Your periods can come with a whole slew of annoying side effects, including some that start before your actual period. (PMS, anyone?) The weeks surrounding (and during) our periods are often peppered with some, well, less-than-ideal sensations and emotions—from cramping and fatigue to mood swings, headaches, and nausea. And that's not to mention the dreaded bloat: Not only does a puffy midsection unceremoniously signal that your period is coming (and make you reach for your most forgiving maxi dress instead of your favorite high-waisted jeans) but it also indicates that you may be bound for some weight gain, too.
But whether your bloating and weight gain are symptoms of PMS or if they seem to creep up while you're already on your period, they're actually pretty preventable, given you're eating the right things and not overeating. So whether you're experiencing PMS or your period is already in full swing, learn about effective ways to relieve bloat and period-induced weight gain—and banish them for good.
Like a lot of health issues, the exact causes of PMS weight gain and bloating aren't that clear, and very often, they vary from person to person. “We do know that hormonal changes around the end of the cycle can lead to bloating by way of water retention,” explains Anna Druet, a research scientist at the period and ovulation tracking app, Clue. “Other women may experience gas retention and constipation, as progesterone (a hormone involved in your menstrual cycle) can affect the speed of digestion. Some women also experience diarrhea, which is caused by the same hormone-like lipids (called prostaglandins) that make the uterus cramp during menstruation,” she explains. Each of these GI issues can result in bloating and, thankfully temporary, weight gain.
When extra water builds up and is then held by the body, it's referred to as water weight. And according to Alisa Vitti, a functional nutritionist, women’s hormone expert, and author of WomanCode, there are three main causes of fluid retention during the menstrual cycle.
The first is that the hormone estrogen can cause salt and water to be retained in the body’s tissues, which usually happens when estrogen outweighs the level of progesterone in the body (aka "estrogen dominance").
One way to know if estrogen dominance is what's causing your water retention and bloat is "if you have pre-existing hormonal imbalances [that have resulted in] fibroids, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or ovarian cysts," explains Vitti. So if you're feeling bloated during the luteal phase (the two-week period between ovulation and before the start of menstruation) and suffer from any of these maladies, you can reasonably assume that peak levels of estrogen are causing the bloating.
Whenever we're stressed out, cortisol (the "stress hormone") is released by the body's adrenal glands. When cortisol levels increase, the body becomes resistant to insulin, which results in increased blood sugar and weight gain, too. “You know how when you’re stressed and you step on the scale, you seem to weigh five pounds more than you did the day before," asks Vitti. "That’s the effect of cortisol," she explains. "It puffs you up due to its antidiuretic function and causes your body to retain sodium."
In the week before your period, magnesium levels drop and can contribute to all those nasty PMS symptoms, including bloating. “The human body is like a battery that runs on special electricity derived from four key electrolytes: calcium, sodium, potassium, and, of course, magnesium,” Vitti notes. Magnesium supplements have been shown to reduce stress and improve insulin resistance, and lower-than-normal levels can also cause constipation (and thereby, bloating), fluid retention, and gas during your period.
Although there are many factors at play, virtually every expert recommends eating healthy to keep symptoms in check. “Consuming a highly-processed diet low in whole foods and high in chemicals and additives will increase your chances of suffering from bloating and weight gain during the premenstrual period,” explains Kyrin Dunston, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN and author of Cracking the Bikini Code.
Druet agrees, noting, “While remedies may be different for everyone, some nutritional changes can likely help to prevent bloating. Though you may be inclined to reach for carb-heavy comfort food, steer clear of salty or processed foods, as these can cause your body to retain water, resulting in bloating.” She says that alcohol and caffeine should also be nixed since they, too, can make bloating worse.
Evaluate Hormone Levels
If you’re experiencing PMS weight gain along with other bothersome symptoms, then have your hormone levels evaluated by a doctor, says Dunston: “Although PMS is extremely common in the U.S., it isn't actually normal; when the hormones are perfectly balanced, PMS should not occur.” Natural hormone regulation treatments and supplements, which vary depending on one's particular imbalances, can help you feel better and kick bloat to the curb.
If you think your PMS symptoms might be related to stress, then hit the gym. “Exercise is a great way to beat stress and decrease cortisol levels,” explains Vitti. Sometimes, getting your heart rate up can make all the difference.
If prevention is no longer your main concern because you're already bloated, our experts recommend eating these seven foods to soothe digestive issues and help shed water weight.
“Whenever you're bloated, your go-to drink should be kefir,” says dietician Frida Harju-Westman, an in-house nutritionist at the Swedish healthy living app, Lifesum. Drinking kefir—fermented milk with the consistency of a thin yogurt—is especially helpful if dairy products give you digestive troubles. “Kefir contains lactase, an enzyme that helps your body break down lactose, which is usually responsible for any bloating, gas, or tummy pain when it comes to dairy products.”
In addition to spinach's many other health benefits, “there are 156 milligrams of magnesium in just one cup,” says Dunston, "which helps relax muscles and may reduce cramping during your period.” Bonus: Magnesium is also said to decrease PMS symptoms such as irritability and headaches, too.
Yes, chocolate has made the cut. “Just make sure you opt for 70% dark chocolate or treats made with organic raw cacao,” Vitti advises. (And be sure it's not loaded with sugar, which causes inflammation.) “It’s also fairly high in magnesium, with 176 milligrams in a 100-gram serving, or around half of our daily recommended intake.”
Not only do avocados promote brain health, but they're also high in potassium, with 364 mg per half-cup serving, which research has shown to decrease sodium levels and increase urine production, thereby helping to reduce water retention and improve period bloating. Dunston prefers avocados over bananas (a medium-sized banana contains 422 mg of potassium) because they’re lower in carbs. And, adds Dunston, because the body needs a total of 2600 mg to 3400 mg of potassium daily, you can eat them pretty liberally, too. As if you really needed an excuse to eat more avocado toast.
Kimchi is a ubiquitous and savory Korean side dish that's primarily composed of salted napa cabbage and spices. “Because it's fermented, it has a very strong, pungent smell," says Harju-Westman, "but it is great for reducing bloating." And, since kimchi is chock full of probiotics, it also promotes a healthy gut.
Many cruciferous veggies, such as broccoli, are rich in calcium, which research has shown, decreases PMS fatigue and depression. (Just one cup contains a whopping 180 mg.) Broccoli is also rich in fiber, which (when less than 70 g of it is consumed per day), helps reduce bloating and irregular bowel movements. To increase the body's absorption of calcium, says Dunston, “Have that broccoli with some salmon, which is high in vitamin D." Calcium-and-vitamin-D supplements, Dunston adds, have been shown to improve mood and reduce the severity of PMS symptoms, such as diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, depression, and bloating.
Nuts & Seeds
Many nuts and seeds are high in B vitamins (particularly B1 (thiamine), B6, and riboflavin), which have been shown to help decrease PMS symptoms such as irritability, fluid retention (weight gain), and bloating, among others. (Think: Unsalted almonds, pistachios, and sunflower seeds.) “Nuts and seeds contain high amounts of minerals, electrolytes, and healthy fats,” Dunston adds, “which also help to balance our hormones.”