One of the major problems with the health industry is that advice often does not consider the vast biological differences between men’s and women’s bodies. As a result, what may work well for men may be detrimental to the cyclical nature of women’s bodies. Today we explore these differences and highlight ways women can tailor their choices to honor their cycles
Circadian Vs. Infradian Rhythms
The circadian rhythm is an internal biological clock that all humans have. Your circadian rhythm is vital in generating various physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. Although this internal clock is relatively predictable, it is influenced by multiple external cues, including light, movement, stimulants, and food 1
An infradian rhythm is another cycle that is longer than the 24-hour circadian cycle and includes a wide range of biological processes that living things go through. This includes migration, hibernation, and reproductive behaviors 2.
One such reproductive behavior is the menstrual cycle, which impacts biological women during their reproductive years. This approximately 28-day (on average) cycle orchestrates the various physical, mental, and behavioral fluctuations throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle 3. This includes hormonal changes that influence your body temperature, skin elasticity, sleep cycle, energy, emotions, and cognitive function 3
Most Studies Cater to Men
Scientific studies attempt to control as many variables as possible to try and make accurate conclusions about the things they are studying. Since rhythms in general are fluctuations that can interfere with predictions and results, most scientists avoid working with women in their reproductive years in favor of the more predictable male daily rhythms 4
A simple example is our bodies’ blood sugar response to food. Within the 24-hour clock, there are already interactions between the cyclical nature of cortisol that impacts how our body responds to glucose throughout the day, but when you superimpose the fact that women have different tolerances to glucose throughout their menstrual cycle, things get even messier 5.
Needless to say, this is not ideal for women. Many things extrapolated from scientific studies that apply only to men (at best) are then preached as universally true to all people, all the time. Things like chronically low-carb diets, intense and ongoing fasting, and other forms of “healthy stress” are examples of this culture of over-doing it that most people think is healthy but is not necessarily
Women As Cyclical Beings
Although the average women’s infradian menstrual cycle hovers around 28-days, this cycle can differ in time depending on various factors, including stress, hormonal imbalances, or other illnesses. The standard process operates along the lines of: 6
- Phase 1: Menstrual (the 3 to 7 days of your period)
- Phase 2: Follicular (the 7 to 10 days after your period)
- Phase 3: Ovulatory (the to 4 days in the middle of your cycle)
- Phase 4: Luteal (the 10 to 14 days between ovulation and your period)
Each distinct phase comes with its own set of hormonal fluctuations (like estrogen, which rises during the follicular phase and drops post-ovulation in the luteal stage, and progesterone which is lower in the follicular phase and increases post ovulation during the luteal phase). Each stage also comes with a particular energetic state, metabolic requirements, and gifts– if you learn to honor each phase for what it is
One of the problems with modern life is that it encourages most women to ignore their cycles, therefore forcefully ignoring the gifts that come when we learn to honor the body’s needs during each distinct phase.
One of the problems with the health industry is that it tends to cater to the rhythms of men or women who are not in their reproductive years. Since it can be more difficult to establish a baseline for women at different stages of their cycles, most women in their reproductive years are simply excluded from scientific studies 7.
When women try to follow a ‘same-thing-everyday’ approach, they ignore their rhythms and fail to honor their cyclical nature. What might work well for men can be a woman’s downfall. Understanding her body and making choices accordingly can help restore this feminine cyclical homeostasis in her body and support vibrant health
Ways for Women to Honor Their Cycles
Truly knowing what your body needs during each cycle ultimately requires tuning in and honoring what comes up for you. Of course, as a bio-individual being, there is nobody else like you, so the advice below should be taken as general recommendations, but in no way is it just another cookie-cutter approach to cyclical living
As you cycle through the four phases, the body has different metabolic needs 8. The luteal phase is marked by a rise in body temperature, raising your metabolism. As a result, women need more food during the luteal and menstrual stages. During these two periods, the body typically does better with warmer, more nutrient-dense, mineral-rich, and carb-heavier foods like slow-cooked stews, meat, and soups.
The follicular and luteal phase typically faires better with lighter meals, fresher food, and more greens. So if you’re cycling a keto diet, this would be the more appropriate phase for low-carb eating. In addition, the body can handle more stress in this period, so caffeine intake is more appropriate in these two phases than during the luteal and menstrual phases.
Exercise is one of the most difficult patterns to break when honoring feminine cycles since so many women are programmed to think they need to stick to their intense and rigid exercise routine to “see results.” yet, ironically, it could be the very opposite.
When the body is in the follicular phase and gearing up to ovulate, it has abundant energy. This is the time to “go hard” in the gym, lifting weights, doing endurance sprints, or going for that big multi-day trek in the mountains. As soon as the body ovulates, however, the body’s capacity to deal with stress decreases as estrogen drops
The luteal phase is best honored with gentle movements like yoga, walking, stretching, or gentle pilates. The menstrual phase thrives with complete rest. However, when we ignore our body’s biological truth and continue with the ‘go hard or go home’ mentality, the spike in cortisol (which occurs much more easily during these two phases) can lead the body to hold on to body fat 9.
Like exercise, cold therapy is a form of “good” stress. This good stress can do wonders for mental and physical health if used mindfully during the right times of your infradian cycle. Cold therapy during the follicular and ovulatory phases can bring many health benefits to women 10. However, cold exposure during the more sensitive times of the late luteal and menstrual phases can have the opposite effect
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the saying goes, “cold feet, cold womb,” since there are meridians that start in your feet and connect to the reproductive organs. This is why the menstrual phase (similarly to post-partum) are sacred times when women should stay warm all the time 11. They go so far as to recommend that women avoid showers altogether during the first few days of their bleed because even warm water has an overall yin (cooling) effect on the body
Biologically, women’s bodies are geared for socialization during their cycles’ luteal and ovulatory phases. This is theoretically the time when we can find a mate for reproductive purposes; she will typically feel more outgoing, communicative, and confident. You can work this to your advantage and schedule social events during these times. Whether you’re hosting a party or giving a big presentation, your thoughts will be clearer, you will have more energy, and it will be easier to express yourself
Reflecting and Slowing Down
The luteal and menstrual phases are when things start to slow down energetically. After the body blossoms through its spring (follicular), peaks in energy, and the heat of summer (ovulation), autumn is when things get chiller and slower (luteal). Eventually, you cozy up at home with a big roaring fire in winter (menstruation). The last two periods are optimal times for introspection and reflection.
The luteal phase is when you want to wrap things up, press pause on what’s not working in your life, and put certain things on the backburner. Tidy up your space, and make sure that your upcoming bleed can be a time without commitments to focus on heightened intuition and the gifts that come when you slow down
This is the time to swap your gym session for time with your journal or your big social outing in favor of a warm cup of tea with a close friend.
Understanding the fluctuating nature of a woman’s sex drive throughout her cycle can help women and couples communicate and connect better. Although every woman may have her unique rhythm, typically libido spikes during the follicular phase, and drops following ovulation 3. This natural curve is biologically to encourage reproduction
Although this is a common cycle, libido may also spike or drop, depending on various factors including stress. When stress is high, the biological desire to reproduce takes a back seat, and women’s libido may drop dramatically no matter which phase of her cycle that she is in. For other women, the luteal and even menstrual phase may be when she is most aroused. The important factor is knowing your body and its cycles so that you can honour what is true for you, communicate your wants and needs, and not feel like you are ever “broken” if you’re not turned on 24/7.
The more you know your body, the more you can honour it. Knowing your healthy cycles can also help you adjust your lifestyle and habits; if your libido is typically high in the follicular phase but isn’t one month, this is useful information to start examining what may have impacted the change
Many healthy habits we see in the natural health scene are catered to the 24-hour circadian clock that all humans have. Although this process is very important, it doesn’t consider women in their reproductive years, who also have the infradian rhythm of the menstrual cycle. This cycle dramatically changes the body’s internal ecology and can take a healthy habit and turn it into a harmful one. Understanding their infradian rhythm can help women honor their bodies and support their needs through their four monthly phases
Female Hormone Support:
TruBalance Fem+ supports classic herbal hormonal balancing in the form of vitex, polygonum, and black cohosh, along with DIM and chrysin for protection and support of beneficial estrogen aromatase activity. Calcium-D-glucarate promotes the proper elimination of excess estrogens. Resveratrol and EGCg from green tea are included for maximum antioxidant protection. Vitamins B6, B12, and folate promote proper cell differentiation.* Magnesium and calcium are also included to help support bone and hormone health
1 “National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).” National Institute of General Medical Sciences, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/circadian-rhythms.aspx.
2 Laje, Rodrigo, et al. “The Times of Our Lives: Interaction among Different Biological Periodicities.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2018.00010/full.
3 Laje, Rodrigo, et al. “The Times of Our Lives: Interaction among Different Biological Periodicities.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2018.00010/full.
4 Nowogrodzki, Anna. “Inequality in Medicine.” Nature, vol. 550, no. 7674, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1038/550s18a.
5 Dey, Saheli, et al. “Blood Glucose Levels at Two Different Phases of Menstrual Cycle: A Study on a Group of Bengali-Speaking Hindu Ethnic Populations of West Bengal, India.” The Oriental Anthropologist: A Bi-Annual International Journal of the Science of Man, vol. 19, no. 1, 2019, pp. 55–63., https://doi.org/10.1177/0972558x19835371.
6 “National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).” National Institute of General Medical Sciences, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/circadian-rhythms.aspx.
7 Holdcroft, Anita. “Gender bias in research: how does it affect evidence-based medicine?.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 100,1 (2007): 2-3. doi:10.1177/014107680710000102
8 Mihm, M., et al. “The Normal Menstrual Cycle in Women.” Animal Reproduction Science, vol. 124, no. 3-4, 2011, pp. 229–236., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anireprosci.2010.08.030.
9 Hewagalamulage, S D et al. “Stress, cortisol, and obesity: a role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity.” Domestic animal endocrinology vol. 56 Suppl (2016): S112-20. doi:10.1016/j.domaniend.2016.03.004
10 Patrick, Rhonda. “Foundmyfitness Topic - Cold Exposure.” FoundMyFitness, https://www.foundmyfitness.com/topics/cold-exposure-therapy.
11 Tan, Chelsea. “What Does It Mean to Have a Cold Womb?” PULSE TCM, 20 May 2021, https://pulsetcm.sg/what-does-it-mean-to-have-a-cold-womb/.