Jade Teta ND, CSCS
Given the popularity of our blog and protocol Female phase training, this article provides additional information on how the menstrual cycle impacts weight loss. Now, I know most people are not physicians, so if the science is WAY too heavy for you, just skip down to the end for the simple bullets
- There are two phases of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase & the luteal phase.
- The two phases are separated by ovulation and menses. The follicular phase starts at the first day of menses and ends at ovulation while the luteal phase starts with ovulation and ends with the first day of menses.
- The follicular phase is called the follicular phase because it is a period where the follicle, which contains the egg, is maturing.
- The luteal phase is called the luteal phase because the follicle becomes the corpus luteum after it releases its egg.
- The follicular phase is a period of higher estrogen and low progesterone.
- The luteal phase is a period of high estrogen AND progesterone, but progesterone is more dominant.
- Interestingly, during the follicular phase a female has about the same amount of progesterone in her body as a male because the corpus luteum is the major source of progesterone and it is not formed until the luteal phase.
- The premenstrual period and menses is characterized by a steep decline of both estrogen and progesterone.
- Estrogen makes women more insulin sensitive while progesterone, because it opposes the action of insulin, makes them more insulin resistant.
- Estrogen and progesterone are both anti-cortisol hormones.
- Estrogen is also a muscle building hormone while progesterone may interfere with muscle development.
- Follicular phase= more estrogen= less fat storage, some fat burning and is a muscle gaining time.
- Beginning luteal phase= estrogen AND progesterone. Later luteal phase (premenstrual)= less of each but more progesterone.
- Beginning luteal phase= less muscle building, but good fat burning. Later luteal phase= more catabolic time (i.e. burning fat and muscle).
- Because both estrogen and progesterone have receptors in the brain, it has been shown that when they fall premenstrually, brain chemistry is impacted including lower serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. This means increased cravings especially for sweet and starchy foods (i.e PMS cravings)
What Does All This Mean?
Together these facts tell us a number of things. The menstrual cycle certainly impacts a female’s fat burning physiology. It is important to know that estrogen and progesterone do affect insulin and cortisol, but are lower on the fat burning hierarchy than either. This means that using estrogen and progesterone to guide body composition requires controlling insulin and cortisol first. This can be done through manipulation of the carbohydrate tipping point and training.
Because estrogen makes a woman more insulin sensitive, and estrogen and progesterone are both anti-stress hormones, women can better tolerate starch in the follicular phase and be less tolerant in the luteal phase, especially the late luteal phase (i.e. premenstrual period).
This leads to several possible recommendations:
Exercise & Diet
High stress exercise can be offset by the anti-stress effects of both estrogen and progesterone. Long-duration moderate intensity cardio may be the most stressful type of activity regarding cortisol. This type of exercise also can have an effect on reducing muscle. Because of this, traditional long-duration cardio may be best suited to the follicular phase or the beginning luteal phase (when estrogen is still high). This works during these times because estrogen will help the body maintain its muscle during this time and both estrogen and progesterone work to minimize the negative effects of cortisol.
The follicular phase is also a great time to focus on muscle building since estrogen aids with this as well. Given the law of metabolic multitasking, the idea that the body is not very adapt at building muscle and burning fat at the same time (beginners being the one exception), splitting the menstrual cycle into a building phase and a burning phase is useful. The follicular phase can be used to build muscle (i.e. the anabolic time) and the luteal phase to focus on fat burning (i.e. the catabolic time).
So the training and diet schedule may look something like this:
- 3 Times weekly full body weight training.
- 3 Times weekly long-duration moderate intensity training.
- Normal calorie and carbohydrate intake at most meals with most timed after exercise to enhance training adaptations and muscle growth.
- 3-5 times weekly short duration high intensity metabolic conditioning, HIIT, and sprint training.
- Normal calorie intake with carbohydrate kept low, using exercise to create the correct hormonal environment and caloric deficit to burn fat and minimize any muscle loss.
- Plenty of relaxing restorative exercise like leisure walking, sauna, tai chi, etc.
Late Luteal Phase Considerations (premenstrual)
- There is a bit of a conundrum created since carbs are cut low at the very time women tend to crave them.
- To deal with the harsh cravings at this time we use two aids, cocoa and BCAA.
- Cocoa will raise both dopamine and serotonin to address the brain chem changes.
- BCAA will help minimize any muscle loss, lower cortisol, and also raise the brain chemicals GABA and glutamate to aid cravings.
** Final note – hormone replacement of any kind essentially wipes out the cyclical nature of the cycle making the above considerations obsolete.
THE SIMPLE BULLETS:
- Follicular phase: For two weeks (14 days), the first day of menses being day 1, switch your exercise focus to traditional weight training workouts (3 per week) and cardio sessions (2-3 per week). Walk for an hour daily. It’s not exercise, it’s necessity. Eat a normal calorie and carbohydrate diet. Perhaps a 40:30:30 macronutrient ratio (carbs, protein, fat).
- Luteal phase: After 14 days, switch your training and nutrition up. Move to 3 times per week metabolic conditioning workouts (try one of these) and 2 times per week interval exercise or sprint training. Eat a lower carbohydrate diet while maintaining calories. Perhaps a 20:40:40 macronutrient ratio (carbs, protein, fat). Follow this training until menses returns, and at that time return to the follicular phase.
- Premenstrual: During this phase, cravings for starchy foods can be an issue so use cocoa & BCAA. These two tricks will blow you away as to how impactful they are.
- Cocoa: 1 tablespoon unsweet cocoa powder in a mug. Pour hot water on top slowly to avoid clumping. Add non calorie sweetener if desired. Favorite brand? Our Own Craving Cocoa.
- BCAA Powder: 1-5g on empty stomach 4 times daily (1 dose before and 1 dose after exercise). Favorite brand? Our Own ME Craving Cocoa which gives the benefits of Cocoa + BCAA + Fiber in one product. Another good brand BCAA supplement is MRM Reload + G
Interested in learning more about the female menstrual cycle, menopause, PCOS, thyroid, and other female specific protocols? Check out our female fat loss formula program.