The luteal phase is the 10-14 days between ovulation and your period. I think it gets a bad rep because it includes the dreaded week before your period. There is literally a syndrome name for all of the symptoms many women face, PMS, or Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. Not everyone gets the symptoms – irritability and mood swings, headache, fatigue, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. But around 75% of menstruating women do! And for those who get it badly, this is such a dreaded week that many are on birth control just to control the symptoms. Let’s talk about how you can eat, exercise, and plan your month so that you no longer dread the luteal phase.
During the luteal phase, levels of both progesterone and estrogen are increasing then decreasing. While it’s rising, you usually feel pretty good. This is the first half of the luteal phase, and you probably are maintaining some energy from the ovulation phase. But once levels start dropping, that’s when PMS shows up. PMS occurs when your ratio of estrogen to progesterone is out of balance. The goal is to have the correct ratio so that your PMS disappears. During the luteal phase, your immunity goes down, and your metabolism goes up. You may be pregnant now, so your body decreases its ability to recognize foreign objects so that you don’t recognize a fertilized egg as an invader. Your increased metabolism is also the reason you find yourself constantly hungry, especially during the final week of the luteal phase.
The most important thing about food is to make sure you’re regularly eating (no intermittent fasting!) and eating foods that keep you full. The sugar that your body is craving is not going to help you. One caveat is dark chocolate! We all know that chocolate is associated with PMS in popular culture. During the luteal phase, your body needs more magnesium, of which chocolate has a lot! I found that after taking a magnesium supplement for about a month, my craving for chocolate after every meal reduced drastically.
Alisa Vitti suggests eating a diet high in complex carbs during the luteal phase, as a way to keep yourself full. This is one place where I don’t believe her recommendations are right for me. The traditional knowledge around carbs is that whole grains are best, but I have found for me, it doesn’t work. Instead, I’ve started using this phase to begin phasing out carbs during the daytime and eating things like potatoes, beans, and rice with dinner. For me, reducing my carb intake helps keep my blood sugar regulated, and I don’t get the intense cravings for sugar that I have had in the past. Eating carbs at night makes sure that I get necessary ingredients like fiber, B vitamins, calcium, and magnesium from sweet potatoes and beans. I also eat a lot of leafy greens all day long to fill up on fiber and vitamins.
In terms of meal prep, Vitti suggests warm food and stresses preparations like soups, stews, or roasted foods. If you’ve ever used temperature tracking to determine when you ovulate, you’ll know that your body is naturally warmer during the luteal phase. Warm foods will help nourish the warmer body temperature.
During the first week, or so, of the luteal phase, you’ll likely feel like you have the energy to work out with higher intensity. You can continue the same exercise routine you had during ovulation and run, strength train, or do higher intensity yoga. As your energy starts to decrease, switch to lower intensity exercises like swimming, pilates, low-intensity bike rides, or barre. In the second half of my luteal phase, I’ve been doing strength exercises on days I have energy, but then I will take a couple of days in between sessions to do low-intensity yoga and pilates.
The best thing about the luteal phase is that you’ll likely feel the need to finish the projects that you’ve planned earlier in your cycle, as well as anything else on your to-do list. If you’ve had a project you’ve meant to get to (don’t we all?), try starting it now and see if you have the energy to work on it. The end of your luteal phase, when your energy is beginning to decline, is a good time to do administrative tasks as well. Schedule doctor appointments, call the insurance agent you need to talk to, or go return items that need to go back to the store. You’ll find that getting these small things done will be easiest now.
The luteal phase is the longest phase of your cycle and is also the most dreaded phase, thanks to PMS. But once I learned how to manage my energy during this phase, I found that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Avoiding those high-intensity boot camp classes two days before my period starts ends up giving me more energy all day long. And I can use the extra energy to finish projects and get things done!