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The menstrual cycle plays a key role in a woman's life, having a substantial effect on how a woman exercises and eats, plus how much weight she loses, or strength she gains. Here we look at exercise, diet and how to optimise them in each cycle.

Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle: Nuts and bolts

Ask any healthcare professional, from doctor, to trainer, to exercise physiologist, and they can usually all agree on one thing; Women are complicated. From a medical standpoint, it’s, quite frankly, astounding. Their immune systems are usually more resilient, they generally recover faster than men from exercise, and, in terms of nutrition or program design, or even psychology and behavior, where men seem to respond and adapt fairly uniformly to exercise or certain nutrients, such as fat or carbohydrates, this is not always the case for women.

In terms of the current science on exercise and nutrition, we’ve seen quite a number of gender differences in both the response of muscle to strength training, and in the amount of fat that the body can store, and how it stores it.

But what causes these changes? In one word, hormones. And, by and large, it’s these hormones, which basically act as chemical messengers to the body, which not only help control how we respond to exercise and how we eat, but also how we think, how we look, how we act and pretty much everything about us. Luckily, these hormones can usually be studied and, thus, we can begin to understand how our bodies respond to different types of exercise and different foods.

With that in mind, exercise and nutrition in women should be fairly simple to understand then. If women release different hormones to men, all we have to do is understand these hormones and their effects, and structure our training programs and diet plans around them, right?

This is where the menstrual cycle comes into play.

See, in men, the hormones that are important for exercise and nutrition, i.e. those influencing fat loss, hunger, muscle growth, strength, etc., remain relatively constant, and their response to different types of exercise and food, such as fats, proteins and carbohydrates, remain fairly constant. But this is not the case for women. The menstrual cycle causes certain hormone levels to shift and change. This not only makes understanding and studying them more difficult, but structuring exercise programs and diet plans more difficult too. This could be why women seem to have less long-term success with weight loss than men, or why women seem to suffer more injuries in some joints than men, and seem to suffer more of them during the middle of their menstrual cycle than at other times during the month.

This brings us to the question of what the menstrual cycle is and how someone could adapt their training and nutritional practices to maximize progress in spite of it.

For female readers, the menstrual cycle needs no explanation, but for the more inexperienced male readers, the menstrual cycle is more commonly known as the ‘time of the month’ and the time surrounding it, which is roughly 4 weeks, where a woman’s ovaries produce (follicular phase), prepare and release (ovulation phase) and, if not needed, breakdown and excrete (luteal phase) the eggs that would be used for childbirth.

But how could this affect exercise or the way someone's body uses nutrients?

Because, as hinted at above, hormones can play a key role in how hard we can exercise, how well we recover, how much fat we store and how hungry we feel, and, during each menstrual cycle phase, a woman’s hormones can change pretty drastically. So, where men might benefit from a relatively consistent exercise and nutritional program throughout the entire month, a woman’s will require a bit more careful planning. So, with that in mind, we arrive to the exercise and nutrition side of the article.

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