There is no question that diet changes affect hormone balance. That means what you eat significantly impacts the phases of your menstrual cycle.
While some women report fewer premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms after starting intermittent fasting, others claim that fasting first messed up their menstrual cycle.
This article will closely examine the female cycle and its hormones to deduce how intermittent fasting can affect your period and counteract abnormal cycles and PMS symptoms while healthily losing weight.
Before diving into how intermittent fasting can affect your hormones and a woman’s cycle, it’s first essential to understand how your period works.
What Are the Menstrual Cycle Phases?
Each menstrual cycle is individual. Therefore, understanding how your period works is the first important step in optimizing hormone balance and health.
Accordingly, a regular menstrual cycle duration can range from 26 to 35 days (Mihm et al. 20111).
Each menstrual cycle has two main phases: The follicular and luteal phases. In this context, ovulation initiates the turning point between these main phases.
This exemplary cycle spans an average duration of 28 days (Reed et al. 20182).
Follicular Phase (Menstrual Cycle Day 1-13)
The follicular phase begins on the first day of your period and continues until ovulation. Again, this phase can be divided into two subphases: The menstrual and proliferation phases.
Menstrual Phase (Menstrual Cycle Day 1-4)
At the beginning of this phase, levels of the hormones estrogenic and progesterone are low (Reed et al. 20183).
Due to low progesterone levels, we shed the functional layer of the endometrium.
The menstrual phase may last 3-7 days.
Proliferation Phase (Menstrual Cycle Day 5-13)
During the proliferation phase, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is stimulated to mature the ovaries’ follicles containing the eggs.
Estrogen levels increase and peak at ovulation (Reed et al. 20184).
During this process, the influence of the sex hormone causes the uterine lining to build up.
Ovulation (Menstrual Cycle Day 14)
The ovulation initiates the turn between the follicular and luteal phases.
Accordingly, it occurs around the middle of the cycle. Ovulation is characterized by a significant increase in FSH and luteinizing hormone (LH), while estrogen levels gradually drop (Reed et al. 20185).
For this reason, the egg is released from the ovaries. Therefore, ovulation is the right time for pregnancy.
However, if fertilization of the egg does not occur within 24 hours, the egg dies.
Luteal Phase (Menstrual Cycle Day 15-28)
After ovulation, the luteal phase begins, characterized by decreased FSH and LH.
The corpus luteum develops from the follicle (shell of the egg). It produces the hormone progesterone under the influence of LH.
Therefore, during the luteal phase, progesterone levels begin to rise sharply. Estrogen levels also slowly increase again (Reed et al. 20186).
If no fertilized egg has been nested in the endometrium, the corpus luteum regresses, and the corpus luteum hormone progesterone decreases.
Also, estrogen falls again at the end of the luteal phase, stimulating the follicular phase and, thus, a new cycle.
Does Intermittent Fasting Affect Menstruation?
Fasting affects everyone differently, depending on their health and other lifestyle factors, such as stress.
However, it is typical for diet and weight loss changes to affect your menstrual cycle since it can be sensitive to calorie restriction.
The hypothalamus, your brain’s control center for regulating appetite, body weight, or even body temperature, is affected when calorie intake is too low.
Hence, a severe calorie restriction can disrupt the secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which contributes to the production of two fertility hormones we have recently learned about (Meczekalski et al. 20087):
- Luteinizing Hormone (LH).
- Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH)
Both hormones play significant roles in your menstrual cycle.
Can Intermittent Fasting Stop Your Period?
Your period can stop if the fertility hormones do not communicate appropriately with the ovaries.
Three causes exist for this interference with periods caused by the hypothalamus (Meczekalski et al. 20148):
- Excessive stress
- Excessive sports
- Weight loss (due to excessive caloric restriction)
That intermittent fasting can affect your period and is therefore unsuitable for women is usually argued with the help of two rat studies.
Here, the rats were subjected to alternate-day fasting (ADF). And therein lies the crux of the issue. For a rodent, eating one day and fasting one day is the human equivalent of eating one week and nothing for a whole week.
Accordingly, extreme caloric restriction is therapeutic and no longer an intermittent fast.
The first study on albino rats showed irregular cycles after excessive fasting. The long-term caloric restriction reduced the satiety hormone leptin in female rats disrupting the menstrual cycle.
As a result, kisspeptin production in the hypothalamus was inhibited. Since the peptide hormone regulates the release of GnRH, the fertility hormones LH and FSH were also reduced (Kumar et al. 20139).
The second study showed a 31% increased chance of irregular periods in female rats subjected to the same fasting schedule, with minimal reduction in estrogen levels.
In contrast, periods were utterly absent in 91% of those female rats that ate daily but reduced calories by 40%. In addition, estrogen levels decreased markedly (Martin et al. 200710).
In short, extreme periods of starvation or other stressors put offspring’s health at risk. Therefore, the body focuses on survival instead of reproduction.
Accordingly, less extreme methods for women have proven successful in intermittent fasting without affecting the period. Instead of ADF or the 5:2 diet, crescendo or 16/8 intermittent fasting helps women succeed tremendously.
Can Intermittent Fasting Help with PMS?
The hormonal transition from ovulation to the proliferation phase of the next cycle can affect mood, cognitive and physical health.
According to studies, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects 47.8% of women of reproductive age worldwide (Direkvand-Moghadam et al. 201411).
Doesn’t intermittent fasting then affect physical and mental health all the more?
Yes, but intermittent fasting can alleviate PMS symptoms rather than exacerbate them.
The prerequisite is balanced fasting plans, such as 16/8, and physical activity that remains within a healthy range, not putting additional stress on the female body.
Here are five ways that appropriate intermittent fasting can help you with PMS symptoms.
1. Mood and Cravings
One of the most common PMS symptoms is cravings. Whether it’s sweets, salty snacks, or fat, many women feel out of control when eating during their period.
Targeted intermittent fasting can help with cravings in several ways.
For example, in a study of uncontrolled eating behaviors, intermittent fasting significantly reduced cravings and depression after only two months. In addition, fasting positively affected participants’ body image perception (Hoddy et al. 201512).
The balance between eating and fasting also stabilizes blood sugar levels, often responsible for cravings for sweets, as a new study in which subjects underwent 18/6-intermittent fasting confirms.
In addition to improved blood sugar regulation, the researchers noted anti-aging effects and increased BDNF levels (Jamshed et al. 201913).
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a neuronal growth hormone that forms new neural connections in the brain (Witte et al. 200914).
Therefore, it stands to reason that intermittent fasting for PMS symptoms could improve mood and cognition in general.
Improved blood glucose levels also result in better insulin levels. Finally, glucose is the primary stimulus of insulin secretion.
Insulin is the critical hormone for weight loss and essential for sex hormone balance. Thus, no stone is left unturned when hormone balance gets out of whack.
Excessively high insulin levels make people fat and inhibit the production of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) in the liver (Daka et al. 201315).
SHBG’s role is to bind estrogen in the blood, keeping it balanced. As a result, excessively high insulin levels impair estrogen levels and, thus, the female cycle.
Also, a healthy estrogen level is essential for cognitive thinking (Hara et al. 201516).
Furthermore, a study of more than 100 overweight women showed that intermittent fasting for six months could lower insulin levels by nearly one-third and increase insulin sensitivity (Harvie et al. 201117).
According to this fact, intermittent fasting can further support your hormone balance and help prevent type 2 diabetes.
Women whose hormones are out of balance experience difficulties falling asleep or sleeping through the night.
If you’ve ever struggled with sleep issues, you know that one night of poor sleep can ruin your entire next day.
Accordingly, recent studies state that the impact of sleep quality on mood is dramatically higher than the other way around (Triantafillou et al. 201918).
On the other hand, intermittent fasting can help significantly improve sleep quality, according to a study conducted on 14 women and one man.
After just one week of intermittent fasting, the participants were already able to observe the following improvements in their sleep patterns (Michalsen et al. 200319):
- Reduced awakenings
- Fewer leg movements
- Longer REM sleep
- Improved sleep quality
- Increased energy level
- Improved concentration
- Emotional balance
Hence, a regulated eating window, e.g., between noon and 8:00 p.m., is now considered an attractive strategy for synchronizing sleep-wake rhythms to improve sleep hygiene (Lewis et al. 202020).
Nothing is more frustrating than sitting down to work and having difficulty concentrating. Hormone imbalance, particularly estrogen dominance, can lead to cognitive impairments such as brain fog.
As we just heard, the positive effects of intermittent fasting on sleep quality can improve daytime concentration (Michalsen et al. 200321).
But that’s not all. Fasting can increase neural network activity in cognitive brain regions, leading to BDNF production, improved neural adaptation, and stress tolerance (Longo et al. 201422).
Accordingly, some people report improved memory, concentration, and learning ability during intermittent fasting.
This hypothesis is corroborated by a study in which subjects ate only between 08:00 and 14:00, significantly increasing their BDNF release (Jamshed et al. 201923).
Researchers in California have found that the following PMS symptoms are significantly related to increased levels of inflammation in the body (Gold et al. 201624):
- Mood swings
- Abdominal cramps
- Back pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight gain
- Chest pain
Accordingly, numerous studies show intermittent fasting can lower inflammatory markers contributing to weight gain and insulin resistance (Faris et al. 201226).
Thus, intermittent fasting can help to alleviate inflammation-induced PMS symptoms naturally.
Best Foods for a Healthy Menstrual Cycle
Now that you know how intermittent fasting may affect your period get to know the foods which can help you optimize your diet during menstrual cycle phases.
The first main phase of the cycle is divided into the menstrual and proliferation phases. Below, you will find the best foods to naturally regulate these menstrual cycle phases.
The first days of the female cycle are characterized by menstruation. During this time, there is an additional need for the following micronutrients:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
While magnesium has been shown to help with PMS symptoms such as cravings, depression, and anxiety (Fathizadeh et al. 201027), marine omega-3 fatty acids relieve period cramps more effective than ibuprofen (Zafari et al. 201128).
Last but not least, iron is useful. Since women excrete an average of half a liter of iron per year during menstruation, they are more likely to suffer from iron deficiency than men (Weinberg 201029).
The bottom line is a selection of foods that can supply all three micronutrients in excellent balance:
During the second stage of the follicular phase, estrogen levels increase. And it is a sensitive issue.
Therefore, unbalanced estrogen levels can lead to depression, insomnia, or brain fog.
Accordingly, you should ensure that your estrogen levels remain balanced during the proliferation phase. Fortunately, diet is one of the most effective ways to regulate estrogen levels.
When it comes to healthy estrogen levels, one all-rounder combines all the positive effects: Cruciferous vegetables. These include, in particular:
- Brussels sprouts
These vegetables contain as many as three active compounds that can naturally regulate estrogen levels:
- Indole-3-Carbinol (I3C): These plant compounds can help remove excess estrogen from the body. Studies suggest that cruciferous vegetables may protect against hormone-dependent cancers such as breast cancer in women (Michnovicz et al. 199132).
- Dietary fiber: Although cabbage vegetables are generally low in carbohydrates, they are rich in dietary fiber, which helps to lower estrogen levels, while progesterone levels remain unaffected (Rose et al. 199133).
- Phytoestrogens: Lignans in cruciferous vegetables may block estrogen action in some tissues and increase SHBG, which regulates estrogen levels. In addition, the antiestrogenic effects may help reduce the risk of hormone-related cancers, such as breast, uterine, or ovarian (Wang 200234).
Other good sources of these phytoestrogens are flaxseeds and berries.
Moreover, polyphenol-containing beverages such as green tea, red wine, and even coffee provide lignans beneficial during the proliferation phase.
While some women do not notice their ovulation, others already experience PMS symptoms. These include, in particular, cravings, breast pain, or bloating during ovulation (Kwan et al. 201535).
Fortunately, these early signs of premenstrual syndrome can also be alleviated with the right foods. In this regard, the following nutrients are crucial:
- Healthy fats
- Vitamin B6
Whole foods with a large load of proteins and healthy fats are the first choice to stimulate the release of the satiety hormones cholecystokinin, peptide YY, GLP-1, or leptin (Perry et al. 201236).
Low leptin levels, high sugar, and other carbohydrate consumption usually cause PMS-related cravings (Krishnan et al. 201637).
If you experience PMS symptoms around ovulation, which may be due to water retention, vitamin B6 is that micronutrient that can help you (Fathizadeh et al. 201038).
In addition to bloating and abdominal discomfort, vitamin B6 can help with breast pain and tenderness (Shobeiri et al. 201539).
In summary, a few foods again stand out as being able to both fight cravings and maximize vitamin B6 intake:
Besides the numerous animal foods, pistachios are an excellent vegan option for early PMS symptoms. On the one hand, they are rich in healthy fats and proteins, and on the other hand, just one cup of pistachios can provide the entire daily requirement of vitamin B6 (*).
Cramps, mood swings, depression, insomnia, or headaches are more common during the luteal phase.
You can prevent the full range of PMS symptoms by additionally incorporating the following foods:
- Anti-inflammatory foods
Researchers found elevated inflammatory markers in 20 women who suffered from premenstrual syndrome, particularly in the luteal phase (Koshikawa et al. 199240).
Moreover, other studies show that women struggling with PMS symptoms often have low magnesium levels (Facchinetti et al 199141).
For this reason, some women may crave chocolate (cocoa) before the menstrual phase. These cravings are often less about satisfying a sweet tooth than about the mood-regulating effect of magnesium.
Research shows that women who take magnesium and vitamin B6 experience less premenstrual depression, anxiety, and cravings (Fathizadeh et al. 201042).
Because they contain magnesium, protein, healthy fats, and other anti-inflammatory nutrients, the following foods are ideal companions to combat cravings and all PMS symptoms during the luteal phase:
Fatty fish and seafood are at the top of this list for a good reason. Their omega-3 fatty acids are not only anti-inflammatory but also more effective against period cramps than common medications (Zafari et al. 201143).
While nuts have fewer anti-inflammatory properties than fatty fish, they impress with magnesium, vitamin B6 and E, which have been shown to combat PMS symptoms (Fathizadeh et al. 201044; Shobeiri et al. 201545).
Furthermore, raw cacao nibs have a standout mix of magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamin B6, fiber, healthy fats, and protein (*).
However, you shouldn’t reach for conventional chocolate. Most chocolates below 90% cocoa have surprising amounts of refined sugar.
For example, chocolate with 72% cocoa contains 26% sugar (*), which you should avoid if you experience PMS.
Foods Which May Negatively Affect Your Period
Since premenstrual syndrome goes hand in hand with inflammation, it is essential to avoid pro-inflammatory foods (Gold et al. 201646).
And sugar is one of the most pro-inflammatory foods out there. If you suffer from PMS symptoms, avoiding sugar from ovulation to the menstrual phase can make all the difference.
Researchers have found that the fructose in sugar increases the hunger hormone ghrelin, promoting cravings (Teff et al. 200447).
In addition, research has shown that consuming sugary drinks is closely related to PMS symptoms (Rossignol et al. 199148).
However, foods and beverages sweetened with sugar and other refined carbohydrates promote inflammation in the body (Buyken et al. 201449).
Refinement means that foods have been separated from natural fiber, widely processed, and preserved.
Accordingly, here is a summary of these pro-inflammatory foods:
- Sodas (coke etc.)
- Sports drinks
- Energy drinks
- Sweetened tea and coffee beverages
In addition, industrial seed oils are highly inflammatory (Marchix et al. 201550).
Therefore, for a healthy menstrual cycle, it is vital to avoid the following oils, fried foods, and especially hydrogenated trans fats such as margarine:
- Safflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Corn oil
- Canola oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Partially hydrogenated oils
Lastly, alcohol cannot be unmentioned among the worst foods for a healthy period. It distracts the liver from other metabolic or detoxification tasks, such as eliminating excess estrogen, which serves hormonal balance.
Best Supplements for a Healthy Menstrual Cycle
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I’m not a big fan of supplements – they mostly have sugar and various sweeteners mixed in, and the bioavailability is often questionable.
That’s why you should prefer natural foods, from fatty fish to cruciferous vegetables to nuts to optimize intermittent fasting and your period.
If you still want to turn to supplements due to severe PMS symptoms, here are the best options on the current market (affiliate links):
- Antarctic Krill Oil (omega-3 fatty acids)
- High Absorption Magnesium (with vitamins B6 and E)
- Women’s Premenstrual Support (Magnesium, B6, E, Ginko, Chasteberry)
Your body can absorb the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA even better from krill oil than fish oil (Ulven et al. 201151). And according to studies, regular fish oil already combats period cramps better than ibuprofen (Zafari et al. 201152).
On top of that, krill oil can help build muscle.
The combination of magnesium and vitamin B6 is an all-around nutritional supplement for PMS symptoms (Fathizadeh et al. 201053).
In addition to B6, vitamin E supplementation has also been shown to counteract breast pain, one of the first occurring PMS symptoms (Shobeiri et al. 201554).
The two vitamins in the women’s supplement listed above complement other vitamins and minerals, which could be beneficial during menstruation.
Proper Intermittent Fasting Doesn’t Stop Your Period
Excessive exercise, stress, and weight loss can disrupt the menstrual cycle. They are not a particular feature of intermittent fasting.
However, many people combine intermittent fasting with severe calorie reduction and a tremendous amount of exercise when they start.
Stress and weight loss caused by this can affect the female cycle.
For this reason, intermittent fasting plans, such as crescendo fasting, provide a start without stopping your period. This less extreme weekly schedule doesn’t upset the female fertility hormones and allows for a smooth transition to the 16/8 method.
The latter has proven to guarantee success for women by providing the right balance between feasting and fasting.
In addition, intermittent fasting should not be confused with a conventional diet based on calorie counting.
Intermittent fasting is the concentration of food intake over a specific timeframe to optimize your hormones for weight loss. It does not aim to make you eat significantly less daily and starve you.
Finally, the extreme calorie restriction of diets has been shown to upset the female cycle in animals and may put reproductive health at risk (Martin et al. 200755).
To learn how to take your health to an all-new level without upsetting your menstrual cycle, I highly recommend reading my book: Intermittent Fasting 16/8 for Women: Achieve Hormone Harmony to Lose Weight Fast Without Losing Your Mind – Incl. 30-Day Fasting Challenge and Meal Plan.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How does intermittent fasting affect menstrual cycle?
More extended periods of fasting can affect the menstrual cycle due to severe calorie reduction, which is why shorter intermittents of fasting, such as the 16/8 method, have proven effective for women.
What part of menstrual cycle is best for fasting?
There is no single best menstrual cycle phase for fasting. Instead, it’s better to practice daily time-restricted eating such as 16/8 intermittent fasting since prolonged fasting might affect your period due to severe calorie restriction.
Is it OK to fast while menstruating?
While prolonged fasting can affect your period due to severe calorie reduction, shorter intermittent fasts like the 16/8 method are usually OK while menstruating.
Can intermittent fasting cause irregular periods?
Intermittent fasting methods with shorter fasting windows, such as crescendo fasting or 16/8, are unlikely to affect periods. However, fasting for several days can affect the menstrual cycle because of severe calorie restriction.
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Stephan is a writer and a true man of science, holding multiple diplomas and master's degrees in different research areas. His greatest passion is closing the gap between the conventional perception of health and the latest scientific evidence – always following the data.