Healthy Tips

It’s Time to Talk About Periods

The Truth Behind the Feelings, Cravings and Pain

The period deserves to be a topic of conversation: On average, a woman menstruates from age 13 to 51 and has her period from three to seven days. That means the average woman endures roughly 2,280 period days – a whopping 6.25 years of her life.

Most women who get periods experience some type of physical, emotional and psychological effects of menstruation. So now that the conversation is happening, here’s the honest truth on symptoms many women experience every month, but might not talk about – yet.

Food Cravings Are Real

Yes, food cravings are real. The hormonal ebbs and spikes that occur throughout a woman's cycle are the major culprits when it comes to food cravings, especially if the woman experiences premenstrual syndrome, or PMS.

As estrogen levels fluctuate, so do levels of cortisol, the hormone that causes feelings of stress and anxiety. Most women with PMS also experience a drop in serotonin, which many researchers believe is the hormone responsible for mood stabilization and calm feelings.

When you put it all together, an increase in cortisol and a decrease in serotonin means your body is left feeling out of balance, and tries to figure out how to make things right again. So what does that have to do with cravings? Your body uses carbs to make serotonin, so your body starts craving carbs.

Unfortunately, you’re not craving carbs like whole wheat bread and fruit. We’re talking simple carbs – sugar-based sweets like chocolate and ice cream, and fat-carb combos like bagels and cream cheese, pizza and cheeseburgers. And while eating a big brownie sundae might make you feel good for a couple minutes, giving in to every food craving is not the best way to even out your hormone levels.

Eating a balanced diet high in complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread, pasta and cereal may reduce mood symptoms and food cravings. Eating six smaller meals each day instead of three large ones is also a good trick to help keep blood sugar levels stable.

Avoiding caffeine and alcohol and making sure to get enough sleep can also help reduce moodiness and cravings.

But let’s be honest. If a handful of Hershey’s Kisses is going to help you get through your day, then indulge yourself – just do so in moderation. You may also find some consolation in knowing that the sugar and salt in your period diet is not completely responsible for feeling bloated.

“A diet high in sodium absolutely contributes to water retention as does refined sugar, but it does not cause bloating,” says Lisa Oldham, MD, a gynecologist at Northwestern Medicine. “Ovulation, rising progesterone levels, slower bowel motility and a diet low in fiber generally result in bloat.”

Mood Swings Are Real

Irritability. Anger. Anxiety and nervousness. Feeling like you’re on a roller coaster of ups and downs, sadness and happiness. Researchers might not understand exactly why PMS brings on emotional mayhem, but one thing is for sure: It’s real, and almost every woman who has PMS experiences it.

Researchers think mood swings and other emotional disturbances could be connected to the rise and fall of hormones, specifically estrogen, throughout the menstrual cycle.

While it’s true that you can’t change your body’s make-up, you can make small tweaks in your everyday life that might lessen the symptoms and help you feel better. One thing you can try is to consume less salt. Reducing salt intake reduces water retention in the brain, which can help ease both physical and emotional symptoms.

Pain Is Real

A little cramping, pain and discomfort before and during your period is normal. In fact, according to the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, more than 50% of women who menstruate experience pain for at least a couple days every month.

But for 20% of those women, the pain can be so severe, so debilitating, that it gets in the way of work, school and other daily activities.

Painful menstruation is technically called dysmenorrhea, and it occurs right before or during your period. There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary dysmenorrhea and secondary dysmenorrhea.

Primary dysmenorrhea is the more common of the two, and usually begins a year or so after a woman starts getting her period. The pain is felt in the lower abdomen or back, and can be mild to severe. One promising thing about primary dysmenorrhea is that it usually gets better as a woman ages, and sometimes goes away completely after she has her first baby.

Secondary dysmenorrhea, on the other hand, is caused by a disorder in the reproductive system, such as endometriosis or fibroids. It can begin later in life, and unfortunately the pain tends to get worse over time, not better.

No matter which type of dysmenorrhea you experience, your OB/GYN can help you treat the pain and might even suggest some lifestyle changes that could make a big difference. Pain relievers and/or birth control pills are sometimes prescribed, and things like exercise, sleep and relaxation techniques can sometimes help relieve the pain.

Even though women have experienced periods since the beginning of time, menstruation is still a topic that some consider taboo. But healthy habits are founded on awareness of your body and how it functions. Knowing the nitty and sometimes gritty of menstruation not only gives you a better grasp on what’s normal, but it also provides the confidence to take an active role in improving your health – even if it’s just by continuing the conversation.

Lisa M. Oldham, MD
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Health System Clinician, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Gynecology
  • Secondary Specialty Minimally Invasive Gynecological Surgery
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