Pre-menstrual syndrome, weight gain, carb cravings and cramps

One of the hardest times for all of humanity is when women have their period. While men walk around thinking “Ummm… what the hell did I do to deserve that firing?” women walk around ready to beat up anything in sight. Being the excruciatingly painful experience that this is, the reactions are definitely understandable. But, in addition to feeling physical pain/discomfort, suffering from fatigue and giving in to the almost irresistible urge of believing that “Hey honey, would you like some more cheese?” actually means “Hey fatty! Want more cheese to fill in that bellay?? huh??”, the week(s) leading up to the period is one of the hardest chapters in getting and staying in shape.

Many many women face problems during this time that they aren’t able to understand or deal with and I end up getting a tonne of SOS emails. In this post, I’ll address a few of them.

I’m having my period and feel exhausted but I don’t want to miss a workout session! Should I workout? What should I do?

Firstly, kill the obsession. Realize that you’re not going to workout for only the next 3 months. Fitness a lifelong thing and you need to stay active and/or train forever to be able to stay in shape forever. So missing a workout session here and there for legitimate reasons is absolutely fine.

Secondly, treat your period as any other day. If, in a normal day, you feel wiped out for whatever reason (say, stress, lack of sleep, not enough food etc.) how would you deal with that? Would you power through it and workout? Would you take the day off and recover? Would you still workout but only do as much as you can? Same deal. Listen to your body when you have your period.

  • If you are truly exhausted and aren’t able to focus physically and mentally, it is definitely a great idea to skip the workout. No big deal.
  • If you feel not too tired but not 100%, do something light. Work on mobility. Do a series of bodyweight moves (squat, pushups, pullups, burpees, planks, thrusts, hinges etc.) at a relatively low intensity i.e. never going to failure and resting plenty between sets.
  • If you feel like you can power through it, go ahead and kill the workout.

Bottom line is to listen to your body and act based on how you feel.

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I weighed myself today and I’ve gained 2 kilos!! I’ve been eating right and working out regularly but still, this happens! This happens to me all the time. Maybe I’m not cut out to be in shape. Maybe its my genetics. Maybe I’m just cursed. I just don’t seem to lose weight consistently. I lose some and in about three weeks gain 1-2 kilos! Why is this happening to me? Please help!

Here’s some good news for you. You haven’t gained fat. Those 2 kilos are not fat, but water. 1 kilo of fat is 7,700 calories. So for you to have gained 2 kilos of fat, you should have eaten ~ 15,000 calories in excess and that ain’t happening unless you eat 2000 extra calories every day for a week. That’s like eating half a dozen donuts everyday for seven days straight. Well, if you did eat similar to this, then yea, what you gained is fat but chances are you didn’t eat like my man Doug Heffernan.

Water retention is a very common PMS symptom. It generally occurs a week or two before your period and tends to wear off by day 2 or 3 of your period. Though why this exactly happens is still unclear, it is due to hormonal fluctuations that are possibly hereditary. The increase in scale weight is merely due to excess water being retained in your body and is not worthy of phone calls or emails starting with “O… M… F… G!!!”.

That said, here are some ways to keep water retention under control,

  • Watch the salt. No reason to go salt-free or super low salt, but don’t over-salt your food.
  • Drink more water than you normally do. And no, the excess water will not be retained.
  • Remove allergens like wheat, vegetable oils, unsoaked legumes/lentils/beans etc from your diet for the most part.
  • Get more calcium. Don’t even think about popping in pills. Just get yourself a couple of extra cups of whole milk  or probiotic yogurt or a few ounces of cheese.
  • Supplement with Magnesium, if required.
  • On other days, exercise intensely and consistently and stay active all day every day.

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I get very severe carb cravings a week before my period! I try hard to resist it but end up eating sugary junk until the cravings subside. What is happening here? Am I doing something wrong?

Once again, this is a common PMS symptom and something that needs attention. The carb cravings that happen during the week leading up to your period are not the same as other general carb cravings that need to be controlled.

For those who don’t know serotonin, it is a neurotransmitter that is primarily found in the GI tract (gut) and is a major contributor of feelings of well-being and happiness and during menstruation a woman’s serotonin levels are at their lowest. Since carbs increase the availability of tryptophan (amino acid precursor to serotonin), it is fairly natural to crave carbs during this period.

The solution here isn’t really to power through the cravings and fight against them and, at the same time, also not to give into the junk food. The the best and most healthful way to address the issue is to eat a more carbs than usual but stick to high quality carbs, especially starches like sweet potatoes, cooked white rice, fruit etc. How much more? That depends on the craving but it is also wise to remember that you’re only addressing the lack of serotonin and don’t posses a pass to binge and get fat.

While it is true that during the week leading up to your period, your glycogen storage potential/capability is increased and hence your body can utilize the excess carbs for glycogen repletion/storage as opposed to storing them as fat, too much in excess and you will start adding goo.

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Every month I get pre-menstrual cramps. These cramps are so brutally painful I roll into a ball and weep. I take the day off from work and I’m at home all day doing nothing but suffering through the pain. What can I do?

Many (too many) of my female clients start working with me (for fat loss of course) and within a few weeks report that the unbearable pre-menstrual cramps are now very bearable and in a couple of months, they say, it is almost non-existent.

Why this happens is definitely a huge topic and is something I’ll discuss in detail later because it is outside the scope of this article but I’ll talk quickly about how to fix this.

  • Remove all allergens from your diet – wheat, other allergenic grains, vegetable oils high in omega-6, unsoaked legumes/lentils/beans.
  • Get plenty of omega-3s from fish or fish oil.
  • Supplement with Magnesium.
  • Get a good dose of sunlight or supplement with vitamin D.
  • Get enough and more calcium from high quality dairy.

For 6 weeks do the above. Don’t cheat by tricking yourself into believing a little bit of wheat is fine or junk food every 3 days is fine etc. Do the 6-week stint with utmost sincerity, gauge your results and then make a call on what foods you want to keep in your diet and what foods you want out. Julianne from Paleo & Zone Nutrition talks about pre-menstrual cramps and ways to overcome them with nutrition in great detail and is an absolute must read if you suffer from pre-menstrual cramps.

Peace out.

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8 responses to “Pre-menstrual syndrome, weight gain, carb cravings and cramps

  1. scorp30 April 2, 2012 at 9:57 am

    WP not allowing me to post comments, trying for the last time :)
    I can relate to the carb cravings (read: sweet/sugar) especially- I have them every single time. I end up eating sugar or chocolate of jaggery item but the worst is the guilt that follows immediately:(

  2. Roxana April 2, 2012 at 10:24 am

    I’ve only recently noticed my increased gluttony, couple of days before my periods and it alarmed me – I would eat all day and yet, the cravings wouldn’t subside. This post helped explain it.
    I also used to suffer from a rather numbing pain in the left knee, if I was hungry, during the PMS- cycle. I cut out the wheat and it disappeared!

  3. Mamatha April 3, 2012 at 3:51 am

    20+ years of severe menstrual cramps went away after I removed wheat from my diet. Before that, per my Dr’s advice, I had to rely on a steady dose of NSAIDs. Now I only need to wait till the end of my cycle to know if I’ve gone overboard with wheat-based cheat foods.

  4. Vaidehi April 3, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    Did you hear me crib last night?? :O I was almost on my way to join crossfit thinking my current workout is not working for me!!

  5. Koki April 4, 2012 at 7:35 am

    16 years of menstrual cramps… it got so bearable after I moved to real food. I haven’t experimented to find if gluten or what exactly is the culprit …

  6. daizycakez April 20, 2012 at 9:42 am

    I too have experienced all of the above! It wasn’t till recently that I had to search for a reason WHY!! I was on a strict regimen and regularly exercising when I weighed in @ an alarming 6-8 lb increase in 1day! I am still getting over the initial shock. But feel better to know others going through the same & I am not alone.

  7. Anu June 6, 2012 at 2:13 am

    Based on various endocrine studies, PMS is related to HPA axis (thyroid, Adrenal pitutary regulation); Adrenal can play havoc with insulin issues (low or high cortisol needs to be checked with a doctor) and other hormonal imbalances like estrogen-progestrone. (estrogen imbalance leads to osteoporosis and so is cortisol imbalance)

    I have been suffering from myriad of problems – undefined pain, weight gain , mood wings, pms and what not. I have found that body and mind goes into a complete out of balance mode if 1. Exercise is too much or too little. Low cortisol people have less exercise tolerance and can show in undefined aches and pains and feeling of dead inside.2. Eating real food (thank you Raj for using such a term, it motivates me everytime I think of food – eat something real!); minimize estrogenic foods.

    There are so many books by alternative therapy doctors lke from fatigue to fantastic etc..

    Just wanted to chime in as women need to literate themselves with this complex hormone system.

  8. Anu June 6, 2012 at 2:15 am

    Oh I forgot to add, while too little exercise is dangerous, so is too much. It sure is better to ENJOY the activity/ activities we do rather than being a gym rat. Atleast this has worked for me :-)

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