PMS cravings are all the rage (sometimes literally) in the luteal phase of our cycles. When we’re not clued in to our monthly changes, it might feel like something otherworldly has taken over and cleaned out the fridge.
Intense cravings can be the result of a few different things: emotional needs, physical hunger, or a sign that your body needs a certain type of nourishment. How can you tell what’s actually causing them?
Emotional vs. physical hunger
There can be a lot going on in the premenstrual phase, including emotional fluctuations, energy dips, and mood swings. Since many of us have learned to cope with our emotions using food, those PMS symptoms can be confused for one another. The result is a temporary fix for a whole other problem.
First, let’s distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger.
|Emotional Hunger||Physical Hunger|
|Comes on suddenly||Comes on gradually|
|Craving specific foods||Open to more options to get your needs met|
|Can’t be satisfied by feeling full||Fullness is satisfying|
|May experience feelings of guilt and shame after eating||Feel content after eating|
As you can see, emotional hunger tends to be more direct but ongoing, whereas physical hunger is more relaxed in its characteristics and easier to move on from once you eat.
This isn’t to demonize emotional eating, but like I said, if we’re trying to fill one type of need with a different type of solution, the puzzle pieces don’t really fit. You might be able to wedge it in there but eventually, you’re going to need to figure out where it actually goes.
And if it is emotional, let’s do away with the myth that it’s an issue of willpower.
Emotional eating is often a learned dopamine response. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feeling pleasure, so it’s natural for us to create a habit of reaching for food that soothes us because the brain creates associations over time. If you’ve trained your brain to think that food = happiness, even if that happiness is only temporary, just know there’s nothing wrong with you—everything is working the way it’s designed to.
How your cycle affects your hunger/fullness
One of the ways I track my cycle is by using a “word of the day” for how I’m feeling. Closer to the start of my period, one word that pops up is INSATIABLE. Can you relate?
It makes sense, because your metabolism is stronger in the second half of your cycle than in the first. This means the amount of food your body needs increases too. That insatiable feeling isn’t about your willpower. It might just mean your typical serving sizes just aren’t big enough to meet your needs in this phase.
As your cravings come on, by all means, satisfy them, but get curious about them too! Consider whether there’s an emotional root you can tackle with some self-care, or if you’re actually eaten enough during the day. And if you track your cycle like I do and know that feeling’s coming, make a meal plan that adjusts to your needs.
5 PMS cravings and what they mean
Keep in mind that the difference between emotional and physical hunger isn’t always as clear-cut as the above list. That’s just a helpful place to start. If you are hungry and you do have more direct, intense cravings for certain foods, it might be your body’s way of telling you what type of nourishment it needs!
1. Refined carbohydrates
What it could mean: Low energy from skipping meals, not eating enough fiber, or not eating enough in general.
This is number one because it’s THE most common thing I hear. Bread, pasta, cookies, etc. You are D-Y-I-N-G to get them down the hatch.
Remember that the strength of your metabolism changes throughout the month, and your body naturally burns more energy or calories in the luteal phase, when PMS symptoms arise. (I hate to use the word calories because I don’t want this to equate to food measurements, but the term is how we describe energy in this context.)
Quick lesson: carbohydrates are converted into glucose, or blood sugar, when you digest them. The speed at which glucose enters the bloodstream can increase or decrease depending on what you eat with those carbohydrates. Protein, fat, and fiber all help slow down digestion so you’re not spiking your blood sugar (and eventually crashing it).
Because you naturally burn more energy in the luteal phase, in turn your body is going to want more energy to refuel. The bread and pasta and cookies you’re craving are the quickest and easiest way to get it because (typically) there is little to no protein, fat, or fiber to slow down its digestion and entry into the bloodstream.
To get ahead of this, keeping blood sugar stable throughout the day is key. Skipping meals or not getting enough food to meet your needs can lead to low blood sugar, which is where that craving for quick energy can stem from. For more energy and satisfaction out of your meals, remember that balance: protein, fat, fiber.
What it could mean: You may need magnesium, or are in need of a mood boost
There are a couple of reasons you might be craving chocolate when you’re PMSing. First is exactly the reason I mentioned above. If you’re cravings the sweetness and sugar aspect, low energy is a potential cause.
Your body could also be craving magnesium, especially if you’re dealing with painful cramps.
The uterus is a muscle, and one of its jobs is to contract in order to push out its lining and blood that it’s shedding during your period. Magnesium has muscle-relaxing properties that can reduce period pain if you’re finding the cramps are too much. (In a healthy menstrual cycle, only mild cramping is normal, anything more is worth looking into).
Chocolate also contains anandamide, known as the bliss chemical (ananda is Sanskrit for “bliss” or “happiness”). It’s part of our endocannabinoid system, which is not my area of expertise, but research shows it’s a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter. You might just be looking for a mood boost!
[Soapbox time: Buying fair trade can boost your mood too, knowing you supported an ethically sourced and sustainable product! Mars, Nestlé and Hershey are known to use child slavery for their products. Ask your local chocolate maker about their sourcing, or check out Thrive Market for some fair trade options.]
3. Red meat
What it could mean: Your body may need iron.
The craving for red meat has no prejudice in its targets. I’ve had vegetarians sheepishly admit to me that they’ve been craving a hunk of beef lately and they can’t figure out why. Whether beef or pork are part of your diet or not, there’s a clue in there that might take you in a satisfying direction.
Iron is a key nutrient to watch if you have a heavy flow. Grass-fed meat is a great iron source, and plant sources include leafy greens like spinach, lentils, nuts, seeds, beans, chickpeas, and olives.
Those who don’t eat animal foods may need to supplement — BUT, always get tested first and speak to a health practitioner first because it’s not always as simple as supplementing with iron alone.
Iron-rich foods are a gentler option if you haven’t been tested. However, if you still need more of a boost, consider something like liquid chlorophyll, which contains a variety of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals (rather than only iron).
What it could mean: You may have low or imbalanced cortisol.
Not feeling so excited for the alarm to go off this week? Closer to your menstrual phase, you might notice an increased need for a cup of coffee… and another one… and another one.
There’s this thing you should know called the cortisol curve, and cortisol is one of our stress hormones. When your hormones are balanced, cortisol peaks in the morning, making you feel awake and ready for the day, then it bottoms out before bedtime. The curve looks like you’re downhill skiing from the top of a mountain during the day.
On top of our daily needs, we also secrete cortisol to help us deal with short-term stress.
If your cortisol is low in the morning, it’s more like there’s no gondola in sight to take you up the mountain. You wake up tired and slog through your day. You rely on caffeine for stimulation because you can’t seem to muster up any on your own.
Or you might be going in reverse, waking up with low cortisol only for it to rise and make you feel wired when you’re supposed to be getting ready to sleep, flying up that mountain.
But low cortisol can actually be the result of chronically high cortisol (read: too much stress, regularly pumping out cortisol, draining your ability to cope). If that’s the case, reaching for multiple cups of coffee every day is actually working against you and your cycle.
First, we use progesterone (a key hormone of the menstrual cycle) to make cortisol. If you have low cortisol as a result of chronic stress, you end up with low progesterone as well (and thus, estrogen dominance). Second, caffeine can exacerbate stress imbalances by elevating cortisol.
Long story short, your morning brew isn’t a detriment to your health, but if you’re relying on multiple cups of coffee to get through your day in the luteal phase, you might be contributing to PMS symptoms and adrenal issues.
Some natural energy boosters to consider: sunlight, exercise, and lots of water.
5. Sour candy
What it could mean: You may have low stomach acid.
The first four are more common PMS cravings, but I’ve also gotten questions about whether craving sour candy means anything. This also goes for other sour, tangy foods (like citrus) or vinegary flavors.
Sour cravings may be your body’s way of telling you stomach acid production is low. So if you were my client, I’d ask you the following questions:
- Are you having any digestive troubles? Gas or bloating? Acid reflux?
- Are you taking antacids?
- What is your water intake like?
- Are you stressed?
Digestive troubles are a sign of low stomach acid. Its purpose is to help prepare food for digestion by softening tissues and activating an enzyme called pepsin that breaks down protein. If that’s not happening, it can sit in the stomach and putrefy (sorry), creating the gas that makes you feel bloated.
Acid reflux is also a symptom of low stomach acid, though we think of it as the opposite problem. The issue is often that your lower esophageal sphincter is weak, and the gas in your stomach can push up on it and cause what little acid there is to escape. So we take antacids because we think it’s *too much* that’s the problem, and decrease the amount even more.
Proper hydration helps regulate your stomach acid production, however too much before a meal can dilute it. So make sure you’re getting in the amount your body needs (general rec = half your body weight in ounces), but being mindful of drinking too much before eating.
Also, as with so many other conditions, stress is a major contributor to poor gut health and impaired stomach acid production. So get your self-care on my friend.
There are challenges to every cycle phase that can arise if we’re out of alignment, including cravings. Not knowing what’s coming can make us feel out of control and disempowered. But understanding the way your body works, and having an idea of what it needs throughout your cycle allows you to take better control and become more of an expert in your own body.