When I got my first period at 12, I was home alone. Much like the protagonist of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., I had pleaded with the universe to become a woman, a transformation my two older sisters had already undergone. While I was grateful to have some privacy in that moment, what I didn’t realize was that, in some respect, I would feel alone in dealing with my menstrual cycle for most of my life.
I had never compared and contrasted my symptoms with peers (bleeding so heavy I once told my mom I’d “lost an ovary in the toilet,” lightheadedness to the point of fainting in public, acne, crippling cramps), so I thought everything I experienced was normal. I also thought my symptoms could only be fixed with birth control. That model of thinking went uninterrupted until this year, when I came across an enthusiastic wellness blogger who touted the benefits of something she called “cycle syncing,” which she’d learned from a book called WomanCode.
Written by “nutritionist and women’s hormone expert” Alisa Vitti while in search of a holistic approach to treating her Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), WomanCode teaches women how to stave off hormonal, PMS, and period symptoms by eating a certain way, knowing what types of exercise to do (and when), and even managing work and social engagements.
At first I scoffed at this blogger’s over-sharing of the details of her menstrual cycle (“Off to yoga — I’m in my luteal phase!” she’d say, swigging a superfood-spiked matcha). In a hateful, premenstrual bout, I seethed at her cheery demeanor and clear skin. What could she possibly know about the torture that I endured on a monthly basis? Then it hit me: What did I know? So I dug in further.
WomanCode focuses on healing the endocrine system, which controls your hormones. In addition to the more widely known period systems like cramps, mood swings, and bloating, hormones can cause of a whole host of issues: dandruff, anxiety, cravings, hair loss, and hair growth, loss of sex drive.
Vitti has also created an app, MyFlo, which you can use to predict your period, track your symptoms and get feedback on what to eat, what exercises to do, and even how your significant other can better tend to your needs. Despite the fact I had long ago accepted the fact that getting my period means being tortured on a monthly basis, I figured I had nothing to lose (besides the $1.99) so I uploaded MyFlo and embarked upon a month-long experiment, focused specifically on the dietary suggestions.
Before I share my food diary, let me tell you the basics. The dietary guidance is split up among four phases: follicular, ovulation, luteal, menstruation; I began during my luteal. They don’t perfectly map by week — some are longer than others and they’ll vary by person — but I estimated mine based on the provided info. Also, this isn’t an actual “diet.” The app is structured in a way that, in addition to sharing general nutrition info that corresponds to each phase, you can punch in your various symptoms (sadly, I didn’t see road rage as an option) to customize food suggestions even further. It’s different for everyone. As a nutritionist, Vitta’s food selections are based on their ability to optimize bodily functions. It’s nothing weird — arguably things we should all be eating anyway. That said, from the get-go I nixed (or tried to, at least) a few things that the author explains can cause hormones to go haywire: caffeine (noooooo!), refined sugar, soy, red meat, and dairy. Here’s how it went.
Luteal Phase (Duration: 7-14 days)
The luteal phase “occurs after ovulation (when your ovaries release an egg) and before your period starts.” In other words, it’s the latter two weeks of a four-week cycle.
Recommended Food: B vitamin-rich foods including eggs, seafood, and leafy greens; baked root vegetables; probiotic foods like kimchi and sauerkraut; cilantro; vitamin E-packed foods like almonds and avocados.
The Science: According to my app, this is when “estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone reach their peak concentrations, and then begin to fall to their lowest levels right before bleeding.” Vitamin B foods help manage blood sugar, while the root veggies can cleanse the liver, flushing out excess estrogen. Probiotics reduce bloat, chlorophyll-packed cilantro can clear the skin, and Vitamin E is an anti-inflammatory that can aid breast pain. (All the research is cited in the app.)
How I felt: Leaving Whole Foods with heavy bags full of hormone-friendly ingredients for the week, I felt hopeful—especially after examining my ever-present chin/jawline acne. Eating dishes like baked sweet potatoes topped with black beans and guacamole or scrambled eggs with fermented veggies wasn’t terribly out of my comfort zone (I tend to cook healthfully at home) but a life without caffeine was. I opted to keep up my two-cups-day coffee routine seeing as giving up pastries was hard enough. LET ME LIVE!
Menstruation (Duration: 3-7 days)
Menstruation is, duh, when you’re actually bleeding. After your unfertilized egg unceremoniously exits the Fallopian tube, it breaks apart and your uterine lining begins to shed. A fun time!
Recommended Food: Low-glycemic fruits and veggies; protein; seaweed; Omega 3 fatty acids; beets.
The Science: According to Vitti, if you regularly struggle with cramping, diet could be a part of the problem. The app explains, “your body isn’t making enough of the right type of prostaglandins […] and too much of another type” as a result of a lack of essential fatty acids, which also help fight inflammation. The low-glycemic foods will supposedly keep my blood sugar in check, while beets boost iron for anemic folks like myself, and seaweed can replaces minerals lost.
How I Felt: Out the gate I have cramping that’s not unlike getting a womb massage from Edward Scissorhands, extreme nausea, heavy bleeding, and a shooting pain in my left breast. Fun times all around. I still haven’t kicked my coffee habit but I’m starting to seriously consider because this is one doozy of a period. In short: not only do I not notice any improvement just yet (given, it’s early), but I could swear some symptoms are even worse.
Follicular Phase (Duration: 7-10 days)
The follicular phase is when the follicles in your ovary mature, just before you enter ovulation.
Recommended Foods: Fresh fruits and vegetables; hearty whole grains (like buckwheat); lean protein (seafood or beans, since I’m not doing red meat).
The Science: According to MyFlo, my hormones are at low levels post-menstruation and nutrient-packed foods will get my energy back on track.
How I Felt: Though I was tired as hell, I woke up around 4 a.m. every night (WHY), so I finally vowed to swap out coffee for matcha (that’s something, no?). To help me sleep and curb sugar cravings, I’d have a cup of Four Sigmatic’s adaptogenic hot cocoa after dinner every night, which was a trick I learned during the one-and-only cleanse I’ve done in my life. This tasty little elixir has reishi mushrooms to soothe the stress monster that had taken over my body and cinnamon and coconut palm sugar to give me the sweet fix I’d been hankering for without spiking my blood sugar.
Ovulation (Duration: 3-5 days)
Ovulation occurs when your matured egg is released from the ovary, travels down the Fallopian tube, and patiently awaits being fertilized. This is the phase where those who want to — or don’t want to — get pregnant should be on high alert.
Recommended Foods: Fibrous fruits and veggies and light grains, like corn and quinoa.
The Science: During this phase, testosterone surges, then drops. According to Vitti, “elimination” (read: poop) is an important part of ridding your body of the surplus of estrogen, hence all that fiber. Eating lots of raw fruits and veggies gives you the vitamins and antioxidants for high-functioning and healthy ovaries.
How I Felt: Something strange happened. By this stage in the game, I honestly started to believe that my usual symptoms in each cycle had been magnified. My breast pain returned, but in the form of overall swollen tenderness, and already I was experiencing some cramping. My joints were sore, my chin still hadn’t totally cleared and my bloat was like that last party guest who refused to leave. WHY?!
Right around the 30-day mark, I felt like I was falling apart. Were my hormones totally confused? What the hell had I done?
Out of desperation, I finally cut out caffeine completely, supplementing with herbal chicory coffee. Additionally, I started taking evening primrose oil capsules daily and drinking tea with dong quai — both of which balance hormones and are recommended by Vitti’s text. Then, the clouds parted: my omnipresent chin acne dissipated for the first time in I don’t even know and I began waking up to a (relatively) flat tummy. Some symptoms still have a ways to go (a full night of uninterrupted sleep would still be nice) as I imagine breaking the cycle probably takes a bit longer than a month.
As woo-woo as it sounds, I believe I’ve experienced a powerful transformation in simply being this tuned-in to my body and considerate of what goes into it. As time goes by, and I’m given physiological clues as to what’s benefitting — and not benefitting — my health, I may have (okay, I will have) a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza again. To be honest, what MyFlo has taught me to do is not wholly radical: I ate all the things I should probably have been eating anyways — but perhaps never knew how foods could so directly affect my hormonal health and aid in symptoms I thought I’d never kick for good. But beyond that, I believe it’s been invaluable to have this experiment as a way of engaging with friends about their own “period problems,” knowing that — at the very least — I’m definitely not in this alone.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis.