Turns out those weird PMS-induced food cravings make perfectly logical sense when we consider the effect our fluctuating hormones have on our brain chemistry. Those food cravings are often a result of out of control hormones, which in turn affect our cravings, and even the type of food we crave.
The Menstrual Cycle
Without getting too scientific here, we'll go over some basic period-related body changes. The menstrual cycle is typically 28 days, although each woman's body is different. It starts on the first day of your period, and ends the day before your next period starts.
As estrogen levels increase, it causes the uterine lining, or endometrium, to build up. The ovary releases an egg and is followed by an increase in progesterone levels. This works with the estrogen to keep the endometrium thick enough to support the egg, should it be fertilized.
If the egg is not fertilized, levels of estrogen and progesterone drop, causing the endometrium to break down and be flushed from the body. This is your period.
It is estimated approximately 85% of all menstruating women experience at least one symptom of PMS, while 70% experience PMS related bloating, food cravings, irritability and mood swings, and sleep disturbances. Premenstrual syndrome symptoms usually include a range of behavioral, emotional and physical conditions including bloating or water retention, breast tenderness, weight gain, irritability and mood swings . Many women experience a few of these symptoms; some find them more severe than others.
Types of PMS Food Cravings
Many women experience strong food cravings at some point during their cycles. These cravings, along with other PMS symptoms like bloating can make it very difficult for a woman to maintain healthy eating and exercise habits. But it turns out the foods we crave are often a direct result of our hormone fluctuations. Some women typically crave sweet foods with some fat, like ice cream or chocolate. Others find they crave salty things.
PMS Cravings and Hormones
We have our hormones to blame for those crazy PMS symptoms. As estrogen levels fluctuate, so do levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The body wants to keep these levels even, so it turns on the fight or flight response, causing us, the innocent bystanders of this whole thing, to crave carbohydrates and fat. Bring on the ice cream and potato chips. But there's another culprit here; serotonin.
Serotonin is that brain chemical that increases feelings of contentment. Foods can trigger serotonin, as can exercise and other lifestyle factors. If cortisol, the stress hormone is high, and serotonin is low, we'll crave simple carbohydrates and fats, usually sugary treats like candy and chocolate. This is because these simple carbs will up our serotonin fast. If cortisol is elevated, but serotonin is normal, we'll crave carbs and fat, but not necessarily that sugary treat. You may find you crave croissants or bagels loaded with peanut butter or cream cheese.
Now that those cravings make sense, we can adjust our eating habits to curb the craving without completely destroying out healthy diet plans. Focus on eating whole grain complex carbs with a low fat product. So if you crave that bagel and cream cheese, choose wisely.
Remember too, that exercise boosts serotonin; even if you don't feel like it, try taking a brisk 15 minute walk, and see if that helps.