Like so many women, I was never really encouraged to honour my feminine cycle growing up. During those tender years where our bodies change so rapidly, society feeds us the idea that our bleed is a time of the month to dread and hide from. We’re told that there are two stages to our cycle - bleeding or not bleeding - and that PMS symptoms like bloating and fatigue are something to be accepted and endured. With this lack of knowledge comes a disempowerment and a detachment from the beauty of our own bodies. Now, more than ever, I feel that we need to return to this natural wisdom in order to find balance again…
The negative seeds of thought were planted within me but I did not allow them to grow for too long. At the age of 21, after a year taking the contraceptive pill and feeling utterly depressed and detached from myself, I began to question everything related to my health, body & spirit. Once I began to dive into this world of holistic health & healing I couldn’t turn back. Taking responsibility for my own healing has been the ultimate expression of self love in my life.
When I first began reading about women and cultures who honour their cycle and bleed, I felt resistance. ‘How can you honour something so inconvenient, painful and messy?’ was the question dancing around my head. But still, the more I read, the more something began to stir within me that shifted my whole perspective. When we discover the intricacy of our hormonal system, it’s difficult not to be in total awe of our bodies and what they’re capable of. After all, it’s this very cycle that leads to the creation of life. Without it, you wouldn't be here right now, reading this.
When we nourish ourselves in the right way and connect with each stage of our cycle, we begin to understand our bodies and can recognise our own intuitive needs in a clearer way. It’s been a fascinating, sacred & at times confusing path for me, and I hope through this article we can provide the foundational knowledge for anyone starting this journey or interested in deepening their understanding.
The Four Primary Reproductive Hormone
FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) - The production of this hormone occurs the same time of the cycle that 15-20 eggs start to mature in each ovary. Each egg is encased in its own follicle, and the follicles race to become the largest. Eventually ovulation will happen once one of the ovaries releases an egg from the most dominant follicle.
Estrogen -In order to ovulate the follicles need to produce enough of the hormone estrogen. After our bleed, our estrogen levels will gradually rise until they meet the necessary level for ovulation to occur. Excess estrogen in the body (also known as estrogen dominance) can cause really unpleasant side effects. This can be avoided in various ways…. some example are eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, keeping stress levels low and also avoiding xenoestrogens from plastics, cosmetics and pesticides.
LH (Luteinizing hormone) - Once we reach the estrogen threshold, it will trigger an abrupt surge of LH which leads to ovulation. This hormone causes the egg to burst through the ovarian wall. Once the egg is released from the ovary, the follicle that encased the egg collapses on itself and becomes a ‘corpus luteum’. This stays inside the ovarian wall and begins to release the hormone progesterone.
Progesterone- This is a really important hormone for women’s fertility. As the corpus luteum releases progesterone after ovulation, it prevents the release of any other eggs during that cycle and causes the uterine lining to thicken. It also causes our waking temperature, cervical fluid and position to change. The corpus luteum stays on the ovarian wall until it disintegrates after around 12-16 days. If the egg doesn’t get fertilised, then progesterone levels will drop and the uterine lining will then shed and cause your bleed to start.
The Four Stages of the Cycle and Nourishing Foods/Herbs for Each Phase
MENSTRUAL PHASE (first day of bleed until the end of bleed)
Average duration: 3-7 days
Day 1 of the cycle begins on the first day of your bleed. If you experience any light spotting on the days before your bleed starts, these would be counted in the previous month’s cycle. This is a time of inner-reflection and many women find that their intuition is strongest during this phase. As you bleed, it’s an invitation to really nourish your body and take things slower than normal. Prioritising time for self-care can be beautiful during these days - whether it’s a warm bath, time in nature, gentle stretching or journalling. In many ancient traditions the women would gather together during this phase and be exempt from their responsibilities..
Foods/Herbs for the Menstrual Phase:
Your body goes through an intense process as it sheds the lining of the uterus, so it’s important to eat nutrient-rich and grounding foods during this phase. As your body loses blood, focus on foods that are high in iron and zinc. Warming foods and teas are also really beneficial - I love eating soups and stews during this time.
Foods: Root Vegetables, Beetroot, Dark Greens, Kale, Mushroom, Seaweeds, Black Beans, Kidney Beans, Blueberrys, Blackberries, Cacao, Miso, Tamari.
Herbs: Nettles (really high in minerals), Red Raspberry Leaf, Chamomile, Turmeric (anti-inflammatory), ginger (can help with any cramping)
average duration: 7-10 days
As your bleed ends you enter into the follicular phase of the cycle, where the hormone estrogen gradually rises. Many women feel a rise in energy during these days and it’s known as a time of creativity and new beginnings. Instinctually, it’s the time of the cycle where we would normally attract a partner to mate with, which is why we might feel more confident and outgoing during this phase. It’s the time when you will most likely want to be more social, active and try new things.
Foods/Herbs for the Follicular Phase:
Fresh, lighter foods are ideal for this phase and will keep you energised. All your hormone levels are at their lowest, so your body can easily tolerate different types of food.
Foods: lots of vegetables - broccoli, carrot, courgette, parsley, lettuce, avocado, citrus fruits, mungbeans, split peas, fermented foods, olives, brazil nuts, cashews.
Herbs: schisandra (supports kidneys/liver), tulsi, licorice
Average duration: 3-4 days
This is the time when many hormones reach their peak level (FSH, LH, and estrogen). As an egg is released, we are at our most fertile time and often women find they are at their peak in terms of energy, confidence and libido. You may feel pelvic pain as the egg is released and on your most fertile days, you should have clear, wet vaginal discharge. This is called cervical fluid and is a really essential sign of healthy fertility. The Ovulatory phase is a good time for communication and expressing yourself clearly - so it’s a great time for meaningful conversations or interviews.
Foods/Herbs for the Ovulatory Phase:
As estrogen levels are high, most women have more energy during these days. Sticking to lighter foods will help support this. You want to help your body eliminate any excess estrogen (e.g. from toxins, plastics…) so eating a lot of fiber will help with this elimination process.
Foods: quinoa, corn, flaxseeds, spinach, tomato, pepper, aubergine, fig, strawberry, raspberry, red lentils, almonds, pecan, pistachio
Herbs: Red Clover (promotes lubrication), dandelion (supports detoxification), shatavari (supports healthy ovulation), maca (balances excess estrogens)
average duration: 10-14 days
The luteal phase begins after ovulation has occurred and it’s when progesterone levels rise. Energy gradually declines during this phase and towards the end you may feel yourself begin to turn inwards and soften once again. Some women have unpleasant symptoms during this time due to the abrupt change in hormone levels, so it can be helpful to recognise the big shifts your hormones are going through and see these symptoms as ways your body is communicating with you. For many, this is a ‘nesting’ time where we feel more called to organise things at home, do some necessary life-admin or take more time for yourself to rest.
Foods/Herbs for the Luteal Phase:
Many women experience sugar cravings during this phase. You can navigate this is in a nourishing way by eating foods that are rich in B vitamins and also eating more complex carbohydrates. These natural sugars will help balance dopamine levels and prevent any mood swings. I love eating roasted sweet potato during this phase. Continue eating high-fiber foods to help eliminate any excess estrogens (which can cause PMS symptoms).
Foods: Brown rice, millet, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, ginger, leek, onion, parsnip, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, apples, dates, peaches, pears, chickpeas, walnuts.
Herbs: ashwaganda (helps balance hormones and stress), ginger (can help with bloating), tulsi (helps lift mood), Vitex (boosts progesterone levels - helpful if your luteal phase is too short, but do your research before taking!)
Tracking your cycle
If you don’t already, I really encourage you to track your period from day 1 of your bleed. There are tons of apps you can use or I personally prefer to chart it in my journal. It’s amazing when you begin to recognise the various ways you change during the month and how this correlates with what phase you’re in. It’s also a really interesting way of tracking any symptoms or patterns that occur in your cycle. For example, for a long time I would always have a small breakout on days 18-19 of my cycle, due to a hormone shift. Once I identified this I could work to support my body and balance excess estrogen during this stage.
Watching this video a few years ago really sparked my interest in this topic. Beautiful advice and approach to the cycle!
Woman Code by Alissa Vitti is an incredible book that dives into the feminine cycle in so much detail. Credit to Alissa for the food recommendations that I’ve mentioned in this article!
Taking Charge of your Fertility is the fertility bible. Goes into a lot more detail about how to track your cycle and cervical fluid.
The Superfeast podcast have an excellent women’s series which covers so about women’s health and the feminine cycle.