Tend to feel flat during your period? It might be time to start looking at what kinds of food and drink you consume in the run up to the big bleed. Getting all your nutritional ducks in a row may just save your training, mood and productivity.
There’s nothing quite like the bone-aching fatigue that can develop during the early days of your period to make fitness plans feel totally unachievable. You’ve got to drag yourself out of bed, manage to get through the working day and then work out if you have the energy to schlep around your local park or make it to the gym.
Of course, there are some who insist that we should shape our fitness plans around our cycles – doing yoga in those early days before moving to more intense forms of exercise as we move through the month. That’s a great idea if you have the space to figure all of that out. But what about those of us who are training for events and who can’t really afford to take a week out of our schedule? Or people who know that movement makes them feel better and more able to handle period symptoms?
In 2019, researchers from St Mary’s University and FitrWoman studied the responses from over 14,000 female athletes on Strava from around the world. They found that exercise reduced period symptoms in 74% of women and that moderate-intensity exercise like jogging and cycling is most effective at reducing symptoms – which is why it’s not good enough to simply tell women to spend a week doing a little light stretching.
It’s high time we were able to make fitness decisions based on what we want to do, not what we have the energy for. With that in mind, how can we get ourselves into a position where we have the energy to actually reap the benefits of exercise during our periods?
For those of us who are anaemic, periods can be a particularly tricky time to exercise. Iron deficiencies can leave you feeling tired at the best of times, but when you’re losing blood, it can work to create an overwhelming sense of fatigue. “Menstruation lowers the amount of iron in our bodies,” explains NHS paediatric dietitian Anjanee Kohli. That can lead to iron deficiency anemia in some, “due to the blood loss that comes along with our period – and a common symptom of this is tiredness. If you experience extreme fatigue during your period and have an unusually heavy period, this is worth speaking to your GP about. They may recommend getting a blood test done to check your iron levels.”
If anaemia isn’t an issue, there are plenty of other reasons why your period might be making it harder for you to feel energised to move. Kohli tells Stylist: “Tiredness while on our periods could be caused by many factors including disrupted sleeping patterns and poor food choices, including comfort eating. Although high sugar snacks can initially peak our blood sugars as they’re more easily broken down, the resulting crash can contribute towards the tiredness we then feel.”
Hormones can also wreak havoc on energy levels. “During our menstrual cycle, our oestrogen levels rise during the mid-follicular phase and then have a sharp drop after ovulation, which stays low for approximately two weeks prior to, and during our period,” explains specialist registered dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine. “A decrease in oestrogen levels can cause feelings of tiredness, fatigue and low energy, but energy levels should return to ‘normal’ levels a few days after.
“If you suffer from particularly heavy periods and find your fatigue is lasting longer than this, or you feel unable to carry out your normal activities, speak to your GP as this could be a sign of iron deficiency anaemia. “
In other words, you’re fighting a battle against various energy-draining processes for 10 days a month. The key to winning may be in what you eat.
Forget low-carb: bread and cereal are key to maintaining cycle-long energy
First off, it’s important to stress that good nutrition is vital at all times of the month – not just when you’re on your period. Because your cycle can affect nutrient levels in your body, particularly iron, it’s really important to make sure that you’re eating adequate levels of the stuff. Kohli flags that around 30% of premenopausal women have iron deficiency anemia, and that means that a huge chunk of us aren’t eating the recommended daily iron intake of 14.8mg.
Foods that are rich in iron include:
- Lean beef
- Baked potatoes
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Wholegrain bread
It is also important to ensure we eat enough in general during this time, Kohli warns, as our menstrual cycle increases our metabolic rate. That means we burn calories faster than other times throughout the month. Research has found we may need 100 to 300 extra calories daily in the week running up to our period.
As always, it’s worth noting that everyone’s period feels different and it’s a case of finding out what is normal for you. “The menstrual cycle can impact the quality of our sleep due to changes in core body temperature, and oestrogen and progesterone levels – which in turn can impact our appetite hormones and food preferences. If we have a lack of good quality sleep, the hunger hormone (ghrelin) can increase, while the satiety hormone (leptin) can decrease – making us more likely to snack on higher sugar/fat/salt foods or caffeine for a quick boost in energy,” Ludlam-Raine explains.
“Everyone is different in terms of how their period makes them feel, so it’s important to say mindful and focus on what we can include more of in the diet during our period to obtain all the essential nutrients we need (for example fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, healthy fats and oily fish).” By focusing on those things, Ludlam-Raine says, we’re better able to look after ourselves in what can be an “uncomfortable time.”
Foods to fill up on during your period
Given how much we’ve talked about iron, you’ll probably have guessed that iron-rich foods should be a must-have during your period. However, Kohli also recommends filling up on folic acid (or folate) and vitamin B12, as these can also help with tiredness when we feel weak or lethargic. “Consider adding more red meat and fish to your diet during your period to prevent iron deficiency anaemia and if you are vegetarian or vegan, there are plenty of non-heme (plant-based) iron sources, including fortified cereals, pulses, legumes, leafy green vegetables and nuts and seeds.”
To make it more bioavailable, try having these with a dose of vitamin C. That could mean making a zesty salsa to have with a lentil dal, a glass of orange juice with your breakfast cereal or massaging a kale and spinach salad with an olive oil and lemon juice dressing.
It’s also important, Kohli says, to have plenty of starchy, complex carbohydrates throughout the day as they release energy slowly. Add brown rice to your dinners, wholegrain bread to your lunches and oats to your breakfasts and puddings. “I’d also recommend eating protein and fibre-rich snacks to prevent getting too hungry and to keep energy up.” The key, she says, is to eat “little and often” rather than waiting to have a large meal when you’re already flagging.
Another important aspect, Ludlam-Raine says, is staying hydrated. During our period, drinking enough fluid can be crucial to supporting energy levels. The general advice is to drink at least six glasses of fluids a day (including tea and coffee), which should mean our urine being a pale straw colour. If it’s darker than that, you probably need to drink more.
Foods to avoid when you’re menstruating
There are times when the only food that you need is a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. That’s totally normal and fine – no foods should ever be completely off-limits. However, it’s important to understand how certain foods may make you feel after you eat them. Ice cream might be just what you need… or it might make you feel more sluggish after the initial sugar rush. “Because your energy levels can come crashing down sooner than expected, I would be mindful of being too reliant on (comfort foods) for a burst of energy,” says Kohli.
Ludlam-Raine says that it’s also worth noting that: “A lot of women do experience bloating during their periods, so simple practices such as eating slowly and mindfully, going for a gentle walk for exercise and taking small sips instead of large gulps of water can help to ensure this doesn’t get worse.
“Foods that are higher in sodium and carbohydrates tend to retain more water, so aim for a balanced plate and try to avoid foods that are high in salt and flavour meals with herbs and spices.”
If you tend to have your breakfast with a cup of tea or coffee, you might want to change your routine during the week of your period. That’s because the tannins found in these drinks can block the absorption of iron – something that Kohli says is especially important if you are vegetarian or vegan. She stresses that that doesn’t mean swerving tea or coffee altogether: “Sometimes nothing can be more comforting than a morning brew.”
And if all else fails, have a sofa day
If you’ve eaten all the scrambled eggs on toast, and bowls of lemon-soaked kale and still feel rubbish, Kohli has some top notch medical advice: “Sometimes spending a day binge-watching a series on Netflix with a bowl of ice cream can be more comforting than anything else!”
For more healthy eating tips, recipes and workout ideas, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.