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PMS 101: How to Nourish Your Body for Hormone Balance

Here's how you can actually eat in a way that helps you manage your symptoms!

As seen in Metro Style, March 26, 2023

It’s still women’s month, so I’m putting the spotlight on a topic that most of us relate to: PMS. You know that feeling when the time of the month starts rolling around: you’re a little more moody, tired or have trouble sleeping. You might have more bloating or digestive issues. You could also have more breast tenderness, headaches, spotty skin and greasy hair. Ugh, and then cramps.

It can definitely be tough to deal with the rollercoaster of symptoms. I commonly hear, “why am I so hungry and have so many cravings when I’m about to get my period?” “Am I going to ruin my progress?” The short answers are: hormones, and you can actually eat in a way that helps you manage your symptoms! You might have even heard of the idea of eating and training according to your monthly period cycle. Some women don’t notice big changes from their hormones, but if you experience symptoms like changes in energy or appetite, it’s totally normal and probably helps to work around them to optimize how you feel.

Here I share some of my top tips and foods to focus on to support PMS and balance your hormones throughout your cycle. Everyone is different and has different needs, so remember this is general advice and you also know your body best. And while dietary changes can be helpful, if you're experiencing severe PMS symptoms, it's always a good idea to check in with a healthcare professional to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

#1 Let go of rigid rules

Your body is not a machine. You don't use the same number of calories every day, and especially not when hormones are in the equation. Studies show that energy intake and energy expenditure are greater in the second half of your cycle: you are eating more and using more fuel. Progesterone is higher, which makes you hungrier, and might increase your metabolism slightly too, even if you feel more tired and aren't moving as much. In comparison, when estrogen is higher in the first half of your cycle, you might notice you are less hungry and have more energy.

If you’re counting calories or following a strict eating or workout plan, it might not take into account natural shifts in energy and hunger. You might feel that you are breaking your plan and ruining your progress if you're eating more, or not hitting all your workouts. This often turns into stressing yourself out unnecessarily or making your plan even more rigid, which usually leads to “failure.” But your body just might be needing more fuel or rest, so giving what it needs helps your body work well, and doesn’t mean you're going to gain weight!

#2 Balance your blood sugar

I know, it’s not the most groundbreaking but when your blood sugar is balanced, all your other hormones can be more balanced too. Hormones like estrogen and progesterone are linked to insulin and even inflammation in the body. That’s why balanced blood sugar is especially key in hormone conditions like PCOS. Even cortisol, our stress hormone, and adrenaline are connected to blood sugar balance. (I’ll come back to cortisol shortly.)

You can balance your blood sugar by balancing your plate and your eating schedule, and increase your intake of complex carbohydrates: foods like whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables can help regulate blood sugar. And yes, I know it can be challenging in the food environment here, and it does take some strategizing!

#3 Don't fast

Yes, I know intermittent fasting is super trendy and supposed to be linked to a lot of health benefits, but many of these studies were done on men or on animals, and have been short-term studies. Newer research suggests that intermittent fasting isn't even effective for weight loss, which is a popular reason that people fast. Some studies have also found that women are more prone to the negative effects of fasting, like lower insulin sensitivity and disruptions in menstrual cycles. If you already have sensitive hormones or notice changes in your cycle, fasting, even intermittently, might not be the best choice for you.

Fasting is shown to increase cortisol. When cortisol levels are high, they can inhibit the production of progesterone in the body. This can lead to relatively higher estrogen, which can worsen PMS, irregular periods, and fertility issues.

#4 Eat enough and eat nutritious food

Remember that your body is making blood, hormones, and other stuff all month long, so it makes sense that it needs more food and nutrients at certain points. Calorie restrictive diets are super popular, but eating too little and eating less nutritious foods will probably mess with your hormones. Too-low calorie diets are linked to higher cortisol, nutrient deficiencies, and can make it hard to sleep or give you less energy for exercise, which can also raise cortisol levels. And eating more highly processed foods also usually means a lack of nutrients, or also can be inflammatory and activate the immune system to protect the body from harm. When inflammation is chronic, it can lead to a number of other health problems.

#5 Cravings happen

It’s normal to have cravings, they're likely connected to fluctuating hormones and neurotransmitters. Eating a balanced diet before PMS hits might help to reduce your cravings, and managing stress and including movement and rest are definitely beneficial. But for when you are craving something, I suggest 2 ways of coping: 1, giving yourself healthy options like fruits, dark chocolate, or homemade potato chips, and 2, allowing yourself to eat the food and feel satisfied without guilt, because guilt just makes everything worse, and also suggests you did something wrong. There's nothing wrong with eating something unhealthy, you don’t need to eat only healthy food to be healthy and one food or meal doesn't ruin all your progress!

Foods to add:

Calcium: Many people don't get enough! Foods rich in calcium like dairy products, leafy green vegetables, tofu, and fortified plant milks can help reduce PMS symptoms like mood swings, cramps, and bloating.

Iron: Also a nutrient of concern. Eat more seafood, liver, cacao and dark chocolate, leafy greens, chickpeas, beans, lentils, monggo, lean beef, dried fruit, and seeds for your body to make new blood cells and boost your energy. Pair plant foods with a vitamin C source to improve absorption, like a citrus or tropical fruit.

Magnesium: Shown to help reduce PMS symptoms like bloating and mood changes. There are a few good sources of magnesium, mainly plants like leafy greens, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Supplements may help, but remember these are just to supplement and don't replace a nutritious diet.

Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6 has been found to help reduce the severity of PMS symptoms, particularly mood changes. Good sources of vitamin B6 include poultry, fish, bananas, potatoes, and fortified breakfast cereals.

Complex carbs: Focus on complex carbs to balance your blood sugar and for general health. Add brown, red, or multigrain rice, quinoa, adlai, whole wheat products, beans, peas, and fruits and veggies.

Lean protein: Eat a variety of lean sources, especially fish, seafood, and poultry, plant sources like beans, tofu, and edamame, and dairy too. Protein should be about ¼ of your meal. These can help your body make neurotransmitters like serotonin to support your mood.

Healthy fats: Fats from foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, and fatty fish like sardines, tuna, bangus, and salmon are needed to make hormones. Omega-3 fats from fish and some nuts and seeds are especially important and can help reduce inflammation and improve mood during PMS too.

Slowly adding in more nutritious foods overall is, of course, a good idea not only for PMS and hormone balance but for overall health too.


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