Here's What You're Eating Wrong During Your Period, As Told By Science

by Emily Arata

It’s 3 pm on a Monday, and your period is wreaking havoc on your life.

It’s as simple as that.

Your stomach is no longer an organ built for receiving serving-sized meals, but a yawning black hole. After three slices of pizza and a full-size bag of popcorn, there’s still no recognizable feeling of fullness in your body.

So, the snacking continues. As your fingers reach for endless bites of food, your mind bounces between a petty fight with your partner and your co-workers’ imagined disgust at how much you’ve eaten.

We normally link period time with mood swings, but the connection between your uterine lining and diet is less apparent. Unfortunately, the two bagels you indulged in during brunch are doing more to hurt you — both during Aunt Flo’s visit and afterward — than make you feel better.

To tackle our worst cravings (an entire pint of Almond Dream, anyone?), we turned to the professionals. Molly Rieger and Leah Silberman are the pair of registered dietitian nutritionists behind personalized counseling service Tovita Nutrition. They gave us some tips on controlling our PMS rants through proper nutrition.

Prepare for PMS by planning.

Never mind that you can barely pack a gym bag without forgetting deodorant. Rieger and Silberman stand by the idea that having healthy, prepared food on hand is the key to avoiding bloat and period-induced misery.

The pair recommends setting aside three meals and two snacks before the big day hits, focusing on protein and fiber-filled treats to minimize something they tastefully call “emotional instability.”

Of course, even the best-planned meals get pushed to the back of the fridge during particularly tempestuous moods. With that in mind, a well-stocked pantry can help modify cravings. Shop for whole grain bread, dark chocolate and sweet potato fries to satisfy the urge.

Understand what your body wants ahead of time.

Think of cravings as your body’s way of delivering a message, not purposely driving you insane. For example, if you dream of greasy, cheesy pizza (we’re picturing it, too), blame estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. The trio of hormones drops as the menstrual cycle begins, causing a deficit of serotonin and dopamine.

To boost positive feelings, the body craves foods that can restore normal levels, like starches and sugars. It seeks a temporary fix for a problem that likely won’t end until the blood does.

Instead of frantically responding to cravings, be smarter than your period. Although a Hershey’s bar might raise serotonin levels, so will any food containing magnesium: bananas, nut butter or a handful of sunflower seeds.

Fiber is your new best friend.

In all the talk of cutesy period panties and documentaries about menstruation, there’s a dirty secret that we rarely publicize. Having your period means running to the bathroom every hour to let that sh*t go -- literally. Our number twos are the main event during the opening days of the period games, meaning every tampon change comes with an unwanted side effect.

Ever wondered why you can’t stop sh*tting all the time? Blame prostaglandins, lipids that let the uterus know it’s time to contract and rid itself of that pesky lining. Unfortunately, the same annoying chemical signal sometimes does the same for your bowels, resulting in irregularly frequent poops. It also doesn’t help that progesterone levels, which help control the bowels, are unusually low during menstruation.

If your bowels are slowing you down, make soluble fiber a priority. Lentils, oatmeal, apples and nuts are all tricks to staying in the game — and out of the toilet.

Fight exhaustion with water.

During period week, a typical day quickly becomes an achy slog towards bedtime. To fight the chronic weariness, Rieger and Silberman are advocates of drinking any sugar-free fluid you can get your hands on, as even mild dehydration can lead to headaches and sleepiness.

Aim for 64 ounces of water each day of your cycle, but don’t get discouraged if you feel like that's overdoing it. Herbal tea and unsweetened flavored water can also help you meet that goal.

Still can’t shake the feeling your uterus has decided to put you down for an afternoon nap? Down a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea. You’ve earned it.

Back away from the wine — seriously.

Three weeks out of every month, nothing gets between us and a hard-earned glass of rosé. But PMS calls for a more serious approach to managing emotions. A few drinks usually leaves you either giggling or sobbing, so it’s not a good idea to tack that emotional vulnerability onto an already beleaguered brain.

And it’s not just your mental state being compromised, either: Rieger and Silberman point out alcohol’s role in reducing the efficacy of sleep. Instead of waking up refreshed and one day closer to freedom from your menstrual rut, you’ll wake up groggy and light on actual sleep.

Basically, combining alcohol and PMS means setting yourself on a direct course for a mid-afternoon crying jag in the office bathroom.

Instead of popping bottles, pop the lid off your blender and start grinding. A smoothie filled with greens, nuts and fruit will serve your body better than wine ever could.

Balance your diet, balance your brain.

Speaking of sobbing: It’s bound to happen at least once during Shark Week. If everything makes you hyper-sensitive, adjust your choices accordingly. Think of it as a sensitivity with real consequences, just like lactose intolerant people don’t chow down on mac ’n’ cheese.

According to Rieger and Silberman, foods high in “good” fats — like salmon and walnuts — can help reduce anxiety as well as cramping. Nuts, in general, contribute to keeping you from emotionally spiraling by stabilizing blood sugar. Furthermore, dark chocolate with a high cocoa percentage has polyphenols to keep your mood high.

To manage the side effects of PMS, the pair advocate meals rich in B vitamins riboflavin and thiamine. That means packing in beans, peas and greens. As a bonus, spinach and kale can also help replace the iron lost in the blood your body pushes out.