There's a certain power that comes from feeling totally in control of your body and health, which is why it can be so frustrating when your period strikes. For some, it can mean physical symptoms like painful cramps and bloating, while others experience the emotional effects of PMS, like hormonal mood swings.
If you're done with feeling helpless when that time of the month hits, Sara Gottfried, MD, gynecologist and author of Younger and The Hormone Cure, says there is a way to take control of your body. "Food may be the most important lever when it comes to PMS," she tells MyDomaine. "The evidence is clear and shocking: For example, women with PMS consume 275% more refined sugar than women who don’t have PMS."
To choose the right food in synch with your cycle, Gottfried says it's important to understand what's actually going on with your body. "PMS is actually a sign of imbalanced hormones beyond just progesterone," she explains. "It's the result of the poorly synchronized dance between four entities: progesterone, allopregnanolone, and the GABA and serotonin pathways, which are brain chemicals that make you calm and happy. It's a complicated situation, but the solutions are surprisingly simple."
To find a diet and lifestyle plan that works for you, she recommends doing a hormonal self-assessment test. This will help you target your biggest pain points and ensure that you're eating in sync with your body's needs. Over cramps, mood swings, and bloating? This is exactly what you should eat before, during, and after your period to combat PMS.
EAT: Don't wait until the first symptoms start to occur to alter your diet—eating in sync with your cycle starts well before your period actually arrives. "First and foremost, remove processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugars, and sugar substitutes from your diet," says Gottfried. "The more sugar and carbs you eat, the more you crave and the more likely you are going to suffer from PMS and hormone imbalances." Instead, she recommends boosting your diet with fresh vegetables. "I recommend eating more fiber, especially from a range of fresh and lightly cooked vegetables. Eat the rainbow, and aim for a plate that is about 80% vegetables."
DRINK: Now is also the time to consider ditching drinks that can adversely affect your hormones. "One of the first steps I recommend is weaning yourself from caffeine," she says. "Alcohol intake is also associated with premenstrual anxiety, mood problems, and headaches."
SUPPLEMENT: Supplements can also help prevent the symptoms of PMS. "Take calcium, as calcium carbonate or citrate—600 mg taken orally twice a day—reduces PMS by 50%," she recommends. Magnesium and B6 can help with bloating, while St. John's wort "has been shown effective at relieving both behavioral and physical symptoms of PMS."
EAT: "I encourage women with PMS to have a low-glycemic smoothie for breakfast, containing medicinal fiber," says Gottfried. "This will help you feel full while powering your body on a healthy start for the day. The added fiber will cut back on the bloating, and a tasty smoothie is both refreshing and energizing."
SNACK: Yes, even gynecologists indulge sweet cravings during their period. "You can't really go wrong with the right amount of dark chocolate," she says. "Dark chocolate made with at least 70% cacao has been proven to lower cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone [and] raises serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical in charge of mood, sleep, and appetite." She also notes that it contains phenyl ethylamine, which acts like an gentle antidepressant. Go ahead; treat yourself.
EAT: It's important to nourish your body after your period with nutrient-dense whole foods. "Eat more dark leafy greens and possibly grass-fed beef to build up iron stores," she recommends.
WORKOUT: If you feel exhausted after your period, consider changing your workout. "Many women are depleted after their period owing to the emotional rollercoaster of PMS and the blood loss," she says. "Try adaptive exercise like yoga and Pilates to build up energy," and know that it's totally okay to rest and recover.
DE-STRESS: "We know that women with PMS have a problem with stress, although it's hard to know what's the chicken and what's the egg," says Gottfried. "Chronic stress raises your cortisol levels, which over time can deplete serotonin, make you more irritable, and slow down your metabolism. A slower metabolism leads to insulin resistance, sugar cravings, and poor sleep, and your hormonal issues only get worse as symptoms return each month."
The bottom line? Stress can trigger a vicious cycle that impacts your cycle and hormone levels. Drinks that increase cortisol, like coffee, should be reintroduced in moderation. "I see it as an ongoing process. You nourish yourself with healthy foods and the right dose of exercise, listen to your body and yourself, and avoid the actions that make you feel bad."
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