Chocolate and periods
Menstrual periods are a complex topic. While many of our symptoms, behaviours and cravings have been explained by researchers and scientists, there are still many mysteries when it comes to our menstrual cycle.
Diet is a really important factor when it comes to PMS, because during our menstrual cycle our nutrient levels can dip dramatically, so it's important to replace them to prevent unpleasant symtpoms.
One of the more controversial PMS and diet topics is chocolate cravings. Some people argue that we crave chocolate because it can actually help with PMS symptoms. Others claim that these cravings are psychological because we have been conditioned to associate chocolate with feeling good, through films, TV, women’s magazines and urban myth. Some people argue that chocolate has no nutritional value and that the sugar and fat in it will actually make us feel worse.
So what’s the truth? Is chocolate good for period pain?
I think that in moderation, yes, chocolate can be beneficial for period pain, and I explain why this might be so.
Why is chocolate good for period pain?
Our bodies are great at telling us what they need. An obvious example is feeling thirsty when we’re dehydrated. Sometimes, however, we don’t exactly know why we crave the things we crave. Why do pregnant women crave all kinds of strange foods? They usually don’t even know, but in all likelihood it is their bodies trying to increase their intake of a specific vitamin or mineral.
This is one reason why many people say that indulging your chocolate cravings during your period is not a bad thing, as there must be something in it that your body is craving. But what?
Firstly, most of the chocolate we eat contains sugar, and our bodies crave this during our period because we often feel tired, lethargic and grumpy. Sugar is more easily broken down than starch, so it gives us a quick boost of energy. The immediacy of this effect may be why we crave chocolate rather than more energy efficient foods like complex carbohydrates.
Secondly, research has also revealed that chocolate also stimulates the release of serotonin – a hormone that makes us feel happy. During menstruation we often feel low, irritable or anxious, and serotonin helps reduce these feelings.
Finally, chocolate contains magnesium. This mineral is involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body, so is really important for keeping your body functioning properly during your period, when many functions get thrown out of sync. It is important for the nervous system, the immune system, and energy production. Most importantly for period pain, it promotes healthy muscle function and relaxation, and because cramping is caused by muscle tension or spasm magnesium can therefore help to reduce this.
So how much chocolate should I eat?
While your body may be craving chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream covered in melted chocolate for dinner, this may not be the best idea.
Too much chocolate will undoubtedly give you stomach pain and leave you feeling sick, which nobody wants when we’re already feeling a bit sensitive. All that chocolate will also likely affect your digestive system, which can already be upset by your period.
I therefore recommend trying to keep your chocolate intake at a sensible level. Try a single bar in the evening (not a sharing bar!), or a few squares throughout the day to keep cravings at bay. Dark chocolate is best, because it contains the same levels of magnesium, without the added sugar, dairy and fat.
Is there a healthier alternative?
In fact, there is! Nuts – particularly almonds, cashews and brazil nuts – are a great source of magnesium, healthy fats and protein, so they will provide energy to fight lethargy and magnesium to fight cramps. Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and sunflower seeds are also great sources of magnesium.
We know that sometimes the only thing that can solve your chocolate craving is, not surprisingly chocolate, so try eating a little chocolate first, followed by a handful of nuts or seeds.
You could also try creating your own Graze Box style snacks – all you need is a bag of chocolate chips or buttons and an assortment of your choice of seeds and nuts. Mix as much as you need and separate into snack sized bags or boxes to eat on the go; or snack on them at home while watching your favourite TV programme or film. Blanket and hot water bottle optional.
Make sure you eat complex carbohydrates – like wholegrain rice and pasta, potatoes, brown bread and root vegetables – throughout the day so that if you eat too much chocolate and your sugar levels threaten to crash, you still have a steady supply of energy to fall back on.
Is there anything else that might help my period pain?
If you find that your PMS symptoms and period pain can’t be controlled simply with diet, then there’s nothing wrong with accepting a helping hand. I recommend taking A.Vogel’s Agnus Castus. This herbal remedy is licensed for treating the symptoms of PMS, including cramps, breast tenderness, bloating, irritability, and mood swings.
This herb can't be used by ladies on the contraceptive pill or HRT, so if this is you, make sure to really focus on increasing your magnesium intake instead.