Biohack your menstrual cycle
Female Body

Biohacking Your Menstrual Cycle

Fabio La Manna

If you are reading this article you may already be familiar with the term “biohacking.” The idea behind biohacking is that whatever we put into our bodies, from supplements to implanted cybernetic devices, can have a positive impact on how we feel and can lead to better “outputs” from our bodies (like reduced stress, better memory, and focus, superior performance and productivity). The oldest wearable tech is the watch, however, we have developed technology way more advanced than that since then. Modern wearable tech like smartwatches, fitness-tracking bands, smart glasses, and head-mounted displays are everywhere, and embeddable implants are the next logical evolution of wearable tech. Some unbelievable products you may not have even heard of yet are already available, and on the market, including electronic tattoos, password pills, memory chips, and guiding/GPS systems embedded in the human body (1).

These ideas may seem outlandish and crazy, but I want to tell you that you don't need those extreme devices to start biohacking. You can “decode” your body’s rhythms through much simpler methods. In fact, you can use a deeper knowledge of your menstrual cycle to live a much healthier life.  Sex hormones play a much larger role in your body than simply regulating your menstruation and fertility status. These hormones, namely progesterone, estradiol, and luteinizing hormone (LH), directly and indirectly, affect your brain function, your mood, and even your nutritional status. In the following post, you will learn some science-based tips that you can implement into your life today. Let’s get started.

Keep your tempo and stay in sync

Eat to fill the gaps

The menstrual cycle represents one of many physiological rhythms essential for life and is governed by interacting levels of the hormones progesterone, estradiol, follicular stimulating hormone, and luteinizing hormone. Less obvious are the other physiological processes these hormones affect in your body, such as the rhythm of those same sex hormones that drive the menstrual cycle, along with others that regulate growth and metabolism. 

The first half of the menstrual cycle is comprised of the menstrual and follicular phases (during which time estrogen levels are low and then rise, and ending with the periovulatory phase in which follicular stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) peak. The second half of the cycle is composed of the luteal phase, during which time progesterone starts rising until it reaches a peak and the premenstrual phase, in which progesterone falls again. 

These processes work in dynamic stability and their perturbations are associated with many disorders, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). These syndromes affect not only the reproductive system but also cause behavioral changes during daily life activities, like eating. For example, a study of 59 women showed that subjects with PMDD have increased food cravings, excess calorie intake, and higher body mass composition, which might be associated with an emotional response to sweet and fat foods and therefore cyclical changes in serotonin (2). But even when no particular syndromes are involved, during the luteal phase women can experience particular perturbations that lead to effects like mood swings and nutrient deficiency, like, for example, decreased levels of certain amino acids, the main components of the protein in our body. 

In a nutshell, this means 3 things: 
1) nutrient utilization is affected by the change of sex hormones and their levels between phase; 
2) the luteal phase may be considered as normal stress from a physiological perspective; 
3) the luteal phase amplifies the different responses between women to the environment, including diet. 

Science is doing a lot in order to understand the nature of these differences. This is a very difficult challenge because it is almost impossible to study a human being in a perfectly controlled environment. We do not live in a laboratory and when it comes to understanding the phenomena that govern our life, many factors should be considered: lifestyle, level of stress, type of job, social relationship, and ethnicity as well. For example, two women might follow the same diet and training program, but they can have totally different results if one is single and the other has a partner and kids, or one works part-time and the other runs a company.  

Among all these variables, nutrition is still one of the most studied fields, since it can be a relatively easy parameter to control when precise indications and guidelines are given to the “population” that you want to study. 

In a study conducted with 34 healthy women, it was found that out of almost 400 metabolites and micronutrients tested, about 50% changed across the menstrual cycle phases. In particular, 67 molecules such as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates and vitamins were significantly decreased in the luteal phases compared to the menstrual and follicular phases (3). 

Many of these molecules are associated with biochemical pathways involved in sex-hormone-related disorders, such as PMS, PMDD, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). The result is that the rhythm observed during the menstrual cycle of certain neurotransmitters, amino acids, and B vitamin-precursors may influence how women respond to cyclical stress, anxiety, and depression characteristic of PMS and PMDD, and have a big impact on women's general health as well.  

The good news is that with this information, you can fine-tune your nutrition in order to fill these gaps, just by eating the right food at the right time, and here is how. 

Out of the many molecules and micronutrients studied, I want to start with vitamin B6.  In the study above, vitamin B6 was found to be reduced in the periovulatory phase (the day around ovulation).  Its role is crucial, since it is essential for producing neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, which are, in turn, all responsible for the wellbeing of your brain (no worries, we will cover these molecules in a simple way later in this article). It is not a surprise that supplements with vitamin B6 have been shown to improve the psychiatric symptoms of PMS (4). 

If during your luteal phase you experience mood swings or lack of energy, this could be attributed to a Vitamin B6 deficiency so make sure that you are supplying your body with enough sources of it. In the table below, you can find the ten foods richest in vitamin B6 that you may want to include in your meals during your luteal phase.

Table 1

Another class of nutrients that was found in a reduced concentration during the luteal phase, (and that you may want to make sure you do not lack as part of your diet) are a particular class of fatty acids.  You may have heard about saturated and unsaturated fats. Without going into too much detail, they are small fat molecules that have a tail (called chain) covered by hydrogen. The term saturation refers to the amount of hydrogen present in the tail: saturated fats are completely covered by hydrogen, while unsaturated are partially covered. This is important because the level of saturation is related to the effect of these fats in the inflammation process and brain function. 

The most important fatty acids are the omega-3s and omega-6s. Generally speaking, omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory role, while omega-6s have a pro-inflammatory role. This does not mean that the latter is bad, since the key for a healthy body is balance, which is achievable with a ratio of two-to-one (twice the amount of omega-6 to omega-3). 

The most important omega-3s are the alpha-linoleic-acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Remember that these fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory action. Since there is evidence that ALA is reduced in PMS, a state of low linolenic acid could be even more apparent in the luteal phase of women susceptible to PMS, leading to inflammation-related symptoms include abdominal cramps, back pain, breast tenderness, appetite cravings, weight gain and bloating (6).  

Don’t worry too much though, it is very easy to introduce enough of these fats, both omega-3s and omega-6s, by selecting the proper foods and prioritizing them during your luteal phase. Have a look at the following table:

Second and Third Table

The dietary implications of these studies deserve further testing, but they are sufficient enough to tell you that you can take control of your menstrual health, as well as your brain health, by making small adjustments to your diet. Take a look at what you have in your kitchen, and, make a list of what you’re missing, so next time you go to the grocery store you know what to buy.

I hope you find this section informative, and that you will start to think of how important the interplay between your environment and your menstrual cycle is for your overall well-being. 

Let’s take a look now at another aspect that you can fine-tune and how it relates to your menstrual cycle: your sleep.

The fact that you sleep doesn't mean that you rest

How often have you heard of the importance of a good night's sleep for improving your mood, your memory, etc? But, how much do you know about the connection between sleep quality and your menstrual cycle? Here are a few scientific facts that can help you implement better routines and habits for improving your sleep, and in turn, your life! 
 
Several studies have investigated the effects of altered circadian rhythms on the menstrual cycle, especially in relation to mood disturbances. The circadian rhythm is the natural cycle of physical, mental, and behavioral changes, that the body goes through in a 24-hour cycle. As simple as it might sound, your sleep quality affects your menstrual cycle and vice versa. 

A technique utilized for studying sleep is called an electroencephalogram, EEG for short. This technique is able to record the electrical activity of the brain while you are awake, as well as while you're asleep. Studies have shown that the EEG is influenced by the hormonal variations of the menstrual cycle. Specifically, during the luteal phase, the EEG showed a significant increase of the so-called sleep spindles. (7).

Sleep spindles are electroencephalogram signatures that give information about the quality of your sleep, in particular during the phase called non-REM. The non-REM phase is the phase of your sleep in which your body takes care of tissue regeneration and the strengthening of your immune system. What if I told you that the hormone responsible for the increase of sleep spindles could be progesterone? Indeed, some progesterone metabolites are able to bind a class of receptors located in the brain called GABA. These same receptors are the ones used by GABA (short for gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is the main neurotransmitter responsible for reducing neuronal excitability (meaning it calms you down).  As mentioned in the previous section, in discussing vitamin B6 deficiency, which is also involved in GABA production-  a lack of GABA correlates with depressive syndrome and PMDD. 

To put it simply, during the luteal phase some women can experience sleep disturbances due to the effect of some molecules derived from progesterone. These molecules act directly on your brain, in the same site where GABA exerts its relaxing function. The effect can be compared to the mood disturbances experienced by those who suffer from depression, or women affected by PMDD and PMS Common symptoms include hypersomnia, insomnia, irritability, fatigue, excess of body movements during sleep, and disrupted sleep (7). 

Now that you know how complex things can get into your body, I do not want you to worry, because, as I mentioned before, you can prevent these alterations by implementing good habits. Let me phrase it this way: biohacking is nothing but taking care of yourself with scientific knowledge and evidence behind it!

There is supportive evidence regarding the role of oral GABA intake on sleep improvement. One study, for example, reported that participants who took 300mg of GABA an hour before sleeping, for 4 weeks, fell asleep faster than the control group (8). Similarly, in another experiment, it was shown that in the group dosed with 100mg of GABA 30 min before sleep for one week, not only fell asleep faster but also the total non-REM sleep time increased (9).

Again, when it comes to introducing something into our body, the easiest way is nutrition. A great source of GABA is germinated brown rice. Compared to milled rice it can reach up to 10-fold more GABA. This is why it is also known as GABA-rice. You can make it yourself: buy some good quality, organic brown rice, put it in a big bowl, rinse it and let it soak for about 24h covered with 2 cm of water, drain and let it germinate on a clean surface for about 48 h. That’s it, you have your GABA-rice ready to cook! 

Another molecule widely studied by the scientific community and proven to have great benefits on your mood and sleep is tryptophan (TRP). It is an essential amino acid precursor of serotonin (essential means that your body cannot produce it by itself, therefore you need to introduce it with food). I bet you have already heard about serotonin, which is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.  When you eat that piece of chocolate, for example, and it gives you so much pleasure, this is because it stimulates a release of serotonin. People who have serotonin deficiency suffer from clinical depression (or at least this is one of the main causes). It also works the other way around, when you are experiencing an event that lets you down, the serotonin levels in your brain drop. 

A consistent body of scientific research has shown that a low TRP diet can lead to a reduction of more than 70% of the concentration of tryptophan in your blood in only a few hours.  This is important because a reduced amount of TRP available can limit the production of serotonin, and that's why this reduction in TRP in the brain seems to mimic some of the excessive responses to positive and negative emotion observed in people suffering from depression  (10).

The equation is simple: the more tryptophan is available, the more efficient the production of serotonin. A wide range of doses have been studied, from 0.14 to 3 g of tryptophan a daily in addition to the usual meal and for ingestion periods from the short-term to the long-term (10). However, TRP availability seems to increase when it is ingested together with a source of carbohydrates, like your GABA-rice-based meal! 

There is no perfect formula, this information can be used simply as a starting point.

Start biohacking your menstrual cycle now

Let’s put all of this information together so that you can start biohacking your menstrual cycle right now. 

Now you know that the luteal phase can be considered normal physiological stress, and during this phase, your body experiences change on many different levels. You might be exposed to some nutritional deficiency and unpleasant mood changes that you can actually control. You want to make sure that you supply your body with the right type of fats, omega-3s, and omega-6s in the right ratio, to help to reduce inflammation. You want to make sure that you always have a good source of vitamin B6 because it is essential for the production of GABA and serotonin (among many other things) and therefore your mental health. And you want to promote good quality sleep by supplementing your diet with some tryptophan together with the right source of carbs to boost your serotonin level.
 
Now, imagine that you can take control of your state even more accurately, in the same way, elite athletes train and use their fitness tracker, constantly monitor their heart rate, calories burned, or oxygen consumption, and adapt their workout accordingly. Imagine that you can check your progesterone levels across each phase of your cycle, as well as your symptoms, and tune your nutrition accordingly. This is where you can get great benefits from using inne, and from tracking your own progesterone patterns, day by day, cycle after cycle. 

Take this scenario as an example: you are in your late luteal phase and you are having some restless nights. You run your inne STRIP in the morning and you see that your progesterone is falling. With what you learned above you know that all these clues together make sense, and it can be normal. You have a tool that tells you exactly what is happening inside your body and instead of worrying, maybe it is a good idea to have dinner with some of the foods listed above, to provide you all the ingredients you need to reach a state of balance, rather than having that pizza you are craving or just any “light” salad and having a regenerating night of sleep.

I hope that you have enjoyed this article and that you now have a bit more clarity on how much power and control you can take, once you know what is happening within your body. Now more than ever you, you have all you need to take responsibility for your well-being!

Last, but not least, all the information reported in this article has, exclusively, an informative purpose. Please consult your medical doctor prior to engaging in any specific diet or supplementation plan. 

Bibliography

  1. Harsha Gangadharbatla. “Biohacking: An exploratory study to understand the factors influencing the adoption of embedded technologies within the human body”, Heliyon 6, 2020.


  2. Yen, J. Y. et al. “The high-sweet-fat food craving among women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder: emotional response, implicit attitude and rewards sensitivity”. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35, 1203–1212, 2010.


  3. K, Weger B, Chakrabarti A, Harms AC, Brennan L, Hankemeier T, Goulet L, Konz T, Martin FP, Moco S, van der Greef J. “Menstrual cycle rhythmicity: metabolic patterns in healthy women”. Draper CF, Duisters Sci Rep, 2019 


  4. Kashanian, M., Mazinani, R. & Jalalimanesh, S. “Pyridoxine (vitamin B6) therapy for premenstrual syndrome”. Int. J Gynaecol. Obstet. 96, 43–44, 2007.


  5. Lisa Mosconi. “Brain Food - How to Eat Smart and Sharpen Your Mind” . 2018


  6. Gold, E. B., Wells, C. & Rasor, M. O. “The Association of Inflammation with Premenstrual Symptoms”. J Womens Health (Larchmt) 25, 865–874, 2016.


  7. Mauri M. “Sleep and the reproductive cycle: a review”. Health Care Women Int, 1990.


  8. Byun JI, Shin YY, Chung SE, Shin WC. “Safety and Efficacy of Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid from Fermented Rice Germ in Patients with Insomnia Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-Blind” Trial. J Clin Neurol. 3, 291-295, 2018.


  9. Yamatsu A., Yamashita Y., Pandharipande T., Maru I., Kim M. (2016). “Effect of oral gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration on sleep and its absorption in humans”. Food Sci. Biotechnol. 25, 547–551, 2016.


  10. Asako M. Kikuchi, Aya Tanabe & Yoshihiro Iwahori “A systematic review of the effect of L-tryptophan supplementation on mood and emotional functioning”. Journal of Dietary Supplements, 1-18, 2020.





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