For many of us, fall is a time for reflection. As the trees release their dying leaves and the air snaps with a new cold, we turn inward and begin to ready ourselves for the approach of winter.
The equivalent of this season of transition in the menstrual cycle is the luteal phase, which begins after ovulation and lasts about 14 days. That is, if the egg released by the ovary that month has not been fertilized.
The luteal phase is a period of change for both body and mind.
It begins with the release of a mature egg and the formation of the corpus luteum: the temporary hormone-secreting structure that gives this phase its name. The corpus luteum produces progesterone, which tells the uterus to prepare for the possible implantation of a fertilized ovum by growing a thick lining.
With estrogen and progesterone levels still elevated by ovulation, we often start the luteal phase feeling mentally sharp and physically energized.
Toward the end of the two weeks, however, the corpus luteum is reabsorbed by the body and hormone levels decline sharply, triggering the onset of menstruation and the release of the built up endometrium in the form of a period.
The peaking and rapid decline of hormone levels during this phase can have dramatic effects on mind and body.
It is during the luteal phase that many of us experience the symptoms of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). These can include irritability, mood swings, bloating, outbreaks of acne, changes in appetite, trouble sleeping, and sometimes headaches.
Some 2% to 8% of us experience Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a cyclical, hormone-linked mood disorder often severe enough to require medical support.
Even if you don’t suffer any acute symptoms, when the highs of ovulation give way to the lows of PMS, we can all feel our energy and enthusiasm flag a little.
Again, diet can help.
It is not uncommon for people who menstruate to crave fats and sugars during the luteal phase – a desire some researchers have attributed to high progesterone levels.
To satisfy these cravings healthily, try complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, beans, and grain such as millet and quinoa. Healthy fats can also help both address your longing and give you more energy. Try avocados, nuts, and oily fish such as sardines, kippers, and salmon.
Foods rich in magnesium are highly recommended during the phase. Not only is magnesium proven to help lift mood, it is a natural pain reliever and can improve sleep patterns. So don’t be afraid to load up on green leafy vegetables, nuts (again!), seeds, whole grains, and white fish.
Go easy on caffeine, alcohol, and salt, which can worsen bloating and sleep disturbances. And while exercise is always a good thing, don’t push yourself too hard if you start to feel tired.
If your symptoms become so severe they begin to interfere with the business of living, you may want to talk to your doctor about support.
Above all, prioritize self-care through this time of transition. Read a good book, take long walks, seek solitude when you need it. In other words, be as kind and forgiving to yourself as you would be to a friend who is feeling a bit low.
Your mind and body will be grateful.