Cycle Syncing and Birth Control
DISCLOSURE: The topic of hormonal balance and women's health is a moving target, but I find it incredibly interesting and significant in fully understanding my body and achieving wellness as a woman. I do not have all of the answers. I do not have a professional degree in nutrition, medicine, exercise or psychology. The following information is simply a paraphrased compilation of the information that I have researched and gathered over the course of the last 6 months. I hope that you find the following beneficial to your whole-hearted practice and that you further pursue some of the concepts in order to grow in your own self-awareness and well-being as a woman.
For eight or so years, my body has involuntarily served as a laboratory for hormonal birth control experimentation. Collectively, I've taken Yaz, Beyaz, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, and Lo Loestrin Fe at different periods in my life, trying to find the pill that works best for me. I've also had the copper, non-hormonal IUD, which unfortunately didn't work well for my body. After all of this trial and error, I've successfully found a birth control that works well for me at this moment in time, but this doesn't mean that all side effects and hormonal fluctuations are at bay...
For any woman that's been on birth control at some point in her life or is currently taking the pill, or for any woman who has noticed what might be the result of hormonal imbalance or fluctuation throughout the month, you know how hard it can be to adjust to the different hormonal phases that come along with our monthly cycle, or the higher dosage of synthetic hormones associated with birth control. At times, we feel antisocial, incredibly hungry regardless of how much we eat, stressed, angry, imbalanced, dizzy, lethargic; the list goes on. What's interesting is that the way we physically, mentally and emotionally feel throughout the month might have a lot to do with our hormones.
Hormones behave like messengers, carrying information and instructions from one group of cells to another. They influence a lot of things! So, it makes sense that when one hormone dominates another, or hormones are out of balance, we experience some physical and mental side effects, right? When our hormones are working together, not against each other or compensating for one another, we can feel balanced and centered, whole and healthy.
I've always experienced PMS symptoms and days where I felt more tired than the next, more vibrant than the week before, or extremely introverted. I noticed, however, that when I started to change certain aspects of my lifestyle, these symptoms felt less intense and I was feeling more balanced throughout each month. Although my birth control was 'helping' with certain symptoms, I grew to believe that a change in lifestyle was another piece of the puzzle.
While reading WomanCode, I was introduced to the concept of Cycle Syncing, the act of adjusting your lifestyle according to the phases of your menstrual cycle. By doing so, a woman can achieve a balance in her endocrine system and can live a more fulfilled life without the extremity of the crappy side effects associated with her menstrual cycle (i.e. a more stabilized mood, healthier body, stronger relationships, vitality, optimism, wellness). Alisa Vitti inspired me to think about how amazing it would be to feel good 99% of the time instead of 70%, and how cool it would be to live in sync with my God-given hormonal cycle--not seeing it as a burden, but more my own personal guide to health and happiness. After reading WomanCode, I was sold on the concept and I started to incorporate bits and pieces of the protocol into my life.
I ran into one small obstacle though... my BCP, an oral contraceptive that replaces my natural cycle with an artificial one. WomanCode suggests that despite being on birth control, you cycle sync almost identically with the protocol for a natural cycle. This was the one thing throughout the book that I felt needed further exploration and discussion.
When cycle syncing with your natural cycle (no BCP), you follow a protocol that aligns with the four phases of your menstrual cycle. Because birth control pills supply your body with synthetic levels of estrogen and/or progesterone for three to four weeks out of the month, a woman's cycle on BC is very different from a woman's cycle without BCP.
So what does a woman's natural cycle look like?
To avoid going into too much detail, I'm going to keep the following explanation simple; and if you are curious to learn more, you can explore the sources that I mention throughout and at the end of this post.
A healthy, fertile woman has a monthly, natural cycle that occurs in four dynamic phases.
Phase one, the follicular phase, occurs for 12-13 days. During this time, a woman's body is preparing for ovulation, or the release of an egg from a developed follicle. The pituitary gland sends follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to the ovaries, telling them to prepare for the release of an egg. Several follicles start to swell. Estrogen and progesterone, the two hormones that play the most significant role in how we physically and emotionally feel, are at their lowest points. However, estrogen starts to increase towards the middle-end of the phase to thicken the uterine lining so that it can host an egg.
Phase two, the ovulatory phase, occurs for 3-4 days. FSH levels start to rise once more, as do luteinizing hormone levels (egg-producing hormone), and stimulate the release of one egg from a developed follicle. Estrogen levels continue to increase, further developing a supportive environment in the uterus for an egg.
Phase three, the luteal phase, begins after ovulation and ends at the beginning of menstruation. Alisa Vitti describes this phase best: The corpus luteum (follicle from which the egg bursts) grows on the surface of the ovary, causing it to produce progesterone. The rise in progesterone signals the body to keep the uterine lining intact, and it signals the pituitary gland to stop sending follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone, ensuring that only one egg is released at a time. Estrogen levels continue to rise, and if the egg isn't fertilized, the corpus luteum is reabsorbed into the body. Progesterone production soon halts as a result and triggers menstruation.
Phase four, the menstrual phase, typically lasts 3-7 days. Progesterone production drops off because the corpus luteum disappears. This triggers the shedding of the uterine lining. Estrogen peaks and then drops, signaling the start of another cycle.
What is the protocol for cycle syncing with your natural cycle?
Upon waking each morning, we can aim to consume 8-16oz of water first thing, hot or cold. This helps awaken the digestive tract. (I enjoy making a hot cup of water with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.)
During the follicular phase, fresh, vibrant, light foods might make us feel more energized because all hormone levels are at their lowest. Pickled vegetables, salads, lean proteins, sprouted beans and seeds, and energy-sustaining whole grains are best. When it comes to cooking vegetables, sauté or steam them instead of baking, grilling or roasting!
At this time, you might be feeling like your most energized and creative self. Cue the new workout class you've been wanting to try, a fresh playlist, starting a new project, socializing and being active!
During the ovulatory phase, you still have plenty of natural energy and your mood is stable because of the slight increase in estrogen (estrogen has the ability to affect mood because of its association with serotonin). Veggies and fruits are good for your elimination of increased estrogen during this time; and think lighter grains, like quinoa or corn. Lighter preparations of foods are still key.
When thinking about lifestyle, consider going on that first date, having an important conversation or looking your best for work because connecting with community is at the heart of the this phase. Additionally, consider high-impact workout activities like spin or kickboxing classes. You're ready to take on strenuous exercise!
During the luteal phase, hormones are on the climb and hitting their peak. This means a woman might experience PMS symptoms, declined energy, water retention, irritability, headache, mood swings and cravings. In order to avoid the extremity of these symptoms, eating foods rich in vitamins and minerals is important. Baking or roasting vegetables can make veggies taste sweeter, helping to curb sugar cravings. Additionally, an increase in fiber can help the elimination system rid the body of excess estrogen. BUT, obviously it's most important to listen to your body. If you want a giant piece of pizza and that sounds really good to you, then EAT the pizza.
During the first half of the luteal phase, you might still have high energy, so continuing with your strenuous workouts and social activities will feel natural. However, as the phase continues, energy declines and therefore exercise with lower resistance is less jarring for the body. This is also the ideal time for a woman to spend time practicing self-nuturing activities, organizing the house, doing a meal prep for the week or shopping.
Finally, during the menstrual phase, the body is going through a big elimination process with the shedding of the lining of the uterus. This is the time to really focus on eating foods with nutrients, specifically calcium, iron and zinc, three things that a woman loses a lot of during menstruation. Rest and recovery are most important during this time. Again, though, we need to LISTEN to our bodies; if I feel social and want to attend the big Friday night event, then I'm going to do so!
Essentially, cycle syncing means listening to your body during each phase of your menstrual cycle and pursuing the things that will benefit your body the most during each phase. Obviously, no one lives a perfectly regulated life, and we shouldn't have anxiety about the thought of not making the right lifestyle choice for our phase every single hour of every single day. That's just not reality. I believe that if we genuinely aim to live according to how we feel and what we know to be best for our bodies, then we will experience wellness and better hormonal balance.
Also, I find it helpful to map out my cycle on a calendar or track it through a mobile application, i.e. Kindara. Pay attention to how you're feeling throughout the month, and then you'll best know when your body is in one phase in comparison to another because you'll be in tune to your physical, mental and emotional states.
NOW, for the big stuff... how can cycle syncing come into play when a woman is on birth control?
This is the question that I have really been searching for an answer to. Alisa Vitti suggests that you almost identically follow the protocol that she shares for natural cycle syncing. However, because of the constant artificial levels of hormones introduced to your body each month from birth control, I believe that it might be best for us to first understand how birth control actually works, and then to tweak Alisa Vitti's protocol to align with how our own individual monthly cycles play out. Every woman is different, and therefore every hormonal cycle is unique. (i.e. you might be feeling great the second week of your pill pack, but really low the third week; and your best friend might be feeling really vibrant the middle two weeks of her pill pack and very off the last week)
There are two different types of birth control that I'd like to mention: combination birth control pills and progesterone-only pills. Combination birth control pills work by utilizing different amounts of estrogen and progesterone to suppress ovulation. Progesterone and estrogen suppress the release of FSH and LH, which doesn't allow the release of an egg from a follicle. This abolishes the hormonal cycling and doesn't allow for the hormonal change for ovulation. Note: progesterone and estrogen work together, just like luteinizing and follicle-stimulating hormones do for the release of an egg. As the pituitary gland ramps up production of one set of hormones, the production of others slows down. So, when estrogen and progesterone are lower, LH and FSH are higher, preparing the body for ovulation. When estrogen and progesterone are higher, LH and FSH are at their lowest points. This being said, a constant level of estrogen and progesterone in the body don't allow for ovulation, and therefore prevent pregnancy and the variety of hormonal dips and peaks during the month.
As we saw above in the description of the four phases of the menstrual cycle, progesterone, or the lack of it, is what signals menstruation to begin. Therefore, progesterone-only birth control users typically stop getting their period after 5 or 6 months. Progesterone-only pills make it hard for sperm to fertilize an egg and also help stop ovulation.
*For the following, I will refer to combination birth control pills only.*
With birth control, unfortunately and fortunately, a woman's body doesn't experience the natural ups and downs of hormones throughout the month. Instead, she has a constant level of synthetic hormones determining her monthly cycle. This doesn't mean that a woman doesn't experience moodiness or PMS though. Although birth control can help these things, they still exist to some extent for many women (i.e. me).
I have found that the first week of my birth control pack typically finds me in a irritable, moody and hormonal place. BIG SURPRISE: I'm re-introducing my body to the estrogen and progesterone concentrations that it'll have for the next 3 weeks. Did you know that it takes around 5-7 days for your body to adjust to synthetic hormones? This explains my beginning-of-the-month what-feels-like-PMS symptoms. Additionally, the dip in estrogen and progesterone in the fourth week, or placebo week, of a birth control pack can result in PMS-like symptoms as well. Changes in hormones create changes in a woman's physical, mental and emotional state.
As for cycle syncing...
Unfortunately, those of us on birth control cannot naturally cycle sync to the extent that Alisa Vitti mentions in WomanCode. However, we can follow the protocol depending on how we feel, and we can work on better listening to and understanding our bodies so that we can avoid or relieve some of the symptoms that still occur throughout the month.
On a day-to-day basis, we should focus on maintaining steady blood-sugar levels. This can be read about here. We should also, of course, hydrate, sleep well and exercise.
However, when it comes to feeling hormonal and PMS-like (i.e. during the first and last week of my BCP), we could try following a meal plan that encourages the consumption of mood-boosting foods and what can be hash-tagged as #goodmoodfood. This includes, and is not limited to the luteal phase and menstrual phase focused foods from WomanCode's "Foods for Your Cycle" chart on page 159:
- collard greens
- mustard greens
- sweet potato
- Nuts, Legumes
- Hickory, Pine, Chestnut and Walnut
- Chickpeas, kidney and navy beans
- Ginger, Turmeric
- Mint, Spirulina, Peppermint, Miso Soup, Tamari, Decaf Coffee
During the two middle weeks of a birth control cycle, we could try incorporating the follicular and ovulatory phase focused foods, or foods that naturally energize us and add to our hormonal balance during this time.
- bell peppers
- brussels sprout
- green peas
- lettuce, bib, butter, boston and romaine
- string beans
- swiss chard
- sour cherry
- Nuts, Legumes
- Almonds, brazil, cashew, pecan and pistachio
- black-eyed peas, green lentils, lima beans, mung beans, split peas and red lentils
- Nut butters (almond or cashew), moderate alcohol, chocolate, pickles, sauerkraut, vinegar, ketchup, coffee, turmeric
When we're feeling unlike ourselves, it's likely a result of the change in hormones that our body is experiencing. Therefore, some things that we can do to avoid the extremity of some of these symptoms are:
- avoid foods with phytoestrogens, a naturally occurring plant nutrient that exerts an estrogen like action in the body
- you can find a comprehensive list of foods with high phytoestrogen content here
- avoiding alcohol and excess caffeine
- although alcohol and caffeine can cover up symptoms in the meantime, they are two key players in hormonal imbalance, and are best saved for the days when we're feeling 100% instead of 60%!
- pay attention to our bodies!
- A woman knows HER body the best. The best way to know what your body needs at a certain moment in time is to listen to it.
- i.e. if you are feeling weak and lethargic, it's probably because your body is tired and needs rest! consider a yoga class and long bath instead of a strenuous cycle class
- if you are craving sugar and can't seem to get enough calories into your day, consider baking vegetables to curb the sugar cravings, and/or opt for nutrient-dense foods with protein and good fats to satiate your appetite and keep you fuller longer, OR just have the piece of chocolate!
- A woman knows HER body the best. The best way to know what your body needs at a certain moment in time is to listen to it.
Once again, all of the above information is my compilation of information that I've gathered from professionals and research. I've found that listening to my body is what makes me feel (and look!) the best. And by no means is my diet and cycle-syncing practice perfect. This is just a concept that I really believe in and value.
Play around with healthy foods, get creative with your workouts and try new things when you feel up to it! It's okay that we don't feel good all the time, but it would be awesome to feel great a majority of the time, right? Listen to your body, see what days or weeks you feel certain ways and adjust your lifestyle accordingly to give your body what it needs during that time.
Being a woman is badass, and the fact that we can utilize our cycle to get to know our bodies better is freaking cool. So let's have fun with this and learn more about this together!
If you have anything that you want to share or anything that you think is worth me researching or knowing about, please comment so others can benefit from what you share too, or don't be afraid to send me an email via the contact page.
- WomanCode, by Alisa Vitti.