Think back to when your mother or the mother figure in your life explained what a period was to you. Was an awkward explanation, an outdated video about how your body would change or a weird show-and-tell with a variety of feminine hygiene products involved? If not, consider yourself lucky. Regardless of how your experience went, do you remember talking about how you might crave all things ooey, gooey, salty or sweet during magic lady time? Probably not but that’s OK. We’ll dive into it shortly.
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Auntie Flo’s arrival might usually mean goodie runs for pints of your favorite ice cream or bags of salty snacks. And while hugging a bag of your favorite chips while binge-watching that new, old-timey romantic series can seem very comforting, Ob/Gyn Cristina McClure, DO, says that your period snacking go-tos have the potential to cause a number of problems. Keep reading to find out why it’s important to make good food choices during this time.
When you’re cramping and irritable, you just know that a hot fudge brownie sundae with extra fudge, nuts and whipped cream will make everything better. The problem is those sweet treats can significantly impact your insulin levels.
“Foods that are really sugary and sweet will increase your insulin levels, and high insulin levels can cause imbalances in other female-factor hormones. That’s why you want to follow a low glycemic diet starting at least a couple of weeks before your expected period,” says Dr. McClure.
If you eat a lot of carbs and sugar during your period, you might feel bloated or backed up. Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) might experience irregular periods which could lead to other complications. But when your blood sugar levels are going up and down, Dr. McClure says you might feel tired or get headaches frequently.
“The other problem with that hot fudge brownie sundae comes from the added estrogens that can be found in some animal products such as dairy and oils. Estrogens, which can be found in some animal products and added oils, can cause your uterine lining to become abnormally thickened. Then, during your menstrual cycle, your body must create more prostaglandins to break down the lining. More prostaglandins translate to more pain. Thus, you also want to avoid foods that can increase estrogen levels in your body.”
You’re not going to go from loving brownies and chips to appreciating salads overnight, but it’s possible to make better choices gradually. Dr. McClure recommends not just making healthy swaps around period time but changing the way you eat overall, so it’s easier to stay on track when your cycle starts. For example, instead of finding comfort in your favorite chocolate dessert, she suggests going for a small piece of dark chocolate.
“It’s really about reprogramming and changing the foods that you’re going for. In the beginning, it might be tough to make a complete switch from hot fudge sundaes to healthier foods, but it’s possible. For instance, if you want dessert, switch to something like a small piece of dark chocolate. You’ll still get the antioxidants from the chocolate that you’re craving only not in a large amount and with less sugar. Eventually, you can make a goal to try to avoid sweets altogether.”
Dr. McClure also recommends cutting back on caffeine and alcohol as well because these beverages can dehydrate you. If you simply can’t live without coffee, she suggests that you have a cup in the morning, then switch to drinking water the rest of the day. She adds that sipping water throughout the day can actually help keep you awake. (You’ll have to keep moving to get to the bathroom!) But if you find water is boring, just add some of your favorite fresh flavors to it like lemon slices, berries, herbs or cucumbers.
Since a woman’s body goes through so much during periods and throughout life, Dr. McClure encourages women to fuel up with good foods that are rich in antioxidants, iron and fiber. “You also want to focus on getting key nutritional elements such as vitamin D and your omega-3s like salmon, flaxseed and tree nuts to naturally decrease inflammation.”
According to Dr. McClure, start building up your iron levels a week or two before your cycle to increase your blood counts.
“This is where a modest amount of lean red meat comes in as well as green, leafy vegetables — everything from spinach to chard and broccoli,” she says. If you’re going down the bean route or if you’re someone who’s a vegetarian, lentils and beans actually have a good amount of iron in them. However some beans are known to increase inflammation, so you will want to cook them properly – for instance, using a pressure cooker in order to get the good aspects of the beans without adding to the problem of inflammation. “All of these foods are good for helping to restore your blood counts,” Dr. McClure says.
Need ideas for other sweet treats during your period? Stock up on dark berries. Dr. McClure says blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and cherries are great sources of antioxidants. Antioxidants are important because they help fight off free radicals which are linked to illnesses like diabetes and cancer. They can also be destructive if you have a high level of them in your body.
To some degree, reabsorption of estrogen can be blocked with fiber. Fiber can be found in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, and bok choy) are not only good sources of fiber, but they also are packed with antioxidants and reduce inflammation.
Vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes are good sources of fiber too. If you are craving fruits, choose low-glycemic options such as berries, cherries, grapefruits, pears, green apples. As before mentioned, whole grains and legumes like beans, peas, and lentils also are good sources of fiber. However, Dr. McClure suggests eating grains and legumes in moderation because some of these foods can increase inflammation in the body as well.
“This is a case-by-case scenario,” Dr. McClure says. “Some women are vitamin D deficient or maybe they don’t generally eat well so they don’t get a lot of their B-complex vitamins. In these cases, supplements can be helpful. There have been a few studies with women who tend to experience premenstrual mood disorders, and they found that vitamin B6 supplements can actually help a little bit. But there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done about supplementation for periods,” says Dr. McClure.
She adds that another thing that’s currently being researched is if omega-3 supplements can help with cramping and the inflammatory aspects of periods.
“Some of the studies have shown a benefit while others have shown no difference. A lot of research just needs to be done in that area. But overall, supplements could be helpful. I recommend that women discuss them with their healthcare providers.”
And if you’re trying to get pregnant, you’ll want to start taking a prenatal vitamin or folic acid supplement for at least a month prior to when you’re planning to conceive.
“Quite often, women don’t realize that folic acid is important for decreasing certain birth defects that occur early after conception. So, any woman who’s trying to get pregnant should stay on a prenatal or at least take a folic acid supplement daily for at least the first month leading up to when they’re trying to conceive.”