Most of us women had just resigned ourselves to a lifetime of being at the mercy of our hormones…until cycle syncing took the wellness community by storm, that is. Let’s just say this theory, which proposes that women can soften the rough edges of their natural hormonal shifts throughout the month by eating and exercising according to the phase of their cycle, got our attention, too. So what is cycle syncing, exactly? Read on for all the basics, plus whether or not it works and how you can do it.
What Is Cycle Syncing (And Is it Really a Cure to Crazy Hormones)?
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What Is Cycle Syncing?
Cycle syncing refers to a wellness theory set forth by Alisa Vitti, an integrative nutritionist and women’s hormone expert, in her debut book Woman Code in 2014. And there’s been quite a bit of buzz surrounding cycle syncing ever since—namely because it’s a lifestyle-based approach that promises to alleviate a wide range of symptoms relating to hormonal fluctuations. (You know, the stuff that plagues most, if not all, women to varying degrees—like cyclical fatigue, mood swings, bloating, cramping and anxiety, to name a few.)
In her cycle syncing theory, Vitti suggests that women can turn the raging hormonal roller coaster into a more manageable kiddie ride by making simple changes to their diet and exercise habits throughout the month. Alas, while hormone fluctuations and their accompanying symptoms are well-documented, the scientific research to support cycle syncing is scarce. Still, it’s a low stakes experiment and anecdotal evidence indicates that there might be something to it—so if you’re curious, read on for the full scoop before you give it a try.
What Are the Benefits of Cycle Syncing?
Again, the purported benefits of cycle syncing have not been backed up by a strong body of scientific research. That said, proponents of the method say it gives them fewer and less extreme mood swings, more efficient workouts and improved energy throughout all the phases of their cycle. It also claims to alleviate physical PMS symptoms like bloating, cramping, discomfort and changes in appetite. To tap into the holistic power of cycle syncing, it’s important to understand the nitty gritty of your menstrual cycle and become thoroughly attuned to how it affects your body. (More on that below.)
Menstrual Cycle Phases
Hormonal highs and lows bring about a wide range of ever-changing symptoms, but the menstrual cycle itself is blessedly easy to predict. (Psst: Get yourself a good period tracker if you don’t have one already.) If it has been a while since you sat through Sex Ed 101 and are in need of a refresher, the menstrual cycle breaks down into four distinct phases, which are as follows:
- Menstrual phase: There are many charming euphemisms for the first phase of the menstrual cycle, but what it really comes down to is a rapid decrease in estrogen and progesterone levels that cause the uterine lining to shed and blood to flow from the vagina. This phase begins when blood first makes its appearance and can last anywhere from two to eight days. It’s also typically accompanied by a number of unpleasant symptoms—like headaches, abdominal cramping and diarrhea—that are a direct result of uterine contractions and the aforementioned decrease in hormone levels.
- Follicular phase: The follicular phase begins when bleeding stops and your ovaries support the development of a new follicle. At this point in the cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels steadily rise in order to protect the follicle (i.e., egg) and thicken the uterine lining in preparation for a future pregnancy. The follicular phase typically lasts about nine days and is often associated with a boost in both mood and energy levels, as well as the disappearance of pesky menstrual symptoms.
- Ovulatory phase: The follicle matures into a full-blown egg during the three day period known as the ovulatory phase, which occurs around day 14 in a typical 28-day cycle. At this time, estrogen and progesterone levels are at their peak and pregnancy is most likely to occur. Coincidentally (or not), this is also when many women report a marked increase in libido and vaginal lubrication. At the end of the ovulatory phase, the egg is released from the ovary and either gets fertilized or not.
- Luteal phase: The luteal phase is the final stage of the menstrual cycle and it starts off with progesterone and estrogen levels raging. Then, if pregnancy hasn’t occurred, these hormone levels will gradually decrease over the next (roughly) ten days until menstruation occurs anew. Alas, the precipitous decline in hormone levels that occurs during the luteal phase goes hand-in-hand with all the hallmark PMS symptoms, both physical (cramping, headaches, bloating and acne) and mental/emotional (brain fog, depression, anxiety and unstable moods).
How to Cycle Sync
To begin cycle syncing you must first know exactly where you’re at in your own cycle at any given time of the month, which (as previously mentioned) is best done with the help of a period tracking app. Once you feel relatively confident as to which phase of the cycle you are in, you can then tailor your nutrition and exercise routines accordingly. Exactly what this looks like will differ from person to person, but here’s a general sense of the changes that are thought to best support a smooth transition from cycle to cycle.
Cycle Syncing Nutrition by Phase
- Menstrual phase: The menstrual phase involves quite a bit of blood loss, and research shows that this can have a significant impact on iron levels. For this reason, experts recommend loading up on iron-rich foods such as meat, nuts and legumes.
- Follicular phase: Nurturing a new egg requires a good deal of energy, which is why whole grains are a wise choice. Egg dishes and fermented foods that are high in zinc are also recommended, as this essential nutrient helps promote growth and healing (among other things).
- Ovulatory phase: During this brief and oh-so fertile period in your cycle, you might experience a decrease in appetite due to the high estrogen levels in your body, according to research. And so, cycle syncing proponents recommend focusing on eating a wide range of nutrient-dense and balanced foods in whatever quantity feels right for you.
- Luteal phase: As the body gears up to menstruate and estrogen levels drop, there’s a corresponding increase in caloric needs. (This 1997 study published in Biol Sport found a clear increase in carbohydrate intake during the luteal phase.) That said, it’s best to meet these needs in the healthiest way possible—so feel free to forgo the pint of ice cream (it’s a tired cliche, anyway) in favor of healthy fats and carbohydrates like avocado, nuts, potatoes and beans.
Cycle Syncing and Exercise
Exercise during the menstrual phase and early follicular phase is a double-edged sword—namely because a sprinkling of studies have suggested that exercise can alleviate menstrual symptoms (you can read a review of the existing literature here), but many women find themselves too fatigued to maintain a rigorous workout routine during this period. The solution? Opt for light exercise so you can stay in shape and reap the other possible rewards without running yourself ragged, so to speak.
Hormone levels rise during the later part of the follicular phase through the early stages of the luteal phase, which means you’ll be able to perform at your best (i.e., really break a sweat at the gym). Finally, the anxiety and mood swings associated with the mid-to-late stages of the luteal phase call for a shift towards the spiritual, so this is when yoga and meditation might be your best bet.