The Rhythm of Women: The Infradian Rhythm and Living with the Cycle
How can listening to that internal clock maximize your health and better assist in your pain management?
Find out below!
Everyone’s heard of the circadian rhythm, the 24-hour sleep/wake cycle that helps to maintain when you’re awake and when you should be sleeping. There’s tons of research into the circadian rhythm because it affects everyone, everyone needs to sleep right? The circadian rhythm does so much more than helping us to sleep though, it also helps us to do so much more (read our Sleep Hygiene article if you want to learn more about the impact of sleep on the body). But what if I told you there’s another internal clock that only affects women called the ‘infradian rhythm’? Feeling skeptical? I was, too -- how is there another important biological clock out there that seemingly nobody is talking about? Understanding this extra internal clock can help us to unlock better health and wellness. So what is the infradian rhythm and why should you care about it, anyway?
The Infradian Rhythm
The infradian rhythm is a month-long, recurring cycle that balances hormones in women and affects multiple areas of women’s health beyond just hormones. So what is it and how does it work? The infradian rhythm, just like the circadian rhythm, measures a specific period of time, which is in this case is a cycle between 23 and 30 days. The infradian rhythm is also called a woman’s ovulation cycle which can be broken down into four phases. But wait, are we talking about periods? Yes and no. While the infradian rhythm includes the period, it isn’t all about bleeding. So stay with me, ladies! There are four phases to the infradian rhythm for women - follicular, ovulatory, luteal and menstrual:
Follicular Phase: the seven to ten days after your last period but the beginning of your current cycle. The rising estrogen in this phase causes your uterine walls to thicken in preparation for a potential pregnancy, but you have not released an egg. Instead a bunch of follicles are formed in the ovaries to compete to be the chosen egg which prepares to drop during the ovulatory phase.
Ovulatory Phase: three to four days in the middle of the cycle. The dominant follicle is chosen and the egg prepares to drop. This is the peak phase of estrogen production in the body.
Luteal Phase: the ten to fourteen days between your ovulatory and menstrual cycle. Estrogen levels dip and rise again as progesterone levels reach their peak production in this phase. If the egg isn’t implanted, these levels fall drastically and the body prepares to shed the uterine lining.
Menstrual Phase: the three to seven days of your period. This is the bleeding phase where your brain chemistry is at its most chaotic, as estrogen and progestogen fall drastically to cause the shedding.
Each of these phases within the cycle influences things like brain chemistry, physicality, energy, sleep and emotions in different ways. According to women’s health expert Alisa Vitti, a women’s brain chemistry changes up to 25% during the ovulation cycle! So, you’re a quarter different person every week according to this theory. But that makes sense, doesn’t it? I know I tend to feel more energized earlier in my cycle and less motivated later in my cycle, and I’m sure I’m not alone. But how can understanding this rhythm help women to maximize their health, and what can we do to fix our hormones? While the hormones will be around and this cycle will exist until we go through menopause (yikes!), we can change up our lifestyle to better accommodate this uniquely feminine internal clock. But we’ll specifically be focusing on wellness areas like exercise, nutrition, sex drive, and emotional health for our purposes - the areas most of our clients are most concerned with according to our recent online poll!
Easy at certain times of the month and harder at others, exercise is a major part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle in women. What if I told you the infradian cycle can really impact how you should exercise and why?
Follicular Exercise - Let be honest, you probably aren’t running a 5k a couple of days after your period, but why shouldn’t you? In this stage your body is in maximum recovery mode, with estrogen and progesterone levels rising but not at their peak yet. So you might suffer from fatigue and lack of energy, but you shouldn’t forgo exercise altogether in this stage. Experts recommend light cardio, hiking, walking light weightlifting, and anything that works up a sweat but without creating fatigue.
Ovulatory Exercise - Welcome to your peak performance phase, ladies! This is when testosterone is peaking and you should be at your highest activity levels. This is the time you should me maximizing activity - think high-intensity workouts, spin classes, or that super crazy Zumba class you’ve chickened out on a couple of times. You’re an Amazonian Queen in this stage!
Luteal Exercise - As estrogen and testosterone begin to fall but progesterone levels are holding steady, switch from high intensity training to strength training. Get your stretch on with core exercises to prepare you for the menstrual phase. Or try swimming to put your endurance to the test, but not as high-intensity as the ovulatory phase.
Menstrual Exercise - Rest is recommended in the menstrual phase. Obviously, don’t become a couch potato, but don’t push yourself either. Some light exercise is recommended, like basic stretching or walking.
We are all prone to cravings, we just crave calories in some of our phases more than others. I particularly crave fudge bars right before my period, but also really salty chips or amazing tacos or pretty much everything right? But what should you be eating to take advantage of your cycle and maximize wellness?
Follicular Nutrition - When you’re tired you really just want to reach for the chips, just a couple! But experts warn that you should be increasing your healthy fat intake (think fatty fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, etc.) to improve your physical recovery time. To get rid of the last remaining days of "crazy," try incorporating estrogen-eliminating foods like broccoli or cabbage.
Ovulatory Nutrition - You should be ravenous in this stage, running around and feeling your best. If you do like to indulge (think fatty foods, foods high in sugar or even a little alcohol), now is the time to do it! Following the high-intensity workout routine listed above, feel free to indulge (a little) in these not-so-healthy foods. With estrogen levels surging, support your all-important liver with healthy anti-inflammatory foods like whole fruits and veggies, as well.
Luteal Nutrition - This is your craving phase when you’d reach for nearly anything in the fridge -- but this is the worst time to imbibe! Instead, focus on whole foods that make you feel fuller, longer, like whole grains, cereals and leafy greens (all the kale) to fight off those calorie-costing cravings. Since you’ll experience an energy crash here with the decrease of estrogen and progesterone, try increasing your Vitamin C and D intake to protect your immune system and prepare your body for your period.
Menstrual Nutrition - The true turtle phase when it comes to eating, we just want all of it and in the highest quantity. But this is the most serious nutritional phase to fight off bloating and PMS. Eat lean proteins like chicken and tuna fish and whole foods, but not breads, pasta or simple carbohydrates. Including complex carbs like whole grains will prevent excess bloating. You should also seriously limit your alcohol, caffeine and salt intake during this time to ensure you beat the bloat and recover faster.
When it comes to nutrition, having to eat certain things at different times of the month can be complicated. But understanding why you can eat a cheeseburger with fries in the ovulatory phase and a salad in your follicular phase can help you feel and work better.
Who doesn’t want to feel sexy every day? Some times of the month, it can be harder to feel sexy and increase your sex drive than others. So when is the best time to be adventurous, and when should you practice some self love?
Follicular Sex - Sex drive is particularly low in this phase due to a lower levels of estrogen. Naturally, you’ll want to avoid rigorous sex during this phase, but some ways to increase sexual closeness with your partner are:
Increased foreplay if you want to engage in sex
Using smells to increase arousal in your partner (think: essential oils!)
Try intimate touch, like a massage
Ovulatory Sex - The horniest time of the month! You’ll be at your peak performance level in this stage, but remember you’re also at your most fertile. Take this into account when engaging in sexual activity and practice rocking and safe sex.
Luteal Sex - The last opportunity to have sex before your period, your interest might dip in the bedroom from the hot and heavy ovulatory phase. Instead, focus on different pleasure points like oral sex or intense foreplay that doesn’t involve penetration.
Menstrual Sex - Okay, we know about the "having sex on your period" argument and we’re not here to debate. We believe in doing what feels best for you! However, women have reported that orgasms help to relieve the pain associated with cramping, so use that information as you will, okay? Or you can always snuggle if you prefer to not engage in sex at all.
As long as you’re practicing safe and consensual sex with your partner (or alone), sexual gratification can be achieved at any stage of the infradian cycle. You just might need a little extra attention during some phases over others. Communication with your partner is key!
Let’s face it, periods make us emotional. That puppy commercial that you didn’t bat an eyelash at last week is making you sob today. Completely awful, but also controllable.
Follicular Emotions - The follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) which is secreted during this time helps to tamper down adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones), making you feel more in-control as opposed to later in the cycle.
Ovulatory Emotions - With all that estrogen you’re going to feel pretty great at this period of your cycle. You’ll be more satisfied and confident, so planning family events around this time or pursuing a promotion at work might increase your chances of success.
Luteal Emotions - You might be feeling fine in the first part of this phase, but the estrogen and progesterone drop could leave you in a slump both emotionally and physically. To counteract this, make sure to really take the time to center and refocus your emotions into more personal pursuits - like reading that book you’ve been putting off!
Menstrual Emotions - Let’s face it. We’re all out of whack on our periods emotionally, and physically. But sometimes it’s okay to be a mess! How can you recenter when your emotions are going crazy? Instead of focusing on what you can’t control (those pesky hormones), instead focus on what you can improve. This part of the month is perfect for pampering the beautiful you. Take long showers, try a face mask, cuddle in bed and binge Netflix just a little too long. Do the things that make you happy until you feel normal again.
Women’s bodies are amazing! We go through changes specifically unique to us -- and that can be scary at times, but understanding the infradian rhythm is one way to help us better understand our bodies and minds.
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