replace these with other sources of similar nutrient value?
- Are you fuelling during your longer training sessions (30-45g carbs is often enough – for example try 1 ½ serves of Bindi Natural Sports Hydration mixed with water per hour for sessions over 90 minutes works perfectly!)
- Are you taking responsibility for your stress levels and overall mental health?
some helpful resources for further info:
Lara Briden – The Period Revolutionary
Kira Sutherland – Sports Naturopath & Lecturer on Women’s Health