In my clinical nutrition practise, I help my clients connect menstrual and mental health. Having a better period can truly change your wellbeing.
Meet Susan. She dreads the week before her period. Her moods are all over the place. She is ping-ponging from happy to sad to angry to flat. Susan desperately wants to get off this rollercoaster, waiting patiently for the shift that comes when her period arrives. Meet Nadra. A week after she finishes her period, she starts to feel anxious and self-critical. It’s only after she ovulates does her mood start to stabilise.
How your period affects your mental health
The hormones that we make during our menstrual cycle (the first day of the period to the day before the next period starts) have a powerful impact on our mental health.
Estrogen, the hormone that rises after menstruation, has a potent effect on our energy levels. It also affects the production of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that we make in our brain) like serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. Progesterone, the hormone we make when we ovulate, has a calming effect.
Happily, there’s a lot we can do to support our menstrual health and with this, support our mental health.
Start tracking your menstrual cycle
If you’re not already tracking your menstrual cycle or at least your period, then why not? Tracking can be as easy or complicated as you like. Knowing when your period is about to arrive is helpful. It can add to your understanding of what you experience throughout your menstrual cycle – cravings, mood changes, pain, libido, energy, motivation and more. Knowing what your menstrual health experience is like helps you spot patterns and understand your current menstrual ‘norm’.
You may notice that like clockwork, you start to become more self-critical a week before your period or you cry more easily on day 1 or 2 of your period. Maybe, it’s increased confidence or that you’re more willing to take risks as you get closer to ovulation.
You can use anything from a period tracking app (I like Moody, Flo and Clue), to a journal to an Excel spreadsheet to your calendar. If you’re not sure where to start, start on the first day of your next period.
Support the gift of ovulation
Ovulation is a gift our body gives us every menstrual cycle. It’s how we make progesterone, the calming, anti-inflammatory hormone that helps us sleep better, stabilises our moods and helps our brain use GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). This neurotransmitter acts like natural Xanax.
It’s important not to rely on your cycle tracking app to tell you that you’re ovulating. Instead, know the signs your body is giving you. Examples are changing cervical fluid, increased libido and energy, changes in basal body temperature and cervical position. You can also use ovulation prediction kits (OPKs) to tell you when you’re about to ovulate.
Tend to your gut
We make between 70 – 80% of our serotonin in our gut (large and small intestine) and the rest in our brain. It can have an amazing effect on our moods and mental wellbeing. Serotonin, which some of us might know as our happy hormone, rises and falls alongside estrogen and there’s a lot we can do to make sure we’re making as much as possible.
Think of your gut like a garden
We want it to grow and we want it to be diverse with as many plants as possible. Fibrous foods like oats, buckwheat, brown rice, sweet potatoes, carrots, quinoa, beans, pulses, pumpkin, nuts & seeds and fruits & vegetables with the skin on all feed that bacteria that are already in our gut.
Fermented food and drink such as kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickled vegetables help introduce new strains of bacteria and increase the diversity of your gut microbiome.
Inflammation is one of those health buzzwords you may have seen recently. When you’re chronically inflamed, it means that your immune system is acting as though there is a constant threat. That isn’t good news for either your menstrual or mental health. In fact, chronic inflammation can increase period pain for some of us. The anxiety can begin when we’re waiting for the pain to start. This is a powerful example of how periods can affect our mental health.
Adding in foods with omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA helps to reduce inflammation. Think oily fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and trout, omega-3 fortified eggs and algae for vegans. You can also add a wide variety of anti-inflammatory foods such as brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and herbs like rosemary, oregano, basil and turmeric.
Eat your greens
Kale is such a nutrition cliché, and there’s a reason for that! Good nutrition can support you when on your period, and help you find that energy to boost your mental health.
Kale comes from the same brassica plant as 5 other vegetables with amazing benefits for our menstrual and mental health: brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, broccoli and cabbage. The fibre in these vegetables feed our gut bacteria, they contain a nutritional compound called sulforaphane which helps our liver break down estrogen. They contain a wide array of B vitamins, which support our mental health and brain function.