Do you bounce between being a social butterfly and a hermit each month? Are there periods when you get the same amount of sleep as usual, but wake up feeling tired and groggy? Do you often feel unmotivated for a week at a time before a rush of productivity suddenly strikes?
The problem isn’t you. What you’re experiencing are the natural ebbs and flows of your infradian rhythm, or your menstrual cycle. “You are a different person week over week within the month,” Alisa Vitti, women’s hormone expert and creator of the Cycle Syncing Method, explained in her blockbuster Ted Talk.
Just as your body is made up of different biological systems — think digestion, nervous, and respiratory — it is also guided by different rhythms. Your circadian rhythm is the 24 hour cycle that governs your melatonin production and sleep chronotype, while shorter ultradian rhythms manage things like digestion patterns and your heartbeat. But one of the most overlooked of these cycles for the 50% of the population born with a uterus is the infradian rhythm, the approximately 28-days that make up your menstrual cycle.
This system generally gets a bad rap, what with its association with PMS, moodiness, and that time of the month. But rather than being something we just have to live with, the infradian rhythm is actually a superpower…if you learn how to harness it.
Grooving to the Infradian Rhythm
The hormonal highs and lows of the month govern things like your energy level, ability to concentrate, and desire to be social. While you may feel like a different person during different times of the month, these shifts are completely normal and natural.
The good news is there are several steps you can take to start living more aligned with your infradian rhythm to both take advantage of these shifts, and also to help support your hormonal balance (bonus points: these changes can also decrease symptoms of PMS). This is as easy as changing the type of exercise you do during certain times of month or knowing when to prioritize sleep versus saying “yes” to that happy hour.
“Think of it as our unique and miraculous female advantage,” Vitti writes in In the Flo: Unlock Your Hormonal Advantage and Revolutionize Your Life. “It’s a game-changing tool we can use to empower every aspect of our lives—if we will only leverage it.”
The first step is to start tracking your cycle so you have a better idea of your personal rhythm through each of the four menstrual cycle stages: follicular, ovulatory, luteal, and menstrual. (These recommendations follow Vitti’s lead and consider your period as the endpoint of the cycle, not the beginning.)
Once you’re ready to start trying out an infradian rhythm-based life, Vitti suggests you make one small change at a time, rather than trying to do everything all at once. The most important part of the process is listening to your own body and taking note of how it feels and what it needs.
How to Shake Up Your Exercise Regimen
The easiest way to begin optimizing your workouts is to remember to start out hard and slowly decrease in intensity throughout the month until your period ends. Put another way, start with HIIT at the beginning of your cycle and end with long evening walks. This follows the pattern of your hormones ramping up and peaking during ovulation, when you’ll have the most energy, and then gradually beginning to fall until they’re at their lowest during your period.
The first two phases of your cycle are when you want to experiment with any fun cardio classes that will get your heart rate up and your sweat pumping. This is the time for HIIT and spin and kickboxing. Are you one of those intense people who love interval training? Now is the time for that. But when ovulation ends (around day 10-14), you want to start slowly winding down. As the second half of your cycle begins, turn to strength training and eventually work your way down to gentle yoga, pilates, and stretching during your period.
When to Give Yourself Permission to Hit Snooze
Does your period make you sleepy? That’s not a quirk — that’s biology. While you may be able to get away with your normal 8 hours of sleep during the first half of your cycle, or even shave a few minutes off during particularly hectic times, during the end of your cycle your body has less energy and needs to prioritize rest. This is the time to add an extra 30 minutes to your alarm clock or to make room in your schedule for a power nap. This time also aligns with when you’re naturally less social, so practice saying “no” during the end of your luteal phase and into menstruation, and use that time at home to recharge.
How to Meal Plan for Your Hormones
Just as your energy shifts throughout the month, so do your caloric needs. Once you start learning about the infradian rhythm, you’ll start to see the patterns emerge. At the beginning of the month when you naturally have a lot of energy, you can fill up your schedule, bust out the cardio, and eat lean. But towards the end of the month, your body needs extra resources when it comes to both rest and your diet.
A few general guidelines to follow are:
Follicular: This stage is all about eating light — think tons of fruits and veggies and lean protein. Your estrogen is on the rise, so if you’re a fan of phytoestrogen-rich foods (like tofu, tempeh, and flaxseeds), this is the perfect week to do it. This is also when you should add in some fermented foods and probiotic supplements to keep your gut a strong, healthy, estrogen-producing machine.
Ovulatory: Vitti says the few days that make up this phase are the time to focus on eating raw fruits and vegetables, going light on the carbs (though don’t cut them out entirely), and incorporating lots of fiber.
Luteal: As the second half of your cycle starts, your body is preparing for pregnancy and needs more calories than during the first two phases. Now is the time to choose fruits and veggies that are on the higher end of the carb scale as well as to keep those fiber-filled foods flowing. It may seem concerning that you’re adding calories just when you’re starting to decrease your workout intensity, but if you work with your body’s natural rhythm, Vitti says you will see better results than if you eat light all cycle long and go all-out at the gym every day of the month.
Menstrual: Now is the time to splurge — in a healthy way. If you’re going to have a tasty bite of red meat, do it during your period. You also want to choose other iron-rich foods (think spinach and kelp) and low-carb fruits and veggies to keep your insulin stable.This is also the time to focus on vitamin C-rich foods. Among its many roles, estrogen plays a part in our immune systems. During your period when your estrogen is at its lowest, your body could use a little help in the germ-fighting department.
How to Organize Your Work/Creative Life
Vitti was on her way to becoming an ob-gyn when a PCOS diagnosis sent her down a slightly different path, as she recently told Veracity. Rather than opt for the only treatment available - going on birth control to artificially regulate her hormones - she decided to heal her hormonal issues by addressing the root cause. To do this, she came to the realization that, “I needed to stop managing my time and start managing my energy in a way that aligned with both my 24-hour and my 28-day clock.”
The reality is that it’s impossible in our current world to totally live by your infradian rhythm. But just as you can eat and exercise in a way to take advantage of the natural patterns of your hormones, Vitti discovered a few tips for how to manage your schedule in a way that makes your life flow with your hormones rather than work against them. She calls this the “concept of right-timing.”
Follicular: This is the time when you’re at your most creative, so it’s the ideal period for brainstorming and planning. It’s when you should kick off big new projects or start setting your reach goals.
Ovulatory: You are at your most social during your ovulatory stage. This is when you should plan those after-work happy hours, but also when you should schedule the bulk of your networking meetings, your collaborative projects, and anything that requires you connecting and working with others. Need to have a serious conversation with your boss? Your hormones are a superpower during this phase giving you an extra boost of communication skills.
Luteal: This is the nose-to-the-grindstone phase. During the longest stage, your hormones (thanks, progesterone) prime you to be in a mental and physical position to get things done, to act on the plans you made during your previous follicular and menstrual phases, and to embody the typical idea of “productivity.” Note that your stress naturally rises during the second half of your cycle (we’re looking at you, cortisol), so while you’re busy executing on all of your big plans, you should also take a little time out to prioritize self care.
Menstrual: Even though your inner dialogue might tell you otherwise, you are not lazy or a couch potato once your period starts. When your hormones drop during this phase, your body doesn’t have all the resources it needs to successfully rise and grind. So this is the time to prioritize any work that requires review and reflection. It’s also a great time to start setting your intentions for what you want to focus on once your cycle resets.
Like most health changes, there’s no need to immediately overhaul your life to live according to your infradian rhythm. But if you start to pay attention to your own patterns of energy, mood, and behavior and to make small tweaks to your lifestyle, you can figure out how to live your life in a way that works best for you and your hormones. Get in your flow!