You've almost certainly been there. A few days before your period starts, and a big, greasy pizza dripping with cheese sounds like the most satisfying thing in the world—or make that a big pizza with a chocolate bar on the side. Not that you can't crave fatty, sugary foods any time of month, but there's something about the days before and during your period that make them even more tempting.
As it turns out, those strong food cravings aren't just in your head. Dr. Deb Laino—a licensed sex therapist—explained that reaching for all the carbs, fats, and sugary snacks in your kitchen before and during your period is not only normal, but is a weird way your body responds to internal hormonal changes. So kick back, grab a slice of warm buttery bread, and relax.
When your hormones go haywire
A series of hormone level shifts are what make your menstrual cycle an actual cycle. Dips and rises in hormones like estrogen, progesterone, serotonin and cortisol are all part of the process, and those dips and rises come with side effects. As Laino explained, serotonin levels—a chemical created by nerve cells that is thought toregulate anxiety and happiness—tend to deplete before the start of a period. And at the same time, cortisol levels—a hormone released primarily when you're stressed—increase. So what you've got going on is a lower levels of a chemical that regulates your mood, and higher levels of a hormone that makes you feel stressed. It's a mess in there.
Why you crave chocolate (and not broccoli)
Taking all these hormonal changes into account, it makes sense that you would crave foods that feel fun to eat—sugar, fat, carbs, all that good stuff. "The cravings actually start to satiate those neurochemicals and those hormones," Laino said. "For example, sugary and fatty foods tend to give a burst of serotonin. Women will feel better. In the long run it's not good, but during that moment, you'll feel better. The same thing with cortisol. Cortisol goes up under stress—you'll start to crave salty foods." Laino said it's not great "in the long run" because, obviously, indulging in junky foods every time you feel bad isn't great for your health.
There's another a chemical reason for all of this. Research shows that carbohydrates can increase serotonin release, and protein intake slows down those effects. Which would explain why you want pizza and pasta, not chicken and broccoli.
How to avoid food cravings (if you wanna)
While Laino said most people experience these cravings around their periods, the amount to which they actually affect your appetite and eating habits varies from person to person. It also goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with eating pasta, bread, pizza, chocolate, or whatever the heck you want. But for anyone trying to be ~health conscious~, or who has a meal plan to stick to, Laino said exercise can have the same hormone-regulating effects that eating a sweet or salty snack does. Just stick to something light, like an easy jog or some sweaty yoga.
Laino also said a little piece of dark chocolate is a great way to satisfy cravings, and still get something sweet. But if that doesn't suffice (and I can't blame you if it doesn't), go ahead and reach for the real stuff (the MILK CHOCOLATE). Periods are enough of a pain as they are. Nothing wrong with making them just a bit more bearable.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.