The Food-Mood Connection and Your PMDD Symptoms

Do you know your period is coming because you can't put down that bag of potato chips or close that box of donuts? Do you have strong food cravings along with mood changes in the second half, or luteal phase, of your menstrual cycle?

If you do, then you surely would agree that there is a strong connection between your mood and food. But what you might not realize is that your brain is craving certain foods for their ability to calm anxiety or soothe depression, both of which can accompany your period.

girl eating ice cream
praetorianphoto / iStockphoto

The Science Behind Stress Eating

There is a reason why carrots or rice cakes don't immediately come to mind when you think about food cravings. As healthy as these choices may be, they don't give your stressed-out brain what it needs. In fact, you are hardwired to crave what is known as highly palatable foods—foods that are high in fat and sugar.

This type of food influences your brain reward centers. It can have a sedating and mood-elevating effect by working on chemicals and receptors in certain parts of your brain. Interestingly, the brain centers that are triggered by this type of food are the same centers triggered by drug addiction.

Although the biochemical effects of high fat, high sugar food may bring you some temporary comfort and relief, these foods can throw your body off balance over time, triggering the secretion of hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, growth hormone and glucagon.

Consuming too much high fat, high sugar food can actually make you more sensitive to stress. This increased sensitivity to stress causes even more "stress eating" through rapid increases and decreases in glucose. In turn, this leads to a vicious cycle that results in significant weight gain and obesity, which can ultimately lead to more depression and anxiety.

How to Manage Premenstrual Food Cravings

Your mood affects your food choices, but the reverse is also true—your food choices can affect your mood. Consider these three strategies to optimize your brain's response to stress:

  1. Take a good look at your general eating habits. Make sure you are following the basic principles of a healthy, well-balanced diet. This can easily be done by doing a food diary for a week prior to your cycle.
  2. Do your best to eliminate the highly palatable, high fat, high sugar, processed foods from your diet. Look for healthier substitutes to satisfy your sweet cravings. Home-baked options so you can limit sugar and fat are possible solutions—keep these handy when your luteal phase cravings come along.
  3. Make bargains with yourself in the luteal phase to wean off the brain-soothing effects of the highly palatable foods you are craving. This will be hard and take time. But, what you need to do is activate your own healthy feel-good brain chemicals (endorphins). So, before you sit on the couch with a snack, try one minute of a simple cardio exercise, like jumping jacks or jogging-in-place. Over time, you will do longer intervals and add other types of exercise and, eventually, you will replace the bad-food-brain-soothe with the mood-protective effects of exercise.

Let Your Food Help Your Mood

There are many foods that are known to be mood boosters. If you suffer from premenstrual mood changes, make sure you are eating these foods on a regular basis.

In addition, there is evidence to suggest that two common spices may have some benefit in helping your brain manage the mood symptoms of PMDD. Although more research is needed before definite recommendations can be made, adding these spices to your kitchen may boost your mood as well as your food.

Turmeric

In animal studies, a major component of the spice turmeric, curcumin, has been found to help regulate two brain chemicals that are responsible for mood—serotonin and dopamine. It has also been shown to fight inflammation and help support BNDF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein in your brain that works to maintain brain health.

Saffron

Saffron is another spice with mood-boosting power. Research suggests that saffron regulates certain chemicals in your brain responsible for maintaining your mood, especially serotonin, and may have an antidepressant effect. Moreover, saffron may also reduce some physical symptoms of PMS/PMDD.

A Word From Verywell

Taking control of the relationship between your mood and food can help support your brain and your body's response to stress. This includes the hormonal sensitivity that triggers your luteal phase mood changes.

Developing strategies to replace unhealthy comfort foods and introduce healthier brain-boosting options will help you live and cope better, even during the second half of your menstrual cycle.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Agha-Hosseini, M., Kashani, L., Aleyaseen, A., Ghoreishi, A., Rahmanpour, H., Zarrinara, A. and Akhondzadeh, S. (2008), Crocus sativus L. (saffron) in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 115: 515–519. doi:10.1111/j.1471-0528.2007.01652.x
  • Singh, M. (2014). Mood, food, and obesity. Frontiers in Psychology5, 925. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00925