I could chart my cycles merely by following my cravings. Those moments when I munch down an entire bar of dark chocolate or give in to my desire for a pastry despite its pesky gluten, are the times when I am well aware of what my body is about to do. Most women have one craving or another as a symptom of their PMS, and thankfully we have science backing us up on this one.
According to an article on sciencealert.com (https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-the-science-behind-those-pms-food-cravings), PMS symptoms are "exclusive to the second half of the menstrual cycle", also known as the luteal phase. This covers the time from when an egg is released during ovulation through to when our period begins. And what happens in our bodies at this time has a strong effect on our PMS symptoms, especially our cravings.
The two main culprits of our sometimes desperate need for something sweet or salty, or both in many cases, seems to come from fluctuating hormones and serotonin levels.
During the luteal phase, estrogen levels are low, while progesterone increases. Science has documented that women do tend to eat more when this imbalance occurs. These hormonal shifts can also trigger drops in blood sugar levels. When this happens, our bodies often instinctually grab the foods that will help increase those blood sugar levels quickly. Unfortunately, that tends to be less-than-healthy food.
Serotonin, affectionately known as the "feel-good chemical", also lowers during this time. Low serotonin is another reason we crave sugars, but especially carbohydrates. Our bodies use the carbs to make serotonin.
There is another claim that perhaps the cravings are as simple as desiring good old comfort food for the way it can soothe us psychologically and physically. Many people have a favorite dish, or go-to food that they know will help them feel warm and fuzzy inside. Perhaps it's something healthy like a vegetable lentil soup or a loaded salad. For others, the comfort comes in concoctions of cheese, butter and bread. Whatever it is, the memories, the flavors, the way it falls into our belly can bring us comfort, even if only momentarily.
Food cravings are one of the most common symptoms of PMS, so know you are not alone. Thankfully, while science offers us suggestions on why we have these cravings, we can also learn ways to ease the desires and needs for unhealthy foods.
If your body needs a serotonin boost, offer it complex carbs rather than simple carbs (think whole grains, beans and brown rice over white bread, donuts and pastas). Physical activity and sunlight also help to raise serotonin levels. Try going for a jog or fast-paced walk around your local park or beach. Maybe have a one-person dance party in the backyard (or better yet, invite your other PMS-ing friends over to shake off those cravings together). There is also evidence to suggest that calcium may help with an imbalance of serotonin. So maybe the butter and cheese dish isn't such a bad idea. Of course, you can also get calcium through green, leafy vegetables or supplements.
Eating small, frequent, healthy meals can help maintain your blood sugar levels. Try to avoid foods dense in salt or sugar as they can increase your cravings. And remember to rest. Often we use food as a way to increase our energy when we are exhausted. The problem with that is we may reach for the food that is going to give us energy more quickly, simple carbs and sugars.
Magnesium, something women may be low in during this time, helps adjust blood glucose levels. Guess what food is rich in magnesium…chocolate! To be fair, other sources of magnesium include leafy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
I think the main lesson here is to eat healthy foods, often throughout the day, exercise even though you feel bloated and may not want to, and remember to rest. But also, know that it's okay to indulge in some fancy cheese and dark chocolate during this time. Your body may actually need it.
Guest Blogger Anne Fricke is an author, performance poet, podcaster, mother, wife and campfire storyteller. You can learn more about her at annefricke.com