How to eat and move to beat period burnout

PMS isn’t ‘normal’: how to eat and move to beat period burnout

Posted by for Wellbeing

If you’ve always assumed that PMS is just part of the menstruation process, then think again: we can significantly reduce our symptoms by changing the way we exercise and eat in the run-up to our period. Here’s how to beat period burnout, once and for all.

Did you know that PMS isn’t ‘normal’? It may be common but those crashing mood swings and chocolate cravings aren’t actually just par for the course when it comes to periods; they’re a product of hormonal instability. More than 80% of women say that they experience ‘significant PMS’ and cramping and that can leave us feeling totally deflated. 

How we move and eat around our cycle can, however, help to avoid period burnout. You don’t have to go through a week of hell just because you menstruate

“PMS or premenstrual syndrome can be a range of symptoms that affects up to 90% of women,” explains nutritionist Gail Madalena. “It can occur anytime between ovulation through to the day you start your period, and there are over 150 symptoms that have been identified as part of premenstrual syndrome.”

PMS, she says, is largely caused by the hormonal shifts that we experience throughout our cycle: it’s our body’s way of reacting to excessive production of oestrogen during the follicular phase, or drops in progesterone during our luteal phase.” While it might be a little uncomfortable, PMS shouldn’t be debilitating or interfere with our day to day life.

“It’s natural to feel the effects of fluctuating hormones, but when these become out of sync, it can manifest with more pronounced symptoms,” Madalena warns. Things that suggest a potential hormonal imbalance can include anything from excessive fatigue, irritability, moodiness and cravings, to persistent weight gain and irregular periods.

Now, some of those symptoms sound pretty standard – who doesn’t feel a bit grumpy when they’re bleeding for six days on the trot? But how we move and eat can help to even out those swings significantly. And it’s all to do with managing cortisol, or stress.

What we eat can increase the intensity of cramps, fatigue and mood swings

You may crave sugar when you’re coming on, but a diet rich in simple carbs and refined sugars can wreak havoc on our hormonal health. “It raises insulin levels, increases cortisol production and contributes to elevated stores of oestrogen in our fat cells. 

A diet that is consistently high in sugar will result in elevated levels of insulin, a hormone needed to shuttle sugar out of your blood and into your cells. Over time your body can become desensitised to the effects of insulin and this will drive oestrogen dominance,” Madalena warns.

Inflammatory foods can also have a direct impact on cortisol levels. You probably know that cortisol is an essential hormone for getting us out of bed in the morning, but when we have excessive levels, it can disrupt just about everything from the production of our sex hormones to our quality of sleep and everyday stress levels.

But don’t go thinking that it’s only those with a sweet tooth that may be more susceptible to PMS. Those who have dieted and had a history of restricted calorific intake can be massively at risk of hormonal imbalance, too. Madalena explains: “Restrictive diets can have long-term effects on our hormone levels, particularly when our weight is drastically affected.

“A sudden and significant calorie restriction, paired with high-intensity exercise can cause a stress response that alters your hormone levels, particularly lowering oestrogen, which in turn can interrupt ovulation and cause a lack of periods.” If inflammatory foods stress our bodies out, then it’s nothing compared to extreme diets which can widely elevate our cortisol levels.

When that happens, Madalena says our pituitary gland is forced to instruct our reproductive organs to produce the hormones needed for menstruation. In other words, weight loss programmes that combine daily HIIT sessions and low calories force your body to age dramatically. You may find your PMS symptoms relax but you’re opening up a whole other can of unpleasant worms.

And how we move around your periods can calm or spike stress, too

With that in mind, how exactly are we supposed to exercise to calm down our PMS symptoms? We’ve heard a lot recently about exercising in tune with our cycles – pushing hard when those surges of oestrogen kick in and opting for more gentle yin practices during the week of our periods. But if you’re training for an event, for example, you may not be able to stop running or lifting in favour of some gentle stretching. If hormonal imbalances are to blame for PMS symptoms, getting the body buzzing with cortisol sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Lucy Gornall, personal trainer and head of wellness at Puresport, explains that every woman is different and while some may really struggle in the days leading up to their periods, others won’t notice anything happening. “So while it’s not necessarily detrimental (I, for one, often continue my usual workouts throughout my cycle), adapting your workouts to your cycle may mean you maintain energy and avoid burnout during times when your energy levels naturally drop. It’s a way of maintaining balance to help your energy, digestion and focus (to name a few) stay in check.”

For me, exercising on my period is a must; sometimes I even perform better during that week. Taking a whole week off to do yoga would probably stress me out more than going for a run. In other words, it’s all about finding what works for you and your lifestyle – not everyone needs to take a break. 

But if you are feeling sluggish, it may mean just giving yourself a lower-load week or concentrating more on slow and steady runs rather than those fast, intense sessions. For those women who live with more debilitating symptoms, however, it can be difficult to know how much attention to pay to those signs.

“If your body is crying out for you to skip the gym and stay in bed for an extra couple of hours, then do it,” Gornall advises. “However, I really recommend some movement each day even if it’s a gentle walk around the park or to the shops.” She goes on to say that you absolutely don’t need to break into a sweat but simply keeping the body active by walking and stretching can help to reduce PMS symptoms and increase energy levels.

Keeping moving during your period really does make a difference, even if all you want to do is curl up on the sofa.
Keeping moving during your period really does make a difference, even if all you want to do is curl up on the sofa.

Most of us already know that exercise produces feel good hormones that can boost our mood; it’s during that PMS period that we need them the most. If you’re feeling more emotional than usual, you can use those happy hormones to your advantage. When it comes to mood swings, the aim of the game should be to reduce cortisol.

“Exercise, in moderation, can help to lower the stress hormone cortisol,” says Gornall. “Too much cortisol can lead to rise in oestrogen, which in turn can lead to longer cycles.” Over-training and doing excessively high-intensity workouts can lead to us producing too much cortisol and that, in turn, can see our periods going AWOL. 

Stress management is at the centre of reducing PMS once and for all

In other words, cortisol and stress management are front and centre of calming PMS. You want to take any pressure off your workout regime if you do live with cramps, cravings and mood swings… but only if doing so is going to help you relax. Food-wise, you want to try to reduce anything that’s going to increase inflammation and focus on eating a really varied diet that’s rich in whole foods.

If you’re not already taking a supplement, choosing one that has a good dose of magnesium can be great for boosting energy production, aiding digestion and helping with sleep and anxiety. During your period, magnesium levels naturally decline so taking a supplement that combines known anti-inflammatories and helpful nutrients like magnesium (known to improve sleep quality), ashwagandha (proven to reduce cortisol) and anti-inflammatory turmeric (like Puresport’s Female Balance Hormone Health) may help to ease headaches, cramps and bloating.

Madalena advises cutting back on caffeine, alcohol and very salty foods if you do have PMS symptoms, particularly in the days running up to your period. “Try to eat a varied diet rich in antioxidants, think a rainbow of coloured fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, complex carbs, nuts, seeds, with fish and lean meats in moderation.”

For more nutrition and workout tips, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.