When you think about the relationship between your diet and your menstrual cycle, you might think about craving chocolate, carbs and all the sugar around the time your period arrives. But what you might not know is that the foods you eat can actually have an impact on your menstrual cycle.
Yes, it’s true that the menstrual cycle is regulated by hormones, namely estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. But research has also shown that the foods you eat can affect hormones, as well as your menstrual cycle.
We sat down with OB/GYN and Binto advisor, Dr. Jessica Chan, MD, to learn more about how your diet affects your menstrual cycle.
Can you tell your period is on its way when you start craving ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies? “Often, women notice an increase in desire for sugar right before or at the start of their period, which is often driven by the hormone fluctuations that occur around this time,” Chan explains.
After ovulation, progesterone rises, which can cause the body to have a higher resistance to insulin. When your body is more resistant to insulin, you might find yourself craving those sugary foods.
Another side effect of eating too much sugar is, of course, weight gain. This can lead to irregular cycles. “As women become more overweight, the excess fat can produce hormones that increase insulin resistance, which can cause irregular periods,” Chan notes.
Just like the end of a big night out, the relationship between alcohol and the menstrual cycle isn’t entirely clear. “Some studies show that alcohol does change levels of reproductive hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone and luteinizing hormone, but these changes in hormones have not been linked to changes in menstrual function per se,” Chan says.
While moderate drinking may not cause a significant change in periods, there may be some relationship between high doses of alcohol and menstrual irregularities. “Women who drink a large amount of alcohol over a long period of time may have amenorrhea (no periods for more than 3 months) or very irregular cycles,” Chan explains. This may be tied to changes in body weight/composition in women who drink a large amount, rather than the alcohol itself.
Alcohol may have different impacts during different parts of the menstrual cycle. For example, if you drink alcohol during the second half of your period (after ovulation, in the weeks leading up to your period), you might be more likely to experience intense psychological effects of drinking, such as depression or elation.
Finally, if you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s a good idea to lay off the liquor. “There is some conflicting data on the impact that alcohol has on fertility, but it’s generally not advisable to drink heavily if you’re trying to conceive,” Chan notes.
Foods that contain lots of saturated fat (think: burgers, butter, and cheese) may also be linked to the hormonal activity during the menstrual cycle, Chan says.
“Foods high saturated fat has been linked to increased inflammation, which can worsen pain symptoms during the period,” she explains. While a healthy amount of fat in a diet is important to maintain menstrual health, extreme intake of fatty foods can also be tied to obesity, which leads to irregular menstrual cycles.
If you’re not eating enough fat, it could be a result of an overly restrictive diet, which can throw off normal body composition, Chan notes. The backbone of all steroid hormones (including estrogens and androgens) is cholesterol, which is found in fats. “If a person consumes too little fat, there is not enough cholesterol available to make these necessary hormones needed for reproduction and healthy menstrual function,” she explains.
Fiber is an essential component of all diet, and foods high in fiber are linked to many health benefits including normal bowel function and healthy cholesterol levels, Chan says. “There have been some studies that demonstrate that diets extremely high in fiber can be linked to lower estrogen levels, which in turn can cause irregular periods.”
“However, moderation is key,” Chan says. Including a good — but not extreme — amount of fiber in your diet is important for your overall health.
Your Game Plan
“In general, I advise my patients to maintain a balanced diet — one that includes a healthy amount of vegetables and fruit, fish, whole-fat dairy, and meat,” Chan says. “And again, most importantly, moderation is key!” A glass of wine here or there, or a sweet treat once in a while is unlikely to cause any significant changes in menstrual function.
Also, let's agree to wave goodbye to fad diets that villainize any single food, like carbs or fats. “These diets are extremely difficult to maintain and may lead to large swings in weight,” Chan explains. And women who are at the extremes of weight — either overweight or underweight — or if they have lost or gained weight very quickly, they are more likely to experience menstrual irregularities.