What Is Cycle Syncing and Is It For Everyone?
I’m sure by now that most of you have probably heard the term “cycle syncing” thrown about once or twice, and if you’re big into the wellness scene, you might even be an expert. This surprisingly ancient approach to women’s health is having a moment these days, something I couldn’t be happier about! For those of you who struggle with hormonal imbalances, cycle syncing can be an excellent way to support your body’s natural hormone production and heal your symptoms faster. I’ve touched briefly on my experience with the method, but for such a simple concept, there’s actually a lot that goes into it… Which is why I’ve decided to devote a whole blog post to the holistic practice, in hopes that you may find it worth a try in your own life.
Disclaimer: Everything I’ve learned about cycle syncing has come straight from Alisa Vitti’s book, WomanCode, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in hormone health! If you don’t have the time or money to invest in the book, however, this blog post can serve as a simplified guide.
Let’s start with the basics!
What Is Cycle Syncing?
Put simply, cycle syncing is the practice of planning your life according to the phases of your monthly cycle. When I say “planning your life,” I’m talking everything: the food you eat, the exercises you do, the work projects you take on, the social activities you commit to, and so forth… Now, if this sounds tedious or awful, I can promise you it’s a lot more intuitive than it seems. And once you start getting the hang of it, it’ll easily become second nature!
But How Does It Work?
Speaking of nature, women are naturally cyclical creatures. Whereas men’s hormones remain static for the most part, ours are beautifully dynamic and ever-changing to sustain optimal fertility throughout much of our lives. There are four phases in a woman’s cycle: follicular, ovulatory, luteal, and menstrual. Certain hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone rise and fall at specific times during the month based on whichever phase we’re in, a pattern that repeats itself approximately every 28 days.
Have you ever wondered, for instance, why you are completely focused and ready to hit the ground running on some days and can barely motivate yourself to carry a conversation on others? Yep, that’s right: The drastic changes your mental and physical state undergo very much have to do with your body’s hormonal shifts throughout your 28-day cycle. Which is why it’s a total game-changer to actually be in tune with your body and know how best to support the fluctuations through diet, lifestyle, and exercise.
If you think about, aligning your daily habits with the four phases of your cycle makes perfect sense: If you’re body’s functioning in different ways at any given time during the month, it’s going to need different things to perform well. By incorporating the right nutrients, movement, and lifestyle practices for each phase, you’ll not only be optimizing hormonal function, but you’ll also be making things a lot easier for yourself by working with your natural body chemistry—not against it. It really does give a whole new meaning to the phrase, “going with the flow.”
Now that you have a basic understanding of what cycle syncing is, let’s dive into each phase and what kind of support is beneficial for each.
Follicular Phase (7-10 Days)
The first phase is called the follicular phase because several ovarian follicles (cyst-like “shells”) are swelling in preparation to release an egg. From a hormonal perspective, the brain sends follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) to the ovaries, jumpstarting the growth of 15-20 eggs. (Only one of these eggs will go on to mature as the rest become suppressed and die off.) FSH and LH also trigger an increase in the production of estrogen, which continues to rise throughout this phase—all functions necessary to properly thicken your uterine lining, which will house the “chosen” egg.
What it’s going to feel/look like: Physically, your energy levels are high and your mental acuity is strong. You won’t notice any vaginal secretions in the beginning, but toward the end of this phase, you should start to see white(ish) cervical mucus that is tacky or sticky in texture.
Focus on diet: Light, vibrant, energy-promoting foods like salads, kimchi and sauerkraut, cruciferous vegetables, lean proteins like chicken and eggs, sprouted beans, and dense grains are ideal for the follicular phase. Think nutrient density with your meals, and opt for lighter cooking methods such as steaming or sautéing to keep those nutrients intact. It’s also a good idea to support healthy estrogen levels with ground flax and pumpkin seeds! Avocados are wonderful for improving ovulation, so use this point in your cycle (especially Days 7-10) as an excuse to splurge on a side of guacamole during your weekly Chipotle run.
Psst… Want to know exactly what to eat during each phase? Download my Cycle Syncing Cheat Sheet at the end of this post for a list of specific foods!
Lifestyle hacks: Get creative! Your brainpower is on overdrive this week, so try to schedule brainstorming sessions with your coworkers and tackle mentally challenging assignments within this period. You’re also probably feeling more outgoing and adventurous, which makes getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things incredibly fulfilling and rejuvenating. Want to pick up a new hobby? Now’s your chance! You’re forming new neural connections in the brain more easily during this time, so anything you start now is more likely to stick later.
How to exercise: With your soaring energy levels, exercise should be a priority this week. But it doesn’t need to be the same old boring routine you’ve kept since high school. Mix it up a bit by taking a dance lesson, joining your friend for a Crossfit class, or working with a personal trainer. Surrounding yourself with people during your workouts will keep you extra motivated to push your edge and get the most out of your exercise.
Ovulatory Phase (3-4 Days)
In the second phase, your body’s getting ready for the main event: ovulation! After a sharp rise in FSH, followed by LH, an egg is released into your fallopian tubes for fertilization and travels to the uterus, where immune system cells are starting to grow. Estrogen levels continue to increase and testosterone surges and drops right around ovulation.
What it’s going to feel/look like: The harmonious symphony of hormones present during this brief phase serve to boost your energy, adorn you with a feminine glow, and rev up your sex drive. You’ll notice as you get closer to ovulation day that your vaginal discharge is clear, slippery, and super stretchy—much like the consistency of raw egg white. While you will most likely feel on top of the world these next few days, the release of the egg may bring about pelvic pain, light brown or pink spotting, a headache, or mild fatigue.
Focus on diet: Your physical stamina is at an all time high during ovulation, so you don’t need a lot of carbohydrates during this phase—stick to lighter grains and legumes like quinoa, corn, or lentils. And load up on fiber: A surplus of estrogen is floating around your insides right now, and fibrous foods will ensure it’s being metabolized and eliminated properly. Loading up on raw veggies and fruits is crucial both for antioxidant support (which you’ll need to create the healthiest possible egg) and liver detoxification (which will help keep estrogen-driven symptoms, like acne and bloating, under control). Don’t forget to hydrate!
Lifestyle hacks: Community defines the ovulatory phase, when your mood is stable and your communication skills are on point. Don’t shy away from engaging in difficult conversations (like asking your boss for a raise, perhaps!) or initiating a heart-to-heart with a family member. Receptivity to others will come more naturally now, too, so focus on quality one-on-one time with your mom, partner, or best friend—and since your extrovert juices are flowing, feel free to RSVP “Attending” to as many social events as you have time for. The flirty feelings associated with this phase will have you actually looking forward to getting all dolled up and going out on the town!
How to exercise: Go for the gold during this 3-4 day window! Commit to a few high-impact workouts and more strenuous exercises—like weight lifting, running, and plyometrics—before your physical endurance begins to decrease for the month. Oh, and grab a friend to join in the fun!
Luteal Phase (10-14 Days)
The third phase is characterized by a steady rise in progesterone via the corpus luteum, a fancy name for the follicle that produced the special egg. This progesterone production signals the body to do two things: 1) stop sending out FSH and LH so that no more eggs are released, and 2) keep the uterine lining intact. Estrogen begins to drop a little but then has a mini resurge around Days 6-9, and testosterone increases. (Sidenote: If the egg hasn’t been fertilized by the end of your cycle, the corpus luteum will be reabsorbed back into the body.)
What it’s going to feel/look like: You’ll notice a decline in energy starting about halfway through this phase. This is mostly due to the relaxing effect of progesterone, as well as the fluctuations in estrogen. If you suffer from PMS, you can expect symptoms like bloating, irritability, mood swings, and carb/sugar cravings to kick in about a week before your period. Vaginal secretions should have also declined or disappeared altogether by this point.
Focus on diet: Your body uses up a good amount of B vitamins to produce progesterone, so it’s a good idea to replenish your stores with foods like brown rice, millet, chickpeas, beef, and sunflower seeds. Stave off sugar cravings with magnesium-filled dark chocolate and leafy greens, and load up on serotonin-boosting root vegetables (like sweet potatoes and parsnips—which naturally caramelize when baked) to combat mood swings. Finally, keep up your intake of fiber with raisins and dates to help your liver and large intestine flush out excess estrogen.
Lifestyle hacks: The particular ratio of estrogen to progesterone during the luteal phase calls you to a keener sense of awareness and attention. You might notice things now that you were happy to ignore before—like, for example, the little administrative or housekeeping responsibilities that have slowly piled up over the month. The nesting instinct is fierce, too, so take these two weeks to catch up on domestic tasks: Clean your apartment, go over your budgets, organize your closet, batch cook and freeze several meals at a time, change your sheets, etc. You may feel the desire to dial back on social obligations for a while as you zero in on your own personal needs and neglected areas of your life.
How to exercise: During the final week of this phase, scale back on the intensity with exercises like Pilates and vinyasa yoga. Water retention, PMS symptoms, and sluggishness may make it hard to push yourself—so back off a little and give your body some grace. Love to run? Opt for the elliptical instead for a low-impact (but still stimulating) cardio workout.
Menstrual Phase (3-7 Days)
We’re down to the phase you’re all familiar with: YOUR PERIOD! Bleeding occurs in this phase, obviously, but here’s why: The corpus luteum starts to go bye-bye, halting the production of progesterone and triggering the shedding of your uterine lining—hence, the blood! Estrogen drops off, signaling to the hypothalamus that it’s time to start gearing up for another round of ovulation. (And so we come full circle.)
What it’s going to feel/look like: Most of us will experience a combination of brown spotting and red bleeding, accompanied by fatigue, pelvic cramping, low backache, and cravings.
Focus on diet: Menstruation is an intense process that requires proper refueling and remineralization: Think iodine-rich sea veggies, fermented organic soy products (such as miso or tamari), and low glycemic fruits like berries for blood sugar balance, as mild insulin resistance can occur more commonly during your period. Focus also on upping your intake of iron with foods like red meat and fish to make up for blood loss. You might be feeling all the heartier meals like chilis, stews, and soups during this phase—especially if it’s cold out—which are perfect for getting your daily dose of collagen-boosting broths and anti-inflammatory herbs.
Lifestyle hacks: Last week was all about awareness and observation; this week, self-analysis and introspection are key. If there’s ever a time to prioritize self-care at the highest degree, this is it: Whether that looks like taking a mental health day from work or scheduling an evening (or two) all to yourself—YOU DO YOU, sister.
Other great habits to cultivate during this phase: journaling, meditation, course-correction and life planning (is your life heading in the direction you’re excited about, and if not, how can you change courses?), relaxing rituals, reading, and sleeping in!
How to exercise: You made it to the rest and recovery phase! Feel free to forego regular workouts this week for midday naps, luxurious baths, or full body massages. While not everyone enjoys taking a break from exercise (sorry, I can’t relate), it’s important to give your body a time-out from the more intense sweat sessions while your energy is low so that your muscles can repair themselves. However, if you must do something, stick to leisurely walks, stretches, and hatha yoga. You can start amping up your workouts again as soon as you feel recharged.
How Do I Know Which Phase I’m In?
The most comprehensive and accurate way to know exactly where you are in your cycle is to track it using the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM)—or Natural Family Planning (NFP), as it’s known in some circles. There are several different ways to do this (I personally used the Creighton Model when first starting out), but all of them observe fluctuations of one or more of the following physical signs:
Your cervical mucus
Your basal body temperature
Your cervical position
While FAM initially takes some adjusting to, the information you’ll receive about your body is invaluable. But if you need some back-up, I highly recommend the Ava Bracelet. This small but mighty contraption does the hard work for you by tracking your body temp as well as four other physiological signs of fertility while you sleep. (It helped me and my husband achieve pregnancy within a few months of using it, but it can be useful for preventing pregnancy as well.)
Of course, to be able to truly cycle sync, you have to actually have a cycle—which, sadly, excludes everyone on hormonal birth control. (As you may recall from my last post, the birth control pill prevents ovulation by shutting down your hormones, and therefore eliminating your cycle.) If you are interested in coming off of contraceptive drugs and using FAM instead—which has been proven 95-99% effective when executed correctly—I suggest starting here.
Is Cycle Syncing Right For Me?
Before you dive right in and attempt to reorganize your entire life, ask yourself one question: Will practicing the art of cycle syncing provide you with a healthy sense of control and calm—or will it only serve to stress you out? You know yourself better than anyone, and if the honest answer is the latter, my advice is to either start very s m a l l with one or two changes or don’t start at all. As much as I personally love cycle syncing, I don’t necessarily think it’s for every personality type, and even I’ll admit that some of it should be taken with a grain of salt. (For example, filling your plate with nutrient-dense foods is always important, not just for several days out of the month. As long as you’re striving for this, do you really need to concern yourself with a list of exact foods to consume per phase? Not necessarily.)
That said, if you’re like me, and enjoy having loose parameters to direct your daily habits, you’re probably going to thrive on the given guidelines. I like to think of it as #biohacking my menstrual cycle (Dave Asprey followers get what I mean).
Growing up—like most girls my age—I considered my period the ultimate curse, but rather than treating my monthly cycle like an obstacle to overcome, I now see it as an opportunity to leverage my hormones for greater performance in every aspect of my life.
Want this info at your fingertips? Download my FREE Cycle Syncing Cheat Sheet for lists of specific foods, exercises, and lifestyle hacks in one easily digestible PDF.
References & Resources:
WomanCode | Alisa Vitti, HHC, AADP
The Cycle Syncing Method — Explained (And Your Life Improved) | Alisa Vitti, HHC, AADP
How to Practice FAM: The Fertility Awareness Method | Nicole Jardim, Certified Women’s Hormonal Health Coach