PMS and Food Cravings Are a Weight Loss Dilemma

Having trouble sticking to your plan to eat healthier? Finding it hard to commit to a weight loss diet for more than a week or so?

The cause of your struggle may not be just a lack of willpower. In fact, your menstrual cycle may be to blame.

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Menstrual Cycle 101

Your menstrual cycle is a complex interaction between two structures in your brain and your ovaries. A very sensitive feedback loop controls the timing of estrogen and progesterone production by your ovaries which causes you to ovulate and menstruate at regular intervals. To better understand what is going on with your hormones, let's break down the average 28-day menstrual cycle into three phases:

  1. Day 1-14: Your menstrual cycle starts on the first day you bleed. At this time, both your estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest levels. Over the next 2 weeks, your estrogen or more specifically your estradiol level (the type of estrogen made by your ovaries) steadily and fairly rapidly increases to reach its peak value about day 13 just before ovulation. Progesterone levels remain low during this phase.
  2. Ovulation: Ovulation happens on about day 14. At the time of ovulation, your estradiol levels drop rapidly and your progesterone levels begin to rise.
  3. Day 14-28: During the second half or luteal phase of your cycle, progesterone dominates. Your level of progesterone rapidly increases and stays up until just before your period starts when it begins to rapidly decline to its lowest level. Also, during the second half of your cycle after dropping very low at ovulation, your estradiol levels increase and then decrease again just before your period. However, in the second half of your cycle, your peak estrogen level is much lower than it was in the first half of your cycle. And perhaps, more importantly, it is much lower relative to your progesterone level.

Estradiol Works Like an Appetite Suppressant

What you eat, when you eat, and how much you eat are influenced by many factors. Cultural preferences may shape what type of food you eat, but your body also has a built-in system to balance your food intake with your energy output. It turns out some of these appetite controllers are under the influence of estradiol.

Studies have shown that you eat less just before you ovulate than you do at any other point in your menstrual cycle. Overall, you eat less during the first half of your cycle when estradiol is in charge than you do during the second half of your cycle when your estradiol levels are relatively lower and progesterone comes into the picture.

Losing It in the Luteal Phase

So, there are a few things going on in the luteal phase that can sabotage your diet and derail your plans for healthier eating. 

First of all, you have relatively less estradiol in the second half of your cycle as compared to the first half. This may cause you to subconsciously search for more calories as the appetite suppressing effect of estradiol is diminished. Again, research supports that a woman with regular menstrual cycles tends to take in more calories during the luteal phase of her menstrual cycle.

Progesterone is the dominant hormone in the luteal phase or second half of your menstrual cycle. It is thought that one of the effects of progesterone is that it stimulates your appetite. Your elevated progesterone level is also responsible for some of the other unpleasant premenstrual symptoms you might experience bloating, constipation, and breast tenderness.

So, between the decrease in the appetite suppressant effects of estradiol and the appetite-stimulating effect of progesterone, you have some challenging biological hurdles to overcome.

Why PMDD Might Make This Worse

Women with PMDD are thought to be more sensitive to the normal hormone changes during their menstrual cycle. Currently, researchers are trying to uncover the reason why this happens and how the normal changing hormone levels trigger such significant mood disturbances in some women. One of these explanations looks at the relationship between estradiol and the brain chemical serotonin.

Estradiol has a positive effect on your brain's production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is your brain's "feel-good" chemical. It is responsible for regulating your mood and maintaining your general sense of well-being. It is thought that in some women with PMDD, the relative decrease in estradiol levels in the second half of their cycle causes an exaggerated response on serotonin levels in the brain leading to mood disturbances and anxiety.

It is thought that it is this exaggerated serotonin response to the decrease in estradiol in some women with PMDD that triggers certain food cravings. Sensing this negative effect on serotonin, your brain and body work quickly to produce more serotonin.

And, what is the best type of food to quickly increase your serotonin levels? Simple carbohydrate-rich and protein-poor foods.

Sound familiar? Against your better judgment, you find yourself plowing through that bag of potato chips or Oreo cookies. This load of simple carbs kicks up your body's insulin level which in turn increases your brain's tryptophan levels. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin. More tryptophan means more serotonin. And with that carb binge, you just temporarily improved your mood disturbance.

This is a good example of using food as a drug, literally. One obvious downside to this strategy is that often simple carb snacks are also loaded with calories. And since you only get a temporary benefit, this cycle likely repeats itself several times during your luteal phase.

And just like that, all the good work you did with healthy eating over the last two weeks is sabotaged once again.

Tricks to Take Control

The first step to taking control of your eating patterns is to understand the changes going on in your body every month. The first step to gaining control is to track where you are in your cycle. Consider using the period tracker app Clue to help you.

From the start of your period until ovulation you have about two weeks where your hormones are on your side. Your estradiol level is up and your progesterone level is down. This is a good time to get started on a healthy diet and exercise routine. If you can get yourself into a good routine in these two weeks it will help you face the challenges that come with the luteal phase of your cycle.

The real challenge starts when you hit your luteal phase. But now you understand why your body turns to simple carbs and sugary food to help boost your mood. Armed with this knowledge you can try some tactics to help you stick to your healthy eating goals even in the luteal phase:

  • Be kind to yourself. Slip-ups will happen. Remember, just because you had a few cookies doesn't mean you can't get back on track.
  • Get moving. Getting regular exercise, especially during the luteal phase, is very helpful for appetite control. If you tend to snack at night try doing a few minutes of dancing or running in place before you head off to the kitchen for a snack. Or take some time to do some mood-boosting and anxiety blasting yoga poses.
  • Snack substitutes. Try to substitute for a healthier snack. If you are a potato chip muncher, try no-butter popcorn. If chocolate is your go-to craving, trade in your milk chocolate for dark chocolate. Dark chocolate has serotonin-boosting powers as well as other health benefits.
  • Have a cup of tea. Try a cup of herbal tea to calm your mind. Not only is slowly sipping a cup of hot tea a relaxing ritual, but you can also benefit by choosing teas with mood-boosting properties.
  • Head to bed. If you are having a particularly rough day and really struggling not to dive into that bag of cookies head to bed. Sleep is extremely healing for your body and helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol which can also sabotage your mood and your diet.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding your menstrual cycle and the changes it causes in your body, like how your hormone levels affect your appetite and mood, is really important. This is especially true if you have PMS or PMDD because you have exaggerated responses to your normal cyclic hormone changes. Knowing what your body needs at different times in your cycle will help you stick with your healthy lifestyle goals.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Draper CF, Duisters K, Weger B, et al. Menstrual cycle rhythmicity: metabolic patterns in healthy women. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):14568. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-32647-0

  2. Dahlgren CL, Qvigstad E. Eating disorders in premenstrual dysphoric disorder: a neuroendocrinological pathway to the pathogenesis and treatment of binge eating. J Eat Disord. 2018;6:35. doi:10.1186/s40337-018-0222-2

  3. Rapkin AJ, Lewis EI. Treatment of premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Womens Health (Lond Engl). 2013;9(6):537-556. doi:10.2217/whe.13.62

Additional Reading

By Andrea Chisholm, MD
Andrea Chisolm, MD, is a board-certified OB/GYN who has taught at both Tufts University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.