Eating your weight in chocolate and chips? Yelling at loved ones all week? Feeling bloated and lethargic? Uh oh. Check your calendar. It might be that time of the month. It’s estimated that 4 in 10 women of childbearing age have physical and emotional symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) severe enough to affect daily routines and activities. For the food-conscious, cravings and water-weight gain can be some of the most aggravating symptoms. Some experts believe that cravings may be related to natural monthly hormonal changes, which also result in a serotonin decline, the neurotransmitter that regulates well-being and appetite. Additionally, some experts further believe that the extreme fluctuation between progesterone and estrogen, in the week before menstruation, leads to more hormones broken down through the liver and flushed through the kidneys which signals the body to retain water and sodium.
Women instinctively reach for refined carbs because it’s a quick way to raise serotonin. But self-medication with cookies, ice cream or chocolate can make the blues worse. The result is a quick upswing in blood sugar, followed by a rapid decline and then hunger strikes again (not to mention the guilt and remorse). Increase in sugar intake will further cause the body to hold onto more water, perpetuating that belly bloat! A well-balanced meal plan that limits junk food, sugar and alcohol can go a long way in helping ease PMS symptoms. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Eat small frequent meals – If the goal is to maintain normal blood sugar levels, then it’s important to never allow yourself to get too hungry. Consuming 4-5 small meals throughout the day is the best way to keep your blood sugar stable and avoid cravings. For instance, breakfast can be a half-cup of steel-cut oatmeal with berries and sliced almonds. Mid-morning, have a handful of carrots or a piece of fruit. Mid-afternoon, enjoy a handful of walnuts or carrots/cucumbers with 1 Tbsp. humus. Another nice trick? Whenever you feel a craving coming on, grab a glass of water. Sometimes, the feeling of a full tummy is enough to deter that inner-craving.
Stick with complex carbs – Whole grains not only give you a carbohydrate boost, but offer a host of nutrients and fiber to boot. My suggestion on this is to avoid bread products because so few of them are without the chemicals, additives, softeners, sugars and preservatives to be “good” for you – even whole wheat. Instead, opt for brown rice (not white), quinoa, beans/legumes, fruits and vegetables. Adding lean protein and/or healthy fat can also slow down the digestion process, stabilizing blood sugar and keeping the cravings at bay.
Avoid sodium – Reducing your overall sodium intake will ease the means in which your body stores water. Be mindful of restaurant meals, processed foods, frozen meals and soups which more often contain a ton of toxic chemicals and preservatives, but also contain an insane amount of sodium. The CDC recommends that adults limit sodium intake to less than 2400 mg daily, however, my personal opinion is that is still too high. Especially during the PMS week limit your intake to less than 1000 mg. This is easy if your stick to a whole foods diet plan in which you make the majority of your meals at home. As a suggestion, swap your table salt with sea salt. Although sea salt also contains sodium, it is different from typical table salt. Sea salt is obtained directly through the evaporation of seawater, minimally processed therefore retaining trace levels of minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium and other nutrients. These trace minerals help to balance out the sodium levels. Table salt, on the other hand, is mined from salt deposits and then processed to give it a fine texture so it’s easier to mix and use in recipes. Processing strips table salt of any minerals it may have contained, and additives are also usually incorporated to prevent clumping or caking.
Avoid alcohol – Because of its relaxing effect, many women crave alcohol while experiencing PMS. As you can imagine, however, consuming alcohol will only increase PMS symptoms in the long run. Alcohol has been known to increase breast tenderness and dehydrates the body, further perpetuating water-weight and bloating. Additionally, it’s important to note that alcohol can impact blood sugar, which will further cause additional cravings and hence the cycle continues. Also, alcohol interferes with sleep. Sleeping 7-8 hours nightly is essential, regardless as to what time of the month it is, but particularly true when a womans body undergoes significant hormonal swings. It’s also important to keep in mind that the excess hormones produced during the 7-14 days prior to your period are metabolized through the liver…alcohol is also metabolized through the liver. Give your liver a break and cut back on the alcohol! Instead of sipping through the next bottle of red, opt for a relaxing herbal tea. You can find a number of teas to choose from at your local health foods store. Ingredients to look for: Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Valerian, Kava Kava, Passionflower, Hops, and St. John’s Wort.
Calcium and Magnesium – Research has shown that getting adequate calcium (about 1,200 mg) can help reduce PMS symptoms in some women. Although many folks advocate a diet high in dairy products as a means to ingest enough calcium, I do not. There are a number of other calcium-rich food sources, which offer a greater means of bioavailability. Bioavailability refers to the degree to which a nutrient becomes available to the body after it has been consumed. Include bioavailable, calcium-rich foods into your meal plan: dark leafy greens (spinach and kale), broccoli, seeds and nuts. Magnesium is also key for a number of biomolecular functions and can aid in easing PMS symptoms. Women with PMS who eat ample magnesium-rich foods enjoy improved mood and less water retention than women who did not get enough magnesium. It is thought that magnesium might also help regulate the activity of serotonin. Best foods for magnesium: pumpkin/sunflower seeds, spinach, wild salmon, cashews, quinoa, beans, amaranth, peanuts, peanut butter, and brown rice.
Drink plenty of water – Often, women with PMS avoid drinking water in an effort to deter water retention, a common PMS symptom. But drinking plenty of water may actually help reduce premenstrual bloating. 7-14 days prior to her period, the female body is hard at work in the production and elimination of excess hormones. There are multiple metabolic functions occurring simultaneously which can naturally signal the body to hold onto more water. Further dehydrating the body, by not drinking enough water, will actually worsen water-weight gain as the body will hold on to whatever water is presently available. Instead, remember to drink 3 liters of water daily and if you exercise regularly, even more! Cut out dehydrating beverages such as alcohol, black tea and coffee.
Get moving – Staying physically active can help reduce PMS symptoms. Exercise helps severe PMS because exercise releases endorphins. These are molecules that work inside your body to relieve pain and stress. Experts suggest that endorphins can be 100 times more powerful than drug analgesics. For those who suffer from severe PMS, endorphins released during exercise kick in to:
- Alleviate pain
- Curb cravings for chocolate and salty snacks
- Dissipate frustration and stress
So, how much should you exercise? The answer to this is different for every woman simply based upon what her individual fitness goals are, however, just 15 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as a brisk walk, can be enough to relieve bloating, increase blood circulation and brighten up your mood! An ideal regimen is a half-hour of exercise, six to seven days of the week.
Other tips and advice?
- Meditation and Prayer
- Avoid stressful events
- Avoid stressful relationships
- Quiet time
Fundamentally, maintaining an anti-inflammatory diet, low in sugar and processed foods, will make a world of difference to your monthly cycle. Nourish yourself with whole foods, plenty of clean water, rest and daily exercise and not only will you see a decrease in PMS symptoms, but you will find that each and every day is a little brighter.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Premenstrual syndrome. Accessed July 17, 2008.
- Braverman PK. Premenstrual syndrome and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology. 2007;20(1):3-12. Accessed July 17, 2008
- Is PMS real? (zocdoc.com)
- 5 Foods That Weaken Bones (forbes.com)
- 8 of the World’s Healthiest Spices & Herbs You Should Be Eating (xblivingnaturally.wordpress.com)
- PMS: a square peg in a round hole? (thefword.org.uk)
- Superfoods for Superpowers (nicoleciccarelli.com)