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Old 10-27-2008, 10:40 PM   #1
Emily Mattes
Senior Member
Join Date: Jul 2008
Posts: 727
Default Training, Diet, and the Menstrual Cycle

Mods, move this (or delete) if improper for these forums.
There's a lot of discussion of the hormonal effects of various training regimens and dietary choices on hormones: insulin, cortisol, testosterone, etc. However, any mention of the effects on the perhaps most popularly known hormonal cycle--menstruation--go lacking. So, here it goes FOR SCIENCE!

First, let's establish a basis. Menstruation is actually pretty poorly understood in the medical community. Sure, it's known why it happens, but the workings behind the details--what determines length, heaviness of flow, pre-menstrual syndrome symptoms, whether PMS even occurs--all of those are pretty much a mystery. Why do some women get cramps and others don't? Why do some women experience severe moodiness or heightened libido and others are as steady as the ocean on a calm day? Why do some women start menstruating at 8 and others at 14? You would think somebody would be studying these things, but as far as my research shows it's a fairly untouched subject. Some of it appears to be genetic. If your mom's cycle runs long and light, yours probably will too.

Tangent to this are two other relatively widespread, but also poorly understood issues: endometriosis and poly-cystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Endometriosis is basically the formation and shedding of excess uterine lining. It's tremendously painful. Poly-cystic ovary syndrome is the formation of a ton of cysts all over the ovaries. Cysts are actually relatively common--you can think them as almost an aberration of the process of releasing an egg from the ovaries. A little "bubble" forms when this happens, but sometimes those bubbles get really big and then you've got yourself an ovarian cyst. They can turn pretty painful and are difficult to deal with. You see, they're common enough that doctors are unwilling to perform surgery on every one that pops up. So unless they get large enough that they threaten to twist around and cut off blood to the ovary, the common method of treating them is to let them sit until they pop or shrink back down. As you can imagine, having one of those things pop, or even leak, is not a pleasant experience. PCOS is like that on steroids. It's my understanding that in PCOS the cysts may not get as big, but you have a ton of them, they cause painful PMS and periods, and excrete all kinds of excess hormones that further mess with your system and exacerbate the condition further.

We do know one thing: overweight women are more likely to have PCOS. I believe that's also the case for endometriosis as well.

We know that a balanced diet low in carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, that consists primarily of whole foods can have a significant effect on hormonal profile, in terms of insulin sensitivity and whatnot. We know that proper training, training that walks the line between stressing the body enough to promote development but not overstressing it and draining the adrenals can also have a significant effect on the hormonal profile. We know that excess weight can seriously mess with one's hormones in all sorts of ways, like testosterone and estrogen production.

So the question is--in the same way we focus our training and diet to manipulate testosterone production, can women focus their training and diet to manipulate, or at least mitigate, the negative effects of their menstrual cycle? I would argue yes. My personal experience backs this up, anyway.

I've noticed since I was young that regular exercise helped relieve some of the negative effects that came along with menstruation. But this is pretty well-known, I think, we were taught that in sex-ed. However, it wasn't until I started tracking my menstrual cycle in detail about a year ago that I realized exactly how significant that effect was, and more importantly, how even more significant a low-carb diet was. I didn't set out to study this, but after a few months it was impossible to ignore a correlation: months where I was following a low-carb diet strictly and working out regularly my period was significantly less of a pain in the ass (lighter, shorter, etc). The low-carb diet seemed to have more of an effect than the exercise, actually. The stricter the diet and the longer I was on it the stronger the effects, but even going low-carb for about a week before onset had noticeable results. Similarly, three weeks of strict eating could be almost completely undone if I cheated the week before my period was expected to begin.

I can also say that the type of exercise I do now, which has varied from Crossfit to primarily Olympic lifting over the past year, gives an awful lot more relief than when I was training for triathlons and doing tons of endurance work with very little strength training.

Guys, if you have gotten this far, understand that this is really important to women. I and the women I know were taught that your period is your period, and what you get is what you get. If you've got a heavy flow or it lasts eight days, tough cookies, there's not much you can do to change that besides maybe getting on birth control or having a kid. If you get terrible cramps, well, take some ibuprofen and hope for the best. Same with PCOS and endometriosis: it sucks if you have it, try to lose some weight if you've got excess to lose, but if it gets really bad we'll just take out your uterus and/or ovaries!

But, man, do we really gotta rip out our organs to deal? Could it be as easy as adopting a more Paleo lifestyle? Perhaps a very heavy flow, a very long period, terrible PMS are not due to some mysterious genetic luck of the draw but something that can be at least mitigated by eliminating those "whole grains" that are pushed on women all the damn time. I don't have endometriosis or PCOS, so I can't give any personal experience here, but the fact that they're essentially hormone problems means perhaps they too can be treated by a Paleo life.

It is quite possible that this is all obvious and there are a whole bunch of articles about it on PubMed that I've missed. But I haven't seen the subject discussed on this or other forums, so I thought this community, which seems a little more science-minded than most, would be interested in it. I apologize if it has traumatized the more delicate members here!
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