Why do I crave sugar before my period?

Naturopath, Herbalist and Yoga teacher (BA, Dip Nat, Dip Herb)
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25 January 2024

In our premenstrual week, as oestrogen levels fall, so too do serotonin levels. Our energy levels drop and for some of us, our blood sugar levels can be impacted. Our sense of smell also changes. All of these factors can lead to premenstrual sugar cravings. Diet, exercising, hydration and self-care can help to minimise these cravings.

Have you ever wondered why you crave sugar before your period? Sugar is not very helpful for your hormones, can contribute to inflammation, and can throw off blood sugar levels – both of which can influence period symptoms. So why would our bodies do this to us? Why do we crave sugar when it is definitely not helpful for our hormones?

Let's delve into the science behind premenstrual cravings and how hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle can influence both neurotransmitters and appetite, leading to cravings.

1. Hormonal changes

Premenstrual cravings are intricately connected to the hormonal fluctuations within the menstrual cycle. During the follicular phase (the first half of your cycle, including your period, up until ovulation) oestrogen levels rise, fostering a sense of well-being and heightened serotonin production. However, as the menstrual cycle progresses into the luteal phase (after ovulation, until your bleed starts), progesterone levels increase. Progesterone is the “pro-gestation” hormone so it is helpful to promote gestation, aka pregnancy, and may be part of why you crave more sugar in this part of your cycle. It’s your body saying, “I’ve got your back, just in case you got pregnant this month and need some more energy!”

We also have this simultaneous decrease in serotonin levels in the luteal phase so we can also feel less happy and energetic, with PMS mood swings often coming out to play. All of this can lead to the onset of cravings for more comforting foods. And for numerous reasons, many of us associate sugary treats with comfort. Consuming certain foods, especially those high in sugar or fat, can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is associated with the brain's reward system, and the intake of comfort foods can provide a temporary sense of pleasure and satisfaction which we often need more of in our premenstrual days.

Changes in our sense of smell may also play into our cravings. I recently did a fascinating blog about the shifts and changes in our sense of smell throughout the cycle.The interesting thing related to cravings is that post-ovulation it seems that we have an increased sensitivity to the smell of high-fat foods. According to researchers at University of Ottawa, we get better at determining the source of aromas of foods high in fat during this phase of our cycle - and this is likely to be one culprit behind increased cravings for fatty foods on these days. (1) This is also likely to be due to rising progesterone levels, and could be another way this hormone pushes you to consume more calorie-dense food in case you have gotten pregnant during ovulation and need to nourish your body more as you grow a baby.

2. Blood Sugar Fluctuations:

Hormonal changes can affect insulin sensitivity, influencing how the body processes glucose. During the luteal phase, some women may experience decreased insulin sensitivity, leading to fluctuations in blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels drop, the body may signal a need for quick energy, leading to cravings for sugary and high-carbohydrate foods. Consuming these foods can provide a rapid energy boost, temporarily alleviating feelings of fatigue and low energy; but, this often comes with a bigger dip after the sugar high wears off, as well as further contributing to PMS. Many women find our Balance Mineral Drink to be a great pick-me-up in these premenstrual days. It provides essential vitamins and minerals that give a gentle energy boost, without the associated dip in energy that you get from a sugary snack.

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Progesterone has also been associated with decreased insulin sensitivity, meaning that cells are less responsive to insulin. (2)  The reduced insulin sensitivity during the luteal phase can lead to a decrease in glucose uptake by cells. As a result, blood sugar levels may become more variable, potentially contributing to fluctuations in energy levels and mood and adding to those sugar and carbohydrate cravings. It's important to note that individual responses to hormonal changes can vary, and not all women experience such significant disruptions in blood sugar levels during the menstrual cycle. However, for those who do, being mindful of nutritional choices, staying hydrated, and incorporating regular physical activity can help manage these fluctuations and support overall well-being.

Should you give into period cravings?

While I am a big proponent of listening to what our body needs, more often than not our cravings can lead us astray – because what we crave and what our body actually needs can be confused, given the food that is currently available to us, compared to the ancestral food our bodies evolved to eat and crave.

There is also scientific research linking sugar consumption to PMS – another good reason not to give in to those cravings! (3) When I talk about sugar, it's not just the sugar in your tea or on your cereal, or in the obvious chocolate bars or biscuits. There is so much sugar hidden in the ingredients of things like yoghurt, pasta sauces and baked beans. Refined flour, and white pasta and white bread can also be problematic for some people. My best advice is to eat whole grains and lots of veggies, and to always read the label on packaged food and look out for hidden sugars!

Fruit is my go-to sweet alternative to refined sugar. Berries are nature's candy, in my opinion, and are lower in natural sugar than many other fruits, making them a great choice while you have an infection especially. While all fruit does contain natural sugars, they are also high in fibre; so, go for whole fruits rather than fruit juice to make sure you get the benefits of the fibre!

How can I control my PMS sugar cravings?

1. Balanced Nutrition:

Focus on maintaining a well-balanced diet throughout your entire menstrual cycle. Following a Mediterranean diet specifically has many health benefits, but it is the one diet that consistently shows benefits for women and their menstrual cycles.(4)  Eating lots of plants, good fats like olive oil and avocados, protein from plants, fish and a small amount of meat provides good building blocks for your hormones and your blood sugar levels. Eating a wholefood, mostly unprocessed diet is one of the best things you can do for your health in general. Getting good levels of nutrition, including good fats, is really important for your hormones; and by nourishing your body fully, you can often minimise cravings. Reducing your intake of processed foods, high in salt and sugar, despite the cravings, can actually help to reduce cravings in the long run.

2. Hydration:

Make sure you drink enough water, as dehydration can sometimes be mistaken for hunger. Drinking water can also help control cravings and support overall well-being.

A handy trick to make sure you are drinking enough water is to multiply your body weight in kg by 0.033. This will give you the amount of water you need to drink each day in litres. Be aware that coffee, black tea and alcohol are dehydrating so if you drink any of these you need to add more water again to balance it out. If you exercise to the point of sweating, or if you are breastfeeding, you need to drink more water again! For the vast majority of people, we need much more water than we think!

3. Mindful Eating:

Practice mindful eating by paying attention to hunger and fullness cues. Slow down while eating, savour each bite, and listen to your body's signals to prevent overeating. Appreciating and being aware of the food we do eat can remind our brain of all the good food we have eaten and can make us less likely to give in to the sugar cravings!

4. Healthy Snacking:

Keep healthy snacks readily available to curb cravings. When a craving hits, drink a glass of water in case the craving is actually due to thirst. If you are still hungry, opt for snacks that combine protein and fibre, such as nuts and fruit, natural full-fat yoghurt (check the ingredients for hidden sugar!), or whole-grain crackers, to provide sustained energy and satiety.

5. Regular Exercise:

Engage in regular physical activity to help regulate hormones, boost mood, and reduce stress. Exercise can also contribute to better overall health and may help mitigate premenstrual symptoms. It can also be a great way to get our mind off cravings and to break a pattern of mindless munching.

6. Emotional Well-being:

Prioritise self-care activities that promote emotional well-being, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or engaging in hobbies that spark your joy. Addressing emotional needs can reduce the likelihood of turning to food for comfort during times of hormonal fluctuations. Taking more time to rest, and prioritising your own needs during your premenstrual days is not to be underestimated, and can go a long way to minimising symptoms of PMS, including cravings

7. Take Agnus castus:

Agnus castus is an amazing herbal remedy for PMS. It helps to rebalance the hormonal picture associated with PMS, or oestrogen dominance, bringing oestrogen and progesterone back into balance. This can help your cravings, as well as plenty of other PMS symptoms like anger and irritability, breast tenderness and menstrual cramps. 

Agnus castus | Helps Relieve Pre-Menstrual Symptoms | Mood Swings, Menstrual Cramps, Bloating & Breast Tenderness

£11.99 (50ml)

A.Vogel Balance Mineral Drink with Vitamin D3, Magnesium, Zinc, Potassium and Calcium.

7 x 5.5g sachets

£ 8.25

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