The menstrual cycle is a monthly cycle that a women's body goes through in preparation for a possible pregnancy. Each month one of our ovaries releases an egg, this is called 'ovulation'.
While ovulation is taking place, hormonal changes also begin to prepare the uterus for pregnancy. If ovulation occurs but the egg isn't fertilised, our uterus will then shed it's lining through the vagina. This is what then becomes our monthly period.
Our hormones can fluctuate a lot throughout our menstrual cycle, which has an impact on our appetite and how much fluid our body retains. Food cravings, increased hunger, water retention, and swelling are all common symptoms that can lead to perceived or actual weight gain around the time of a period.
What are the typical symptoms of premenstrual syndrome?
Many women experience both physical and psychological symptoms during the days before starting a period. This is known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
The type, severity, and duration of symptoms will vary from person to person. Some may experience a combination of symptoms, while others might not experience any at all.
Symptoms may include:
- Aches and pains
- Skin problems
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Abdominal pain
- Angry outbursts
- Crying spells
- Social withdrawal
- Poor concentration
- Changes in sexual desire
People may feel additional symptoms in the days leading up to a period. Symptoms may include:
- Thirst and appetite changes
- Swelling of the hands or feet
How does the menstruation cycle affect appetite?
Many of us may notice significant changes to our appetite throughout the monthly menstrual cycle. For some, these changes may lead to concerns over weight gain.
Changes to our appetite tend to occur at two different stages of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase and the luteal phase.
- The follicular phase - this phase begins when when we starting bleeding and ends before we begin ovulation. Oestrogen is the dominant hormone during this phase. Since oestrogen suppresses appetite, we may find we eat less during this phase.
- The luteal phase - this phase begins after ovulation and lasts up to the first day of the next period. During the luteal phase, progesterone is the dominant hormone. Since progesterone stimulates appetite, we tend to be more hungry during this phase, which may lead to increase food intake.
Water retention and swelling
We may also experience increased water and salt retention around the time of our period. This is due to an increase in the hormone progesterone.
Progesterone activates the hormone aldosterone, which causes the kidneys to retain water and salt. This can lead to bloating and swelling (particularly in the abdomen, arms, and legs), which can appear as weight gain and make our clothes feel a bit tighter.
For those of us looking to lose weight, this can sometimes feel disheartening. However, keep in mind that any weight gain around the time of your period is more likely to be fluid-related, rather than true changes to your fat or muscle mass.
In the week leading up to our period, research has shown that our magnesium levels can drop, which can exacerbate some symptoms (including bloating). Ensuring we include plenty of foods rich in magnesium could help us better manage these symptoms.
Foods high in magnesium include:
- Nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews)
- Leafy greens
Iron is an important component of red blood cells. Therefore, we need to make sure we get enough iron through the diet to replace any lost during the bleeding phase of the menstrual cycle.
We can get enough iron from a balanced diet, but foods high in iron include:
- Red meat
- Beans and pulses (e.g. kidney beans, edamame beans, chickpeas)
- Nuts and seeds
- Green leafy vegetables
Studies have also shown that vitamin C can enhance the absorption of iron, so try to include vitamin C rich foods alongside iron (e.g. fresh peppers and tomatoes with beans on toast).
What can I do to stay on track during my period?
We may find it more difficult to manage food cravings in the days leading up to our period. So here's a list of things we recommend during this time:
- Take a break from the scales and avoid weighing yourself
- Plan your meals ahead of time and ensure you have nutritious ingredients stocked in the fridge and cupboard
- Prepare a few delicious healthy snacks to have ready ahead of time
- Avoid sugary foods as these can make some PMS symptoms worse
- Include magnesium and iron rich foods in your diet
- Stay hydrated - try to drink at least 8 glasses of water each day. If you fancy something more comforting, why not try a warming herbal tea?
- Exercise regularly - exercise has been shown to lessen symptoms during your period. Choose a type of exercise that makes you feel good, whether that be a gentle walk, some soft yoga, stretching, or perhaps a low impact HIIT workout. Check the Exercise toolbox in the app for inspiration.
- Use a hot water bottle to ease any aches and pains
- Be kind to yourself and take some time for self-care. For example, run a warm bath, apply a cleansing face mask, or watch your favourite tv show.
- Get to bed early - there's nothing more restorative than a good nights sleep!
If you feel your menstrual symptoms are preventing you from performing your usual daily activities, we'd suggest speaking with your GP as there are many effective treatments available.
Article written by Jen Taylor, Registered Nutritionist and Second Nature Health Coach