Up until recently, my diet consisted of a lot of whatever I felt like eating at any particular moment. To me, food is tied to emotion—allowing for an excuse to indulge when I’m happy or sad, stressed or relaxed, hungry or just bored. Each feeling granted me the opportunity to gift myself with food, whether it was a celebration or a spiral. I acquiesced my sluggish, inflamed reaction to a processed and refined diet with an explanation in my head that food meant too much to me to deprive myself. I ate fried, glutinous entrées with abandon and spent all my money on delivery Chinese food. Now, I’m not here to tell you I love those foods any less. Food is still important to me, and that’s not going to change. Plus, indulgence is vital because balance is the real goal. But after a while, my body seemed to have had enough. I’m a few months away from my 30th birthday, and I suppose what they tell you about growing older is true: You can’t do the same things anymore and expect the same results. People have been talking up healthy foods my entire life and, unfortunately, the rumors are true. It's not a farce. The food I was eating was making me feel terrible, and that had nothing to do with weight. When it came down to it, I had to start taking care of my health.
That was around the same time I discovered Kacie Carter and Caitlin Sullivan, two women who own an L.A. restaurant and are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to nutrition and feel-good habits. I asked them for some guidelines as it pertains to food and overall health. You should give it a read; it’s been genuinely transformative. Then, I began to figure things out on my own terms. For me, that was cutting out processed foods (think most things that come in a package), refined oils and sugar, and cutting out gluten. It sounds intense, I know, but I'm not as strict about it as you'd think. I don't check to make sure sauces don't have gluten, and I'll eat natural sugars. What it is, though, is an overall shift to thoughtful eating and awareness. My diet now mostly consists of cold-water fish like salmon and cod, well-sourced meat, healthy fats like avocado and eggs, and tons of healing veggies including greens, mushrooms, and the like. I substitute butter and refined oils for ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil. I've never felt better. The thing is, these foods taste good. It's just making the decision to eat them over all the other stuff.
Among positive developments like more energy, better sleep, and less bloating has been one huge payoff: My PMS symptoms have vanished completely. See, over the last year or so, I've felt a significant shift. I used to get the occasional cramp or breast soreness, but this was different. For two weeks (the week leading up to my period and the six or so days I menstruated), I would bloat up, feel excruciating cramps, have unbelievable soreness, and generally feel awful. I talked to an Ayurvedic doctor about the changes and he suggested I get my hormones checked. "If something feels different in your body, something's up," he told me. But then, the symptoms disappeared a few weeks after I altered the way I was eating. It was a shocking but welcome change, and I've genuinely never felt better. In order to better understand why this was happening (and make sure it wasn't some sort of placebo thing), I reached out to experts in the field. Below, nutritionists, doctors, and hormone experts explain exactly what was going on and why this outcome isn't a surprise.
First, there's insulin
"Insulin, which is released after consuming food or beverage with refined sugars, takes away glucose from the blood and puts it into cells. It's associated with lower levels of a hormone called sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG)," explains Erika Angle, Ph.D., the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela. "One of the things SHBG does is to take up estrogen, decreasing the amount available to bind to various receptors, thus reducing the effects of high estrogen (symptoms like low mood, bloating, joint pain, cravings, swelling, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, and more). If there isn’t enough SHBG due to high levels of insulin present after handling sugar-filled meals, then levels of compounds like estrogen and testosterone can increase resulting in an imbalance of hormones."
Alisa Vitti, HHC, AADP, a functional nutritionist and the founder and CEO FloLiving.com agrees: "The macronutrient combination you eat affects insulin levels which will dramatically affect the rest of your hormonal cascade. In fact, that combination will either support hormone balance or act as an endocrine disruptor. The micronutrients you absorb from those food groups provide the building blocks for the hormones that each of the glands in the endocrine system is trying to make. Diet is absolutely critical for hormonal balance and every woman has the power to optimize her hormonal balance by getting the food piece of the equation dialed in."
Then, the fluctuation of your blood's glucose levels
"When blood glucose levels fluctuate," notes Angle, "cortisol (a stress-related hormone) levels increase—as the purpose of cortisol is to help balance the levels of glucose in your blood, preventing large decreases in blood glucose levels after consuming highly sugary foods." Essentially, cutting out those sugary meals will help balance your blood glucose and keep stress at bay. In addition, "without healthy food inputs," Vitti says, "everything from insulin to thyroid to estrogen hormones will quickly imbalance, and symptoms from acne to bloating to mood swings can arise and then snowball into establishing or exacerbating menstrual disorders like PCOS, fibroids, endometriosis, or in some cases infertility."
As well as estrogen, progesterone, and false sugar cravings
"In a nutshell, your hormones are complex, but at the end of the day, your body tends to produce too much estrogen and too low of progesterone compounds when consuming a poor diet or a diet that is high in refined sugars," says Angle. "Interestingly," she adds, "most of us crave sugar during PMS and that could be because of desire for quick energy source (like glucose)—especially if you are dealing with a stressful situation. Also, sugary foods can help our moods temporarily and help us feel happier in the moment. However, progesterone is necessary to feel calm, so the balance between levels of progesterone and estrogen is extremely critical to preventing negative side effects. In addition, heavily processed foods, grains, and compounds called trans-fats can lead to increased PMS symptoms and inflammation."
I want to note that the above experts have science backgrounds, and taking in all of that information can be confusing. None of this is to scare you. Every body is different and thus the same foods are helpful (or hurtful) for different people. I have had an eye-opening experience educating myself on what is happening when I put certain foods into my body. I encourage you to check with your doctor if something feels off and experiment with feel-good foods to find your own balance.
For more, read about these six mood-enhancing herbs.