In the introduction of her book, The Period Repair Manual Lara Briden states, “Mine is just one voice in a growing chorus of [voices] who are speaking up about periods and are reclaiming hormones and periods as an essential, integrated part of human health. [Menstruation] is not a niche topic. It is general health for half the humans on earth.”
We’re going to talk periods, PMS and how they affect your relationship with food, your body and health – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. I’ve reached out to trusted experts in their respective fields on this topic to provide a well-rounded guide for you to hopefully find a BIT more peace with your period. This is by NO means a substitute for medical care, and I am NOT a hormonal or period health expert. I’m simply a dietitian with female anatomy and lots of menstruating clients who have found a lack of resources around this topic.
I talk about this stuff with my clients all the time: how our periods affect how we eat, move, and how we feel in our bodies. But when I google “period” and “body image,” I find almost nothing. Even more frustrating is that any resources about foods/eating and menstruation are super unrealistic lists telling us to eat one particular superfood (annoying), but nothing normalizing food cravings or differences in what your body may want to eat.
I used to get really angry at my body every time I’d get my period. Like “ugh, here come the annoying cravings, heating pads and stretchy pants.”
But now my perspective has shifted towards asking my body, “How can I support you as you work to support me especially during this time of month?”
As I’ve worked to be more supportive of my body rather than judgemental and expecting it to cooperate the way I want it to, I’ve realized that a few simple shifts have made a world of difference for me. I hope in this blog you may find a few ideas that you can begin incorporating, too.
I’m going to break down this discussion into three sections: food, body image and emotions. I’ll be sharing the 13 best tips I received from an impressive network of interdisciplinary health care providers.
The one personal quick tip I wanted to share that’s been SUPER helpful for me is to track cycle and mood changes using the free Clue app (if you aren’t a person who menstruates, you can still track monthly patterns using the moon). I learned a lot about this in Kate Northrup’s book Do Less, and she recorded a great podcast diving even more in depth on this topic, which you can find here. This has helped me see that my random irritability isn’t actually so random. I noticed that it’s caused by natural and normal hormonal shifts. Now, I can relax and tell myself, “Ah okay, it’s almost that time again, maybe I can say no to a few unnecessary things this week or ask for a little emotional support from my loved ones.”
One important reminder before we dive in:
We are all in this together. I really wanted people to see that so many of the emotions, feelings about our bodies, appetite changes and energy fluctuations we experience based on different phases of our cycle are normal and natural. They don’t make you crazy, they make you a menstruating human.
I polled my Instagram community and got over 150 responses from people sharing about bloating, feeling uncomfortable in their bodies, intense cravings, mood swings and how they work on supporting themselves and coping with these symptoms. Throughout the rest of the post I’ll be sharing some of these quotes with permission, and I hope they will help normalize some of the frustration that you’ve felt in relation to your cycle.
Let’s start things off by discussing food, appetite and cravings.
Appetite changes, including being extra hungry or craving certain types of food, is normal and expected during different phases of your cycle. Brianna Campos, LPC (@bodyimagewithbri on Instagram) shares some great advice about listening to your cravings while still incorporating small tidbits of gentle nutrition:
“Technically when we’re on our periods we can need up to 500 calories more than we normally do – which when you think about it makes so much sense because our bodies are doing SO MUCH. But I think we judge ourselves so intensely for eating food when we’re already feeling uncomfortable so I think if we can just make space for the discomfort and realize our body is doing something really cool (it’s literally preparing for life – even if we’re not taking it up on that) it’s the coolest thing a human body can do. What would it be like to observe your discomfort without judgement? I always crave salt; so I always want chicken cutlets and fried foods. But I also have GI distress and know I will feel even more discomfort so I try to find a balance. A fresh salad with some french fries or a nice crunchy wrap with fried chicken! I get to honor my body’s cravings AND not feel sick! When I realized I could have food whenever I wanted (through Intuitive Eating) it was an invitation to always honor how I will feel first.”
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CSCS, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness and @alissarumseyrd on Instagram, adds:
“What our body needs in terms of amount of food and type of food varies greatly depending on the time of the month. You may notice that your appetite is higher during certain weeks, or that you crave certain foods around your period. This is totally normal, and this is your body sending you a signal that you need more calories or more nutrients. When you start to become more in tune with your body, you will notice that yes, your appetite is higher certain times, but also that it is lower other times. Our bodies don’t need the exact same amount of energy or nutrients every day, so it’s normal to notice these appetite fluctuations.”
These two experts bring us to tip #1:
1.) Eat ENOUGH food
Your nourishment and energy needs can vary significantly throughout a monthly cycle. This is a great example of why becoming more in-tune with your body and listening to your internal cues will be immensely more helpful to you than using external cues like diet rules or calorie limits to determine how much and what kind of foods your body needs on any given day. The bottom line is to make sure you are adequately nourishing your body. As Bri says, menstruation happens as your body prepares in case it needs to support another growing human. It makes perfect sense that this takes extra energy input. Support and care for yourself by eating enough food.
Next, up: cravings. I wanted to explore deeper here, so I asked Jillian Greaves, MPH, RD, LDN Integrative Functional Dietitian and Women’s Health Expert of Prevention Pantry Nutrition (@preventionpantry on Instagram) to tell us specifically why we have certain cravings:
“In the luteal phase (the 1-2 weeks leading up to your period after ovulation) energy levels begin to drop and PMS symptoms are most likely to begin as a result of hormonal fluctuations. Your body’s energy needs are higher during this time, and you may notice increases in hunger as you approach the end of the luteal phase….Hormonal fluctuations may also contribute to an increased desire for things like salt or sweets.”
Jillian gave us our next two tips:
2.) Include complex carbs at meals in the luteal phase (between ovulation and period)– things like potatoes, rice, quinoa, lentils, fruit, etc.
3.) Eat consistent, well-rounded meals
She reiterated tip #1 (eating enough) and reminded us that: “It’s important to respond to hunger and avoid low blood sugar, which only exacerbates hunger and cravings.” She also reminded us that eating regularly can help to stabilize mood and emotions, in part by keeping your blood sugar levels stabilized. By eating “consistent, well-rounded meals,” what I want you to think is: eat a snack or meal every 2-3 hours and focus on getting all 3 macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) at each meal, and aim for at least two macronutrients to be included in your snacks.
The last tip in the food category is:
4.) Remember magnesium!
Jillian tells us: “Hormonal fluctuations during this time increase your body’s needs for magnesium. Magnesium is a crucial mineral needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body.” She encourages consuming some magnesium rich foods and discussing a magnesium supplement with your healthcare provider. A few magnesium-rich foods you can incorporate include pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, soymilk, blackbeans, edamame, peanut butter, avocados, potatoes with skin, bananas and yogurt.
In summary, when it comes to food before and during your period, turn inwards. Listen to what your body is telling you. Your appetite may fluctuate as a reflection of changing energy needs. You may have certain cravings. The best thing you can do for yourself is to nourish your body by eating enough, eating consistently, focusing on including complex carbs during the luteal phase and consuming some magnesium rich foods.
Now, let’s discuss bloating and body image.
Clearly it seems like many of us experience peak body dissatisfaction and discomfort in our own skin during the premenstrual and menstrual parts of our month. Before we go any further, I want to point out something from the research. This study showed that in a group of 44 university women, while there were no significant differences in any anthropometric (body) measures between the three menstrual cycle phases, the largest perceived body size and highest body dissatisfaction occurring during the menstrual phase. To put it another way, there was no measurable difference in the actual body sizes of these people during the different phases of a monthly cycle, however they perceived or thought of themselves as being in the largest bodies during the menstrual part of their cycle.
You are not alone if you feel uncomfortable during your period or think of yourself as larger, bloated or swollen. But remember- the research showed no measurable difference in body sizes. The difference is in how your brain is thinking of your body. So while there will certainly be physical discomforts throughout the month, we can always do ourselves a favor by prioritizing caring for our mental health and consistently working on body respect and acceptance in our own minds.
We are still going to discuss bloating, though! It’s not a made-up phenomenon. I asked Jillian to help explain bloating and other GI related symptoms. She gave a super helpful answer, and also provided a list of some foods you can eat to try and support yourself when experiencing these side effects.
“Bloating is often related to progesterone — the dominant hormone in the luteal phase that is produced only after ovulation. The rise in progesterone slows transit time and can contribute to bloating and constipation.” To help with bloating, Jillian recommends the following:
5.) Foods for bloating: ginger or peppermint tea, mineral rich dark leafy greens, and foods that are rich in gut supportive probiotics like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and apple cider vinegar.
Remember, we certainly are not promising that these foods will magically, immediately shrink your bloated stomach area. But for those of us who feel desperate to take some active steps towards supporting ourselves while experiencing this PMS symptom, this list of foods is a great place to start.
Jillian also spoke to the possible side effects of period cramps, pain and loose stools. She says they “can be related to the overproduction of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are inflammatory molecules that cause the uterine muscle to contract to release the uterine lining (aka your period!). The overproduction of prostaglandins often results in cramps and loose stools.” This brings us to a second list of focus foods provided by Jillian:
6.) Foods for cramps and loose stools: anti-inflammatory foods like cold water fish, ginger, green tea, pumpkin seeds, and berries.
In addition to bloating and GI distress, many menstruating people may also experience changes in their skin throughout their cycle. While I think we as a culture have a long way to go in normalizing and embracing all different skin types and skin appearances, I did want to acknowledge that there might be some ways you can help support your skin while it deals with the effects of hormone fluctuations.
I chatted with Meg Maupin, CEO and Co-Founder of Atolla (@atollaskinlab on Instagram) and she told me about some specific treatments you can give your skin during times of hormonal changes, including stress, pregnancy, menopause and periods. So tip #7 is:
7.) Show your skin some love.
Meg explained that there are two types of hydroxy acids that are usually most effective in helping hormonal breakouts. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) brighten the skin by exfoliating and helping peel off dead skin cells. Commonly used AHAs include glycolic acid and lactic acid, citric acid (from citrus), malic acid (from fruits), and tartaric acid (from grapes), or you might also see a combination of a few different AHAs. The other hydroxy acids that are often helpful are Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs). Meg says, “BHAs are more oil soluble (while AHAs are water soluble), making them a good option for dissolving oil. They are also anti-inflammatory and can help to exfoliate dead skin cells.” A commonly used BHA that you have probably seen on product labels and is also used in Atolla products is salicylic acid.
Meg explained how their company, Atolla, is especially well suited to helping people experiencing skin changes due to hormonal variations: “We send you an at-home skin test so you can actually measure your oil measurements every month and better understand things like the differences between your t-zone and cheeks. The result is a personalized solution that addresses your oiliness and adapts to your skin changes month over month.”
This may sound like an ad, but there has been no sponsorship or paid promotion here! I simply reached out to Meg as an expert in her field and I loved hearing her share why she’s so passionate about the work her company is doing.
I want to offer one last bit of advice when it comes to body image and body changes throughout your cycle.
8.) Shower yourself with compassion and body respect.
Embrace your common humanity (one of three components of self-compassion as defined by Dr. Kristen Neff) by remembering that you are not alone in these experiences. I especially love this quote by Dr. Neff:
“Self-compassion is the practice of responding to challenges and personal threats by treating oneself with non-judgemental understanding and kindness, acknowledging distress, and realizing that pain and struggle are part of the universal human experience.”
Ask yourself how you can respect your body during uncomfortable times, like when you’re bloated or breaking out. Sometimes it can be hard to think of what that may look like, so you may ask yourself,
“What would I tell a friend who was feeling this way?”
One thing that immediately comes to mind for me: wear comfy clothes. Wear clothes that are comfortable and allow for the bloating that you may experience. Also, try to avoid placing any blame on yourself. If it’s helpful, you may think of some mantras that you can recite or meditate on that focus your energy on gentleness, self-compassion and caring for your body. Some examples:
- Bloating is a normal part of living in a human body, I choose to give my body compassion through the discomfort.
- I won’t feel this way forever, the bloated feeling always passes
- I choose to wear comfy clothes and allow the natural processes of my body – including bloating – to pass on their own time.
For this discussion on periods, our last of three focus areas is: emotions.
Hormones and how they affect a menstruating person’s mood are discussed fairly often, it seems. Unfortunately, it can often be followed by an eye-roll from someone who doesn’t understand or may even accuse you of using hormones as an excuse too often.
Whether they like it or not, hormones DO fluctuate all the time. For menstruating people, the hormone shifts happen regularly and are extreme enough to cause changes in our emotions, how we experience the world around us and our mood.
Here are some thoughts on supporting yourself through what can feel like an emotional roller coaster each month.
Marina Marcus, Licensed Mental Health Clinician and Registered Art Therapist says “Our emotions can harden and become prominent, our body can soften and bloat as it works, and our mind can feel busier and create static. These symptoms primarily occur as our body prepares to menstruate, but what happens when the intensity is turned up to high all together? Can our cycle really affect our emotional state?”
Marina states that emotional shifts are normal and expected, but that there is also a next level of intensity that has its own name. She highlights PMDD- premenstrual dysphoric disorder- which is characterized primarily by a cluster of mood symptoms, especially depression, tension, anxiety, irritability, and fatigue, with five or more symptoms present during the same phase for at least two consecutive cycles where we would typically experience PMS (Wu, Wang, Zhao, & Zhou, 2016).
Marina explains, “Estrogen levels begin to rise slowly just after a woman’s period ends, and peaks two weeks later. Then estrogen levels drop like a rock and begin rising slowly before dropping again just before menstruation starts. These hormonal peaks and valleys are thought to cause mood swings. Imagine if you were to ride an emotional and psychological roller coaster during the entire month through said peaks and valleys. PMDD is characterized as a more severe form of PMS where the roller coaster ride is more chaotic and overwhelming. Those at a higher risk of PMDD are women with a familial or personal history of PMDD, depression, or postpartum depression. Additionally, large life changes, such as loss or change in job, divorce, etc. can not cause PMDD, but can amplify it.”
Jillian echoed Marina, emphasizing that “some subtle shifts in energy, mood and digestion are normal” but “significant symptoms that are disruptive to your daily life are not.” They both encourage speaking to a health care provider if your PMS or period symptoms feel disruptive and difficult to manage.
So, how to support yourself when dealing with emotional and energy swings?
9.) Tune in and move or rest your body according to its need.
Throughout the different points of your cycle, your needs will vary. Jillian Greaves recommends, “Scale back the intensity of exercise when you notice energy levels dropping and focus instead on low impact movements like walking, pilates and vinyasa yoga.”
Low intensity movement can be exactly what you need sometimes, but at other times during the month, something high intensity that releases endorphins can actually help improve mood. In these cases, Marina recommends trying for 15 minutes of something that gets your heart rate up.
In addition to body movement, our second emotion tip is:
10.) Stress management
If you’ve never had success with stress reduction methods, know that there are plenty of options for you to try. Anything from taking a walk, deep breathing, yoga, stretching, meditation, journaling or therapy can be helpful. Find what works for you and make a plan to do it regularly. I cannot emphasize the importance of reducing stress enough. There are countless ways that stress hormones take effect throughout your body; it’s not only a mental health thing, but a physical health thing, too.
An important component of what Marina encourages is to also seek support. This can be casual, like with a trusted friend, or professional and structured, like with a counselor. She says, “Women who can alter the way they think about their experience with PMS or PMDD often find that the days leading up to their periods are more bearable.” Discussing and processing emotions and feelings can help give them a natural flow through and out of the body.
Ultimately, emotions and mood swings might make you feel disconnected from your body, or frustrated by it. Both movement and stress management- including seeking support- help you engage with your body to relax, move, organize information, and connect with others, all of which should help you feel a bit more aligned and in tune with yourself during the ups and downs of a cycle.
If you’ve stuck with us this long, I promise we’re about to wrap up! The last few tips are all the additional suggestions I got from the experts I interviewed.
Kristine Berube, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, 200 hr Registered Yoga Teacher and Certified Reiki Master shared with me about the ways she recommends using yoga, pranayama, meditation and affirmations to make cycles more peaceful. She emphasized seeking out individual recommendations from a trusted yoga teacher and/or public class, but was happy to share this with us:
11.) Top three yoga poses during your cycle
- Balasana (child’s pose or any other forward fold)- Benefits: gently massages the pelvic and abdominal region. Tips: use a prop to rest your torso for extra support and release.
- Supta Baddhaa Konasana (reclined goddess pose)- Benefits: opens pelvic area and can help alleviate cramps. Tips: “I love the restorative variation of this pose which uses a bolster, two blocks and a blanket draped across the low bellow for extra comfort and grounding.”
- Malasana (yogi squat)- Benefits: opens hips, stretches low back and stretches pelvic floor. Tips: For a gentler variation, try placing a block beneath the base of the spine to alleviate pressure in the hips and allow more relaxation through the groin.
She also highly recommends:
12.) Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Kristine says that this form of breathing can be used during your cycle or any times of added stress or heightened emotions. “It is specifically helpful during your cycle to reduce stress and anxiety, balance hormones, calm the nervous system and balance masculine and feminine energy within the body.” She says there are plenty of resources available to help you get started with this practice but that her first suggestions will always be to ask a trusted yoga teacher for guidance.
Lastly, Matthew Amato, Licenced Acupuncturist, shared with me about acupuncture. Here’s some of what he helped me understand:
“Cycle disruptions, like sleep or digestive issues, can throw off all aspects of your life. These are chemical imbalances, so they affect mood, metabolism, concentration, energy levels, etc. It’s difficult to maintain your attention to any task, much less work effectively, when you’re in pain, fatigued and bloated. That would make anyone irritable. In Eastern Medicine, these imbalances are due to a dysfunction in organ systems, especially the liver, kidneys and spleen.”
To address these period and PMS symptoms, he gives us tip #12:
Matt says, “It increases circulation, decreases inflammation, and calms the nervous system. It’s regulatory, and it takes 3 months on average to regulate a cycle.”
For those of you interested in the details, here’s a more in-depth explanation of what’s happening during acupuncture from Matthew: “The instant a hair thin needle is inserted 2mm into a specific point, all kinds of chemical reactions begin to occur. Endorphins are released, Serotonin and Dopamine receptors are opened to act as a natural antidepressant, and we tap into your primary healing response, such as how you heal from a cut. If you experience the usual cramps, breast tenderness and mood swings before your cycle, ideally we treat you the week prior to reduce those symptoms. The symptoms subside because we’re treating the root of the problem in those organ dysfunctions, not just the symptoms themselves.
Through my own personal experience working with Matthew, I can attest to the powerful PMS and period healing that can happen through acupuncture. When I first started working with Matthew, I was just coming off a 4ish month stint of birth control that totally threw my body off and was having trouble with bad period cramps, bloating, mood swings, and trying to re-regulate my cycle. After working with Matthew (and Jillian at Prevention Pantry who was quoted above) I’ve been able to regulate my period, and my symptoms are much better managed. I still get a little headache, some mild bloating, and let’s just say Eric, my boyfriend, can tell when my period is coming (moody!) but it’s MUCH much better overall.
I was extremely glad to have Matthew explain it better (for you and for me!) and provide some context for how it works.
Phew. We covered a heck of a lot in a single blog post. You can find a summary graphic of all 13 tips below. My greatest hope is that among all this info, there is at least one helpful nugget that will help you make a significant impact on your own self-support throughout your cycle. Not all of these tips will work for you, the recommended foods aren’t miracle-working “superfoods” and one yoga session does not turn you into a stress-free zen master overnight (if only!)
But as with almost all health advice, you are free to pick and choose. Take what works for you and leave the rest. Above all, I hope that you feel seen, acknowledged and normalized. I hope you have recognized that we are all in this together. I hope you feel supported and encouraged in your own journey towards a more peaceful monthly cycle.
If you like what you read here, make sure we’re connected on Instagram and/or in my private Facebook group! I post there regularly, and I would love to be in touch with you on those platforms. If you’re interested in learning more about working one-on-one with me, head here to read more and then schedule an introductory call!