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Managing a Healthy Weight Throughout the Menstrual Cycle

For many people, weight fluctuation can be a source of frustration. Understanding the reasons for these changes can lessen that frustration.

The most noticeable aspect of your monthly cycle is your menstrual period. But this is only one phase of the cycle. Changes in hormone production happen throughout the month. Understanding these fluctuations can help you navigate the complexities of your body.

The menstrual cycle affects many functions in the female body. While most women notice only the monthly bleeding, the cycle as a whole is much more complex. Your menstrual cycle regulates the production of hormones that affect your mood, looks, and even weight gain. In this article, we will take an in-depth look at how the menstrual cycle affects weight.


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Menstrual cycle

A healthy menstrual cycle lasts anywhere from 28 to 35 days. Menstruation shouldn't cause much discomfort. Yet, 90% of menstruating people experience some premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms.


PMS symptoms include bloating, fatigue, constipation, diarrhoea, headaches, abdominal cramps, back pain, swelling, and tender breasts. Psychological symptoms manifest in intensified depression, anxiety, mood swings, irritation, and emotional eating.

In addition to these common symptoms, many women experience weight gain. While fluctuations of 1–2 kg are common, excess weight gain is not generally caused by cycle-related hormonal fluctuations.

Hormonal fluctuations during the cycle

If you read our articles, you know that the menstrual cycle has three main phases:

  • The follicular phase is the time between the first day of your period and ovulation. It can be divided into two parts—the menstrual period itself and the days leading up to ovulation when a mature egg is released from one of the ovaries into the corresponding fallopian tube.
  • The ovulatory phase is the next and shortest phase of the cycle, lasting for only about 24 hours. This usually happens around day 14, counting from the first day of the follicular phase. Oestrogen and progesterone levels are at their peak now. This surge in hormones alerts your pituitary gland to increase the production of luteinising hormone (LH) and release an egg.

The luteal phase begins after the egg has been released and lasts around 14 days, unless the egg becomes fertilised. During this phase, progesterone levels rise and fall as the now empty egg sac transforms into the corpus luteum and then is reabsorbed into the body. This is the time when most women notice weight gain.

Read more about the hormonal changes in your body in How Do Hormones Affect You During Your Cycle?


Reasons for hormonal weight gain

Water retention

The luteal phase marks an increase in progesterone. Progesterone is a diuretic, that's why many people experience increased urination right before or during their period. However, hormonal fluctuations and imbalances cause the body to retain water and bloat. This often happens if you have high oestrogen and low progesterone levels. You might look fuller and feel heavier at this stage of your period.

Lack of motivation

In the days leading up to your period, and at the start of your period, you might feel increased tiredness. This is a common side effect of menstruation and is nothing to worry about. During these periods of fatigue, high-intensity physical activity is not recommended, but a light workout to get your blood flowing can reduce both tiredness and bloating.

That being said, it's important that you listen to your body. Modifying your exercise routine to correlate with your cycle can be beneficial. Work with your body, not against it. All of us have days when we don't have the energy to do much, but a short walk or a little bit of yoga can do a world of good.

Food cravings

Hormonal changes and stress consume a lot of energy, which is why many women have food cravings before and during their periods. Foods with high levels of sodium and sugars worsen water retention, increase constipation, and contribute to bloating. While a few sweets won't kill you, eating nutrient-rich foods will keep you feeling good in the long run.

Hormonal imbalances

Hormonal imbalance means there is too much or too little of a particular hormone in the body and this can lead to more serious health problems. When reproductive hormones are unbalanced in women they tend to have too much oestrogen and too little progesterone, or oestrogen dominance. The inverse also happens but is much rarer.

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Polycystic ovary syndrome

Oestrogen binds with fat cells and is usually stored in fat tissue. Women with oestrogen dominance tend to have fuller figures or struggle to lose weight. Some hormonal imbalance issues such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) increase fat tissue. Oestrogen and androgen dominance is common in people suffering from PCOS; one of many related symptoms is an inability to lose weight. If you suspect this is happening to you, talk to your doctor or gynaecologist.

When weight management becomes a battle

Being a healthy weight looks different for everybody, and thank goodness we are recognising that! However, we cannot stop our bodies from adapting and maturing. Everyone experiences weight changes at some point—small fluctuations due to menstruation, bigger shifts due to a change of lifestyle, or the recalibration that comes with menopause and ageing, but major weight fluctuations or an inability to adapt your weight can indicate a more serious underlying issue.

Obesity

Hormonal imbalances and reproductive issues can cause an increase in fat tissue. While some fluctuation is normal, excess weight is not healthy. Obesity increases your risk of cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, chronic pain, and inflammation. When women suffer from issues such as PCOS, weight loss can be challenging. If you are eating well and moving regularly, but can't lose weight, consult a doctor. Sometimes a change in diet, stress management, and moderate physical activity can help manage hormonal disorders.

Malnourishment

Worry about weight gain can push some women to extremes. Fad diets, restricting food intake, and excessive exercising can all lead to malnourishment. This can manifest in an irregular menstrual cycle or even in amenorrhea. Your body needs sufficient vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients to thrive. Having a healthy relationship with food can be a radical act. Find a 'nutrition sister' to support you in creating the habits that support a healthy lifestyle.

The very narrow and impossible beauty standards imposed on us by the advertising and entertainment industries has damaged our appreciation of the diversity of human bodies. Even Olympic athletes who train to achieve peak physical condition vary greatly—a body that excels at one sport will fail to compete in another. It is up to us to appreciate the unique basket of gifts and disadvantages each of us has been given.

How to maintain a stable weight throughout the menstrual cycle

Accept that your body is constantly changing

Always being able to fit into the jeans you wore when you were 16 is not a reasonable goal. While some women don't change much in size and shape throughout their lifetimes, other women go through more drastic changes in response to pregnancy and childbirth, illness, or a change in life situation. As we age, we tend to carry more fat but less lean tissue and muscle mass. Bone density and total body water also decrease over time. All of these changes affect how we look and how we feel. The more flexibly we can respond to our changing bodies, the better we will look and feel.

Support healthy metabolism

If you regularly eat nutrient-dense foods, you are less likely to feel cravings. Cravings are the body's response to what is missing in your diet. If you consume sufficient amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, your metabolism should regulate itself, thereby reducing cravings for sugary and high sodium foods.

Move even when you don't feel like it

Physical movement is essential for a healthy body and a well-functioning menstrual cycle. But our capacity for physical activity changes with the phases of the cycle. For instance, during the follicular stage, when your energy levels are the highest, you can make the most of cardio and strenuous exercises. During the luteal stage, let yourself slow down and focus on slow movement such as walking, yoga, and weightlifting. You don't need to go overboard to support your cycle; rather, be kind to yourself. Respect the clues your body sends you, and you will notice that your moods improve and your weight stabilises. Sometimes less is more.

If you are constantly battling your body, perhaps it is telling you something. Pay attention to these signs and consult with your doctor about what you could do to heal. For too many years, we have been force fed the idea that the female body should fit one beauty standard. Find out what health looks like for you. Sometimes a few extra kilograms are just what you need for peak performance and wellbeing.

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https://bmcwomenshealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12905-020-01085-4
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17684511/
https://annals-general-psychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12991-019-0255-1
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327326#summary
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3154522/
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