Nothing Sweet About PMS
You felt fine this morning, but now it’s 3 pm and your co-worker just won’t stop talking, your head is pounding, your pants suddenly feel too tight, and why won’t she just stop talking? Your solution: a mid-afternoon pick-me-up of iced coffee and just one small cookie and ahhhh, now you feel a little better. If this sounds familiar, then you’re among the millions of women suffering from premenstrual syndrome, more commonly known as PMS.
The numbers are staggering. According to The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, an estimated 80% of women experience some form of premenstrual symptoms for up to two weeks of every month. These symptoms (including breast pain, cramps, bloating, acne, food cravings, headaches, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression, fatigue) can range from mild to increasingly severe or even debilitating.
Interestingly, women in non-industrialized countries who eat primarily a whole food diet don’t suffer from PMS in the same numbers. Typically, North American doctors prescribe NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil or Motrin) or anti-depressants to help alleviate symptoms – but are they just short-term solutions that mask the imbalance triggering them?
You may not want to hear it, but that cookie or sugary drink you just enjoyed may be a contributing factor to those symptoms – specifically, the sugar. Not only does it cause cavities, encourage weight gain and depress your immunity, it also affects estrogen levels in your body. Estrogen dominance has been linked to numerous complaints related to women’s health including PMS, uterine fibroids, endometriosis and breast cancer.
There’s no single cause for excess estrogen. Estrogen dominance can occur when there’s an imbalance between “good” estrogen relative to “bad”, or if the ratio between estrogen and its counterpart, progesterone, is too great. We’re exposed daily to xenoestrogens that mimic natural estrogen found in pesticides, hormones fed to our livestock, herbicides and plastics. It’s important to note, however, that excess estrogen is also linked to diet and lifestyle, namely the high-fat, highly-refined carbohydrate diet prevalent in North America.
Studies show that women who suffer most from PMS consume 62% more refined carbs and 275% more sugar than those who don’t. When we eat those sugary or refined products (including white bread, many packaged cereals and granola bars), our blood sugar rises rapidly and causes insulin levels to surge in order to get that glucose out of our bloodstream and into our cells.
Eating these high-glycemic foods on a regular basis can cause your body to develop insulin resistance, which manifests itself as cravings, constant hunger, mood swings and fatigue. Our body requires more and more insulin to help stabilize our blood sugar. This excess insulin, in turn, causes estrogen dominance, which we know can exacerbate the symptoms of PMS.
So while that sweet treat might give you a short-term boost, it’s not your friend – and in fact, it’ll make you feel worse over the long term. Here are a few easy tips to help you kick that sugar habit and help get your hormones naturally back into balance.
1.Eat more fiber
We could all use a little more fiber in our diet. Not only will it help keep you fuller longer, it’s also essential to help eliminate excess estrogen. Estrogen binds to fiber in your gut in order to be excreted; without sufficient fiber, that excess estrogen will be re-absorbed back into your body. So don’t be afraid to satisfy your sweet tooth with lower glycemic fiber-rich whole fruits such as apples, pears, strawberries or grapes.
Did you know that you can reduce the glycemic impact of a food if it’s paired with a protein? The protein digests more slowly, thereby allowing the sugars to be released more gradually into your bloodstream. You can enjoy two or three sweet (fiber-filled) dates along with a small handful of almonds, or spread some hummus on flaxseed crackers for a crunchy mid-afternoon snack.
3. Beware of “low-fat” foods
These packaged goods often substitute sugar for fat. This is true not only for cereals, cookies and desserts but also for items such as salad dressings and flavored yogurt. Read labels carefully and watch out for ingredients such as corn syrup, glucose-fructose or corn sugar (which are both really just high-fructose corn syrup), maltose, maltodextrin, molasses, brown rice syrup and evaporated cane juice. Hint: words ending in “-ose” or including the words “syrup” are likely sugar in disguise.
4. Include phytoestrogens in your diet
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring compounds found in many plant foods that help normalize estrogen levels. Add one to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed to your morning smoothie; snack on edamame, walnuts or sunflower seeds; and be sure to cook with plenty of garlic.
5. Use stevia
If you must add some sweetness to your yogurt or favorite muffin recipe, add one or two drops of stevia. Stevia is a natural herbal sweetener that’s 300 times sweeter than table sugar, yet has no impact on insulin levels. A little here goes a long way.