Just when you think you’ve figured out your periods, something happens. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when you experience changes to your menstruation cycle. Yet, some of the most common reasons for irregular periods are diet choices and exercise routines. Here we look at how the effects of exercise and your eating habits may cause irregular cycles.
Exercise can have both a positive and negative effect on your period, and the ideal amount of exercise depends on your personal needs and overall health. We know that regular physical activity contributes to more regular periods. Plus, studies have shown that people who exercise may experience a lighter flow, reduced PMS symptoms, reduced bloating, and improved sleep.
Changes to your menstrual cycle may be subtle or extreme, just depending on how your body reacts to the level of exercise.
Moderate and strenuous exercise can cause changes in hormone levels, which can cause breakthrough bleeding (aka spotting). That just means bleeding that happens outside of your regular period.
You may notice dark or bright red bleeding during, immediately, or a few days after strenuous exercise. The type of exercise may also play a role, as some have suggested that abdominal pressure from exercise can cause uterine fibroids, cervical polyps, and endometrial polyps — all of which can cause irregular bleeding.
There can be a few factors that increase pain during your period. One of those is prostaglandins, which are compounds made of fats that have hormone-like effects. The receptors are in your uterus and they can contribute to uterine cramping.
Studies have observed regular aerobic exercise can reduce pelvic and abdominal discomfort caused by prostaglandins. Other studies have shown that yoga poses can help you manage painful cramps.
If you’re reading this thinking, I have no energy during my period to do exercise, you’re not alone. Many women may not have enough energy or feel good enough to take part in intense exercise during menstrual cycles. Instead, opt for walking, an easy hike, or yoga.
Female athletes are not the only individuals who are at high risk of irregular periods due to exercise habits. Irregular periods, including a loss of your period, is related to not enough calories being consumed.
Exercise itself doesn’t cause you to lose your period. But when your body doesn’t have enough energy to support your body’s day-to-day processes (like hormone production) and your exercise routine, it supports essential functions. This shunts energy away from nonessential processes, like producing reproductive hormones and supporting bone health.
Reducing energy intake by 470 to 810 calories per day over three menstrual cycles can disturb your cycle. This isn’t much time, especially if you’re exercising to change your body weight. The amount of exercise that is considered excessive exercise will vary depending on your personal needs and health.
Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers and help regulate physiological processes, such as metabolism, menstrual cycles, and reproduction. Certain nutrients in foods can affect hormone production.
Based on current research, it’s tough to determine if you burn more calories during your period. The studies have used small sample sizes with varying results. One study found that resting metabolic rate (the amount of calories your body uses for normal bodily functions) varies during the menstrual cycle.
This means that some women need more energy to support their metabolism during their period. This could be one reason appetite levels change.
Another study found certain conditions increase cravings for high-fat and sweet foods during specific phases of menstruation.
Caffeine intake may be associated with negative symptoms during periods, but current research is inconclusive. It may be the amount of caffeine or alcohol that affects symptoms. That amount can be different depending on your health.
One study showed that drinking caffeine is related to longer, heavier menses and oligomenorrhoea (infrequent cycles).
Since the research is inconclusive, track your symptoms and caffeine and alcohol intake to see how your body reacts.
People who follow a vegan lifestyle or eat limited animal foods are at a greater risk of having low iron levels in their blood. Low blood iron levels are a common reason for anemia around the world. Menstruation causes people to lose iron-containing blood each period.
Although plant-based foods contain iron, its heme-iron, which is not as absorbable as heme iron found in animal products.
Low iron can lead to fatigue, decreased mental performance, weakened immune system, and increase risk of pregnancy complications. If you are concerned about your iron levels, talk with your healthcare provider. They can order a blood test to determine if you are iron deficient.
If most of the foods you eat are low in nutrients, this can take a toll on your overall health. For example, eating a diet that’s high in artificial additives and low in antioxidants is linked with thyroid concerns and adrenal issues that can increase production of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone linked to other essential hormones, such as the sex hormones involved in menstruation.
Vitamin E, vitamin D, and ginger may help relieve dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual cramps not caused by anatomical concerns). The exact cause of dysmenorrhea is unknown and can vary. Yet, similar to the effect exercise has on prostaglandins, certain nutrients may help reduce the levels of these compounds.
Vitamin D and vitamin E have been used to help reduce pain during periods. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that improves circulation.
Ginger is also established as a herbal supplement that can help reduce pain. In one study, they compared all three and ginger was the most effective at helping reduce period pain.
Eating disorders affect the whole body. Low body weight can affect heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and bone density. Even if you still get your period, it does not mean you are at a healthy body weight. Many women continue to have regular cycles with low body weights.
Amenorrhea (loss of your period) is not just associated with low body weights. People with any type of eating disorder can see changes in their periods.
Many individuals report they still have a period, but the blood flow is different, it’s not as frequent, or it’s more painful. Blood work may show elevated liver enzymes, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, all showing that the body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs for normal periods.
For most people, a few abnormal cycles are normal. Yet missed periods and changes to your menstrual cycle for more than 2-3 months in a row can be a sign of a larger concern. First, we recommend taking some time to understand your personal menstrual cycle. This can mean better understanding the phases of your cycle but also means tracking symptoms, period length, and flow.
Everybody is different and we don’t all respond to exercise and food in the same way. Inspecting how your body changes throughout your cycle can be an incredibly helpful tool in managing your health. Nutrition that fuels your active lifestyle is essential for optimal health.