When Kelly told me that she felt like her PMS symptoms were running rampant, disrupting her life to the point of being unable to function for several days each month, I could relate. When I was 20 years old, PMS nearly ruined a long-anticipated trip to Europe. Instead of being excited about the upcoming trip, I found myself overwhelmed and unable to muster much enthusiasm for the necessary preparations.
Throughout my twenties, I dealt with similar feelings month after month. It was a roller coaster ride that all too often hit the lows instead of the highs. Month after month, I was bloated, nauseated, and experienced excruciating cramps, low energy and an out of control appetite – especially for sweets.
I shared all this with Kelly and then I told her not to despair…help is available! It is my personal mission to share what I wish I had known all those years ago with as many women as I can. All too often, problems stemming from hormonal imbalance (during PMS, perimenopause or menopause) are seen as things women can’t control. Even with all the information we have available on what can cause hormones to go haywire, conventional medicine often fails to take these issues seriously. In fact, women are often told flat out that they either need to get used to it or take prescription medications to cope with these symptoms.
Here’s the problem with that approach: medication does nothing to correct the actual problem! Bloating, weight gain, cramping, mood changes, hot flashes, and so many other symptoms commonly associated with PMS and/or menopause are your body’s cry for help. And without fixing the actual root cause of these symptoms, you may find yourself experiencing them even when it’s not associated with your menstrual cycle. That’s because the real issue is that your hormones are out of balance – and the longer they stay that way, the worse the symptoms become.
There are myriad reasons your hormones don’t remain perfectly balanced, and the natural highs and lows of sex hormones throughout the menstrual cycle and as we age is certainly one. But there’s something else that should be high on your radar when dealing with uncomfortable symptoms: the overconsumption of sugar. And since PMS often comes with intense cravings for sugar and simple carbs, it’s critical to understand how sugar and hormonal balance are connected.
Let’s take a look at the connection between sugar and hormones, and then I’ll give you some tips to help you kick the sugar habit and reset your hormones to a healthy balanced state.
How does sugar contribute to hormonal imbalances?
It’s important to understand that when I say sugar, I’m not just talking about dessert. Sugar hides everywhere, and it all has an impact. That’s why I read labels thoroughly and stick to whole foods as often as I can. Don’t be fooled by labels that say, “whole grain.” If it’s been processed, the nutritional value has been seriously depleted.
Meals or snacks high in sugar can create blood spikes in insulin which has an impact on a protein known as sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). Insulin spikes cause SHBG levels to dip. That’s important because SHBG helps to control the the amount of sex hormones available to the body When there’s not enough SHBG, levels of these other hormones rise, but they are bound in the tissue and not bio-available.
To make matters worse, insulin also boosts testosterone production, and excess testosterone is converted into estrogen by the fat tissue in the abdominal region. The ratio of estrogen to progesterone becomes skewed, and symptoms result.
Beyond insulin, refined sugar also has an impact on both the adrenal glands and the thyroid, both of which are responsible for the production of hormones essential to healthy body functioning.
The adrenals regulate cortisol (a major hormone that helps your body cope with stress), aldosterone, (which controls blood pressure), and other hormones. Your body interprets blood sugar spikes as stress, causing cortisol levels to increase, which can ultimately lead to difficulty processing stress. Consistently high levels of cortisol can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can leave you feeling anxious and both jittery and completely drained.
The thyroid secretes hormones that regulate metabolism, cognitive function and body temperature. Thyroid dysfunction and metabolic syndrome go hand in hand. Chronic high blood sugar from eating too many carbohydrates is the root cause of metabolic syndrome. Eating too many carbs, as we saw earlier, causes problems with insulin levels. If insulin levels are too high for too long, the body stops responding to it properly, which causes more insulin production, which can lead to insulin resistance. And insulin resistance damages the thyroid gland, which then can’t produce the necessary hormones to maintain good health.
Hormones are an intricate communication system in your body, and they are all interconnected. When levels of one hormone aren’t where they should be, other hormones are influenced as well. So even if sugar consumption doesn’t have a direct effect on a specific hormone, the odds are that a diet high in sugar will eventually lead to imbalances throughout the endocrine system.
Tips to Reverse the Impact of Sugar on Your Hormones
Cutting out carbohydrates altogether is NOT the solution for avoiding sugar-related hormonal imbalances. Your body needs carbohydrates, just like it needs protein and healthy fats. Avoiding all forms of sugar would mean giving up fruit, vegetables and legumes – and that’s certainly not what I’m suggesting! But there are plenty of things you can do to both lower your intake of refined sugar, reduce cravings, and support hormonal balance.
Pay attention to your glycemic load
The glycemic load refers to the impact on blood sugar that the carbs in your food will have. It’s best to increase blood sugar and insulin gradually, avoiding dramatic peaks and dips. Simple sugars, like those found in processed foods, cause quick increases while complex carbohydrates consumed with fiber, protein and healthy fats allow for slower rise and fall in blood sugar and insulin levels. There are many small things you can do to lower the glycemic load. Avoiding “white foods” like rice, potatoes, and foods made from white flour or sugar, is one. Brown rice and sweet potatoes are great substitutions. Skipping a carbohydrate heavy side in favor of extra vegetables is another.
Hydrate with water, not sugar laden drinks
It always surprises me when women who are careful about the foods they eat are addicted to drinks like soda, coffee loaded with cream and sugary syrups, and even fruit juice in large quantities. One soda has more sugar than is recommended in an entire day for women! Hydration is essential for a healthy body, and filtered water is the best option. If drinking water doesn’t appeal to you, try infusing it with fruit or adding just a touch of real fruit juice. Naturally, flavored sparkling water is another good option.
Rethink what’s for breakfast
American breakfast foods are incredibly carb heavy. Pancakes, cereal, French toast, muffins, bagels, and pastries are commonly served at breakfast. Even an otherwise good choice, eggs, are often served as a sandwich. One of the easiest ways to reduce consumption of simple carbs is to overhaul your breakfast menu. Try eggs scrambled with meat and vegetables, a protein shake, or even leftovers from dinner instead!
Challenge your cravings
It’s true that cravings are often a call for nutrients your body needs. But when the urge to eat something sweet strikes, I can safely say your body isn’t calling for a candy bar. Cravings can be powerful, but you still have control. Pause for a few minutes before reaching for the doughnut you think you want. Take a drink of water. Eat a piece of fruit instead – the natural sugar and fiber will most likely fill your body’s need and your craving for junk food will fade.
Include protein, fiber and healthy fats in each meal or snack.
When you reach for a sweet treat and eat it by itself, your blood sugar levels will rise quickly – and crash just as quickly. It’s okay to have a sweet treat on occasion. Just make it part of your meal or snack. A small dish of ice cream after a balanced dinner is much easier on your body than a cookie (or several) between meals.
Support your body naturally
Hormones under assault need some gentle support. Nutritional supplements and/or herbal solutions can help reset and maintain hormonal balance as your make the necessary diet and lifestyle adjustments. A high-quality multivitamin that includes zinc, vitamin C and B-vitamins can help curb sugar cravings. An Omega-3 supplement also reduces cravings and inflammation and improves insulin sensitivity. I have a range of pharmaceutical grade supplements designed to support overall health as well as specific hormonal problems in my online store.
Learn to manage stress effectively
Stress is as hard on your body as sugar. If you have both in play at the same time, balance will be exceedingly difficult to maintain. Cortisol impacts blood sugar, cravings, and balance between estrogen and progesterone. Managing stress is a lifelong learning process, but the more techniques you have in your tool belt, the easier you’ll be able to stop stress before it takes over. Deep breathing is one of the most effective stress busters – and you can do it anywhere! If you do only one thing to decrease stress, I urge you to make a habit of taking deep, cleansing breaths several times each day. I start and end my day with deep breathing, and practice while on hold, standing in line, and any other time I have a few moments of waiting to fill.
Don’t skimp on exercise and sleep
Both exercise and quality sleep impact your hormones, including insulin. “Burst” training can be highly effective and doesn’t take a lot of time. If hormones are imbalanced, exercise that is too vigorous can create more problems, so if you haven’t been active at all, it’s best to start with walking or gentle exercise.
Setting up routines for good sleep hygiene can also help you get the sleep you require and keep hormones balanced. This includes having a regular time both for going to be and waking up in the morning, making sure the environment is cool and relaxing, and keeping electronics out of the bedroom. if you are on a computer, tablet, phone or watching television in the evening, be sure to wear special glasses that block the blue light, which can disrupt circadian rhythms and make sleep difficult.
Kick the sugar habit and feel great again!
No matter how difficult it seems, it IS possible to reduce sugar intake and balance your hormones to lose weight and feel great. It can be difficult when you begin, but I am confident that the way you feel after changing your sugar consumption will be so amazing that you won’t look back. I gave up sugar decades ago, and rarely look back. In fact, when I do indulge, the negative impact on my body is so obvious that I immediately realize it’s not worth it!
Kelly quit sugar entirely for a month, followed some of my other recommendations, and gave her body some gentle supplemental support. When she came back to see me, she told me that she’d just had her period and it was the first month in years that she, not her PMS symptoms, were in control. That could be you!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD