I'd like to take a moment to compare the female menstrual cycle to the fourth-grade mile run: dreaded, sinister, and full of ups and downs. And apparently, a stealthy calorie burner. (See! A silver lining can be discovered just about anywhere.) But back to the main discussion point here: the relationship between our metabolism (specifically, calorie burn) and our periods. Considering our uptick in cravings and hunger paired with simultaneous fatigue and grumpiness, it would only make sense, or at least seem fair, that our body's natural metabolism would increase a bit as it puts in some extra hours. But does it actually? Or is that thought process simply wishful thinking?
Curious to know more, and because our Google search seemed a bit inconclusive—people have many opinions on the matter in question—we called in the experts: Lisa Moskovitz, CEO, RD, CDN; Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN; and Alisa Vitti, HHC, AADP, functional nutritionist and founder and CEO of FloLiving.com. Keep reading to find out how our calorie burn changes depending on our cycle and to learn some other helpful tips for making life a bit more bearable during our periods.
1. Your Hunger Levels Will Increase
As we've learned, our metabolism and menstrual cycle are very much influenced by the state of our hormones, which fluctuate throughout the month. And according to all three experts I reached out to, there is a definite (albeit slight) uptick in calorie-burn, which contributes to those random hunger pangs and cravings the week leading up to and during our period. So yes, there is a biological and very necessary reason your body wants you to consume more food.
2. You Burn More Calories—But Not When You'd Think
"We know that right before, during, and even after menstruation, there a lot of hormonal changes occurring in the body," iterates Moskovitz. "From the rise and dip of progesterone and estrogen, the body does go through a lot of changes each cycle. What might not be so understood is how this can affect the basal metabolic rate, or metabolism, as well. Numerous studies show that right before and up to two weeks prior to menstruation, your metabolism may be functioning at its peak. This means you are technically burning the most calories each day right before you get your period compared with the other days of the month."
Which is interesting, considering we would have thought the phase of actual menstruation would excite the most calorie burn. But according to Vitti, that's actually when our metabolism slows down and returns back to normal.
"During the luteal phase, your BMR rises by 10-20%, and you'll burn more calories at rest," she tells us. "Then, during the actual bleed, all hormone levels reach their lowest point and your BMR comes back down to normal levels."
3. Don't Over-Exercise
According to Vitti, our increase in metabolism causes a natural need for more calories to keep our body functioning at peak performance. And while it's always good to be active and not overly sedentary, it might be counterintuitive to overdo your workout during the increase in calorie burn—aka the second half of your cycle.
"In the second half of the cycle, a woman's resting blood sugar levels are lower, which means you need more calories to maintain stable blood sugar. You don't burn more calories while you're bleeding, but you do right before in the luteal phase," Vitti says. However, if you increase exercise during the luteal phase coupled with your naturally increased appetite, calorie need, and the introduction of progesterone, you can actually turn on fat storage and increase muscle wasting."
Vitti recommends keeping your cardio and HIIT training to the first half of your cycle (read: weeks one and two) and more slow-burning activity like yoga, walking, and Pilates to your second half to help your metabolism reach its best, and most efficient, self. (For more amazing hacks and a lesson in syncing your period with the best fitness and diet strategies, check out Vitti's best seller WomanCode, $14.)
4. Consider Certain Supplements
According to Shapiro, considering some strategic supplements might also help lessen and alleviate some of the wild swings of discomfort we experience during our periods. However, as always, make sure to check with your physician prior to starting a new supplement regimen.
"Taking around 500 milligrams of calcium for three months may improve energy levels, appetite change, and depression sometimes associated with PMS," explains Shapiro. "Additionally, magnesium has been shown to help symptoms, and vitamin E may even help with breast discomfort." She also says including a quality omega-3 supplement may help to appease those hunger swings and other unwanted collateral damage courtesy of PMS.
5. Mind Your Hydration
Getting enough water seems to be the magical cure for virtually every ailment (I'm still somewhat skeptical, but I digress), so of course, it's also an easy way to feel better when Aunt Flo comes to town. All three experts I consulted emphasized staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water will not only make you feel better but also encourage that natural metabolism kick. Plus, it's so easy.
6. Avoid Eating Too Much Sugar
Again, like guzzling plenty of water, not overdosing on sugar is a strategic move when you're going through the throes of period pains. Sure, a quick sugar high might be tempting when you reach that mid-afternoon breaking point of fatigue or have a late-afternoon deadline you're trying to meet, but ultimately, the debilitating crash won't do you your dwindling energy levels any favors. According to Shapiro, avoiding excess sugar (which we likely crave) is one of the best, albeit difficult, things you can do to keep your metabolism ticking when you're on your period.
7. Try Eating More Often
Oh, and back to those insatiable hunger pangs: "I recommend eating small, frequent meals to prevent getting overly hungry and caving in to cravings," says Shapiro. Plus, according to Moskovitz, including specific and strategic food groups like lean protein and lots of veggies at each meal will help manage many of the uncomfortable symptoms of menstruation."
8. Prioritize Sleep
Sleep is a dark horse when it comes to maintaining healthy hormones, and in turn, a healthy metabolism on your period. Therefore, in addition to those other basic necessities like hydration and quality nutrition, getting an adequate amount of sleep is an important way to hack your way to a more pleasant period, keep your metabolism in fighting shape, and ease any extra irritability that tries to rear its ugly head.
"Of course, lifestyle habits will definitely have an impact on metabolism—regardless of whether or not you're on your period," confirmes Moskovitz. Especially, she tells us, when it comes to exercise type and frequency, stress and sleep hygiene, and what you do or do not eat and drink. To boost metabolism in a healthy and sustainable way, regular exercise including a mix of cardio and weight training (see Vitti's suggestion above), a healthy balanced diet with an appropriate amount of calories (not too much or too little), proper hydration, and adequate sleep are all extremely important."
9. Don't Overestimate Calorie Burn
It likely goes without saying, but just because we do, indeed, burn more calories in anticipation of menstruation, this very slight increase doesn't warrant a total free-for-all where our wellness routine is concerned.
"While your metabolism does increase right before you get your period, this does not mean its a pass or justification to throw mindful eating out the window," Moskovitz reminds us. "Keep in mind the spike in calorie expenditure is not that significant, maybe about an extra 100 calories per day—if that. Giving in to cravings is okay, but make sure you do so in moderation or else the excess sugar, salt, and carb intake will only exacerbate PMS symptoms such as water retention, fatigue, and irritability."
Next up: the one "unhealthy" food group women should never cut from their diets.