Your period is a part of your personal ecology. They either thrive or struggle depending on how well we are able to tend to ourselves. They flourish when we are in our flow, nourishing ourselves, listening deeply and fully inhabiting our body. They wither when we ignore or suppress them.
Crafting our nourishment with balance and connection in mind is a very simple way to start. I say simple because we eat every day and changing what’s on our plates and fridges comes down to choices. I wouldn’t say easy, as any habit changes take commitment. But if you can push through, you’ll be rewarded with smoother, more regular periods. Everything within this post applies to all women wanting to connect in deeper with themselves and their cycles. However, women experiencing PCOS, endometriosis, early, late, light, heavy or painful periods, will find this particularly useful.
A Mediterranean type diet is one of the best for supporting health in general. It is whole foods based, primarily organic with an emphasis on vegetarian protein sources (although not exclusively vegetarian), good quality cold water fish, whole grains, fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables, and good quality olive oil. It does not contain excessive amounts of refined flour products, sugar, caffeinated products, too much red meat or dairy products. **It is a brilliant base template to work off and we’re going to master class it for your cycles.
I’m going to break down each stage of the menstrual cycle and look at what nourishment and energetics are best suited to each stage. Hormonally, each stage is vastly different. Many cultures have specific menstruation recipes that are prepared in a certain way at a certain time of the menstrual cycle. In India, a dish called kitchari is made with split mung beans, rice and spices such as ginger, cardamom, saffron, cumin, coriander, fennel, and cinnamon to balance blood flow to the womb. In Chinese medicine, a soup is prepared with the nourishing herb Dong Quai with red dates and chicken is eaten after bleeding to replenish the blood. The Eastern European version of this is a hearty borsht. We have lost so much of this wisdom in our modern times, but we have everything that we need to reclaim it.
General Food Guidelines for Women
Before exploring the specifics, there are a handful of principles that are particularly important in maintaining period health as a whole.
1. Cut out sugar
Maintaining stable blood sugar is the #1 priority in restoring balance to any hormonal irregularity. When we digest sugar, it stimulates the hormone insulin which is in close communication with all the other hormonal glands in our endocrine system. If our insulin is on a roller coaster, so is our energy, moods and hormones. Cutting out refined sugar, flour, fruit juices and soft drinks are an important start. Dried fruit can also be very high in sugars (figs and dates in particular), so remain mindful here.
As a rule of thumb, 2 pieces of whole fruits is ideal. They contain other compounds that help us digest the sugar components slowly and smoothly. An energy drip feed rather than a dump truck. Sugar addiction is real and it’s not an easy ask of everyone, but once you get through it, you will feel so much better. If this is a pain point for you, go in deeper. The net is filled with sugar-free advocates – some do come across as sugar-free-missionaries others are beacons of common sense – have a search around and lean in to one or two who you resonate with.
2. Dairy and wheat
For many people, dairy and wheat are a challenge to digest. They can be pro-inflammatory when not digested properly and are common culprits that contribute to conditions such as hormonal acne, PCOS, endometriosis and period pain. If you are struggling with any of these, try omitting dairy and wheat from your diet for a month and see how you go. I find that ghee, natural yoghurt, sheep and goat products are well tolerated amongst a large percentage of women. If you don’t have a gluten sensitivity, the grains such as barley, spelt and rye is an easy substitute.
3. Consume adequate healthy fats
These include avocados, cold water fish, organic butter, ghee, extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin coconut oil, hemp, walnut, flax and chia seeds (and their oils). Fats contain essential nutrients required for optimal ovulation and they help regulate energy and weight. Embrace your fats like an adoring nonna’s embraces rosy checks.
4. Take care of your digestive system.
The liver and the bowels do the lion’s share of processing and eliminating hormones. Luckily they are pretty unfussy organs to take care of.
The liver loves sulphur containing vegetables, such as asparagus, mushrooms, kale, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts and cauliflower. It appreciates only a moderate amount of alcohol. And it will shower you with feelings of clean if you reduce your exposure to unnecessary chemicals and toxins (i.e medications, household products and cosmetics).
The bowel loves fibre, water and bacteria. Fibre is rich in whole grains, legumes and unpeeled fruits and vegetables. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, okra and psyllium husks are particularly high in a soothing fibre called mucilage, which not only binds excess hormones and feeds good bacteria, they soothe the lining of the digestive system. Particularly good for those of you who have sensitive stomachs or tend toward constipation.
Aim for 1.5 -2L of water a day. And bacteria in the forms of living foods, natural yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi are easy to weave into your day.
Eating for optimal period health
This is the fun part! I’ve pulled inspiration from herbal medicine energetics, Ayurvedic traditions, Alisa Vitti’s Woman Code and the hormonal physiology of the menstrual cycle itself. I’ve also shared some choice recipes for each stage (imagine me excitedly sharing kitchen tales and womanly wisdom over a rooibos chai and rose cardamom oatmeal cookies – my fuel for this blog post).
The menstrual cycle can be divided into four phases, all lasting different amounts of time for different women. They are follicular, ovulation, luteal and menstruation (period).
Each stage comprises of completely different hormonal interactions, which in turn have different effects on our bodies, minds and souls. Here we go…
Follicular – Inner Spring
The follicular phase begins after your period has finished. All the hormones are beginning to build up again to prepare a new egg for ovulation. We are open, creative and energetic. It is the spring time of the cycle, thus spring-like foods go well. Bright fruits, light grains and delicate herbal teas. The traditional energetic for this stage is sour, which is cooling, light and stimulates digestion.
- Protein sources – lean meats, chicken, eggs, tempeh and tofu, good quality cold water fish – trout, clams, vongole, mussels.
- Whole grains – buckwheat, basmati rice, millet, amaranth, oats.
- Fresh fruits – avocado, vibrant citrus (esp lemon), plum, nectarine, pomegranate, sour cherry, lycées.
- Vegetables – sprouts, cabbage, radishes, asparagus, sauerkraut and kimchi, greens.
- Nuts – cashews, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds
- Fats – good quality olive oil, walnut or hemp
- Herbal teas – Red clover, rose, raspberry leaf, rosehips, hawthorne, elderberry, schisandra.
The very clever Sarah Britton of My New Roots redefines the buddah bowl, this one is filled with follicular goodness. Wondering how on earth to use buckwheat? They make the best pancakes which you dress up with savoury or sweet as you wish.
Ovulation – Inner Summer
This is when we’re feeling our best and on top of the world. All our hormones are tuning up for the lead event; ovulation. We are expansive and communication comes much more easily. It is the summer of our cycle. In Ayurveda, it is believed that foods that reinforce the spirit and heart, also known as “oja promoting foods”, are the most nourishing now. Think clean, hearty food.
It is the time for the flavour of ‘bitter’. Whilst this doesn’t sound that soulful, bitter flavours support our digestive systems to process and absorb more nutrients from food. Bitter foods balance blood sugar which creates lovely smooth energy. They also assist the liver in processing the higher levels of hormones that are circulating around the body now.
- Protein – lamb, red lentils, tuna and salmon
Whole grains – amaranth, corn, quinoa and buckwheat.
- Fruits – apricots, berries, purple and blue coloured foods, pomegranate
- Vegetables – asparagus, mushrooms, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, kohl rabi, brussels sprouts, artichoke, chicory, dandelion green
- Nuts and seeds – chia, flax, pumpkin, almond
- Spices and herbal teas – ginger, cinnamon, raspberry, dandelion root, schisandra, orange peel, turmeric
Pomegranate and kale are a beautiful match: juicy jewels amidst tenderly dressed greens . The Greeks know a thing or two about making bitter greens taste delicious. The dish “horta” features on all taverna menus, and simply means wild greens boiled and dressed in olive oil and lemon. This recipe is a nice introduction. And here is an Ayurvedic recipe for an ‘ojas’ (a.k.a. mojo) building shake. If you do have the intention of conceiving, this is nice one for both you and your partner.
Luteal – Inner Autumn
The luteal phase begins after ovulation and lasts until bleeding begins. It is the autumn of our cycle. The hormones start beginning to drop and the yin element comes in. We’re feeling like going within. It is also the time when PMS and cravings can arise. It is very comforting to bring in grounding and root-ing foods and herbs.
It is the time of the sweet flavour (which is often why many women experience intense sweet cravings). Roots that have complex carbohydrates can cut those cravings. Think stabilising, soothing and moistening foods. The luteal phase is time to ensure we are getting ample amounts of calcium, magnesium, omega 3 oils and B-vitamins. Being replete in these nutrients prevents sugar cravings and period pain. Foods rich in zinc and selenium are also important to support progesterone production. Progesterone is the hormone that we need to sustain so we don’t go pre-menstrual crazy, get skin flare ups or premature menstruation.
- Protein: beef, venison, kangaroo, trout, sardines, cod.
- Whole grains: Brown rice, red rice, millet
- Vegetables: anything from under the ground. Sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, onions, garlic. Greens and okra.
- Nuts and seeds: Hemp seeds, almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, sesame and sunflower
- Herbal teas: nettle and dandelion leaf for fluid retention. Motherwort, rose, mugwort, tulsi, lemon balm for premenstrual tension. Fennel, chamomile, ginger, peppermint, lemon balm, licorice for bloating and digestive upset
Jaime Oliver does a mean root vegetable salad. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this brown rice salad by Karen Martini – the mint, parsley and lemon feel really lovely when you’re feeling puffy. Chocolate cravings? Lucinda’s homemade chocolates with a herbalist’s twist will inspire you to move over to the homemade side. Meg – a fellow naturopath – also has a PMS & chocolate inspired fudge recipe which I have passed onto many a patient.
Menstruation – Inner Winter
The arrival of your period can bring a great sense of relief as this is when all the hormones levels come down to low concentrations. We’re off the waves and into the smooth waters. It’s a fascinating time, as it is a time where we are able to process information very logically but also a time of enhanced intuition (a.k.a strong synaptic conductivity between and left and right hemispheres of the brain).
Many different healing traditions have special recipes and rituals during the period. A common thread amongst them all is that they focus on blood and kidney restoring foods. The kidneys are associated with energy reserves in eastern medicine. In modern-day speak, we refer to this as ‘the adrenal system’. The system that moderates stress in our bodies.
Foods that are best for eating during your period are pungent, salty, earthy and yin. It is the winter of the cycle and the foods are dark and earth like. The pungent taste (horseradish or wasabi are extreme examples) has a dispersing quality. These foods prevent energy from becoming heavy and stagnant. If we haven’t been looking after ourselves well throughout the month, heaviness, stagnation and pain are common experiences.
- Protein – bone broth, beef, venison, kangaroo duck, black beans, black lentils, seafood in general (as they are high in trace minerals)
- Whole grains – Rye, black or red rice, wild rice, black quinoa
- Vegetables – beetroots, purple carrots, purple potatoes, burdock (gobo), mushrooms, seaweeds, romaine lettuce, radicchio, Cavallo Nero kale, purple kale
- Nuts and seeds – Black sesame
- Aromatic warming herbs – thyme, rosemary, bay, clove, ginger, cayenne, cumin, fennel, cardamom, juniper, horseradish, pepper
- Herbal teas – Raspberry, motherwort, ginger, nettle
Borsht is an Eastern European soup make with blood building beetroots and beef stock and is perfect for during your period. Another Sarah recipe here for a vegetarian version. For omnivores, simply replace the veggie stock with a bone broth. Dong quai soup is another replenishing soup, but this is best taken after the heaviest days of bleeding have passed.
I hope this post will inspire some cycle insight and grocery aligning. You will be amazed how simple changes in your diet can make a bit difference to your period health.
Do you have any personal rituals around food and particular parts of your cycle? If so, I would love to add to my recipe repertoire, so please share in the comments below xx