Fatigue, acne, bloating, cravings, mood swings—sound painfully familiar? PMS can trigger a slew of physical and emotional symptoms a week or two before your period starts. And 85% of women experience at least one of those symptoms every month, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
But here's the good news: Your diet may help ease your discomfort. You may already be cutting back on sodium, sugar, and alcohol—all of which can make PMS feel worse. But did you know that eating certain foods can help alleviate symptoms? Below are my top five picks (including chocolate!) for that time of the month.
If bloating, cravings, and muscle cramps are among your usual PMS symptoms (oh, joy), load up on avocado. This good-fat food contains potassium, a mineral that acts as a natural diuretic, sweeping excess sodium and fluid out of your body. Potassium also helps protect against muscle cramps, and it boosts feelings of satiety (so you’ll be less inclined to over-nibble).
Kitchen prep: Whip avocado into a fruit smoothie, add it to an omelet or salad, snack on raw veggies dipped in guacamole, or add diced avocado to pico de gallo and toss it on veggies, fish, or beans. Or, just slice an avocado in half, sprinkle with a little lime juice and turmeric, and dig in with a spoon.
Beets and beet greens
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which tracked more than 3,000 women for 10 years, found a lower PMS risk among those with high intakes of vitamins B1 and B2. But the most interesting part (in my opinion) was that this only held true for people who go the vitamins from food, not supplements. One tasty option that contains both B1 and B2: cooked beet greens.
And don't forget about that nutritious and tasty beet flesh! Just one cup supplies about a third of your daily folate needs. Too little folate has been known to trigger mental fatigue, forgetfulness, confusion, and insomnia. (FYI: several common medications can deplete folate in the body, including birth control pills.) Fortunately, beets are in season year-round.
Kitchen prep: Boil the greens, cool, then sauté over low heat in EVOO with garlic, sea salt, and black pepper. They make a delicious side dish or bed for fish, chicken, or white beans. When it comes to the beet bulbs, eat them raw to optimize their nutrients. Peel, shred, and sprinkle fresh beets onto a salad, or whip chopped raw beets into a smoothie. They're not only naturally sweet, but also add a gorgeous hue to your food.
When University of Massachusetts researchers studied women between the ages of 27 and 44, they found that those with high intakes of both vitamin D and calcium had a lower risk of experiencing PMS symptoms. Luckily, sardines pack both nutrients. They also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which other research has found may help reduce PMS-induced bloating, headaches, breast tenderness, depression, nervousness, anxiety, and lack of concentration.
Kitchen prep: Pick up a can of sardines packed in water, roast them on a baking sheet, then chop and toss with veggies (like tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and spinach) sautéed in olive oil and garlic. Serve your sardine and veg medley over a bed of roasted spaghetti squash and fresh chopped basil.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that women with higher intakes of non-heme iron, the type found in plant-based foods, had a lower risk of PMS symptoms compared to those with the lowest intakes. A top source of non-heme iron is pulses—the umbrella term for beans, lentils, and peas (like chickpeas and split peas). Pulses are also full of fiber, another key remedy for PMS. It helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, to keep energy levels steady. Just a half cup of cooked black beans packs over seven grams, about a third of the minimum daily target.
If you’re concerned about extra gas and bloating, consider this: An Arizona State University study that asked volunteers to eat a half cup of beans daily found that only 35% of the group experienced such unwanted “side effects,” which also lessened each week as their bodies adjusted to the dietary change.
Kitchen prep: Up your intake by adding chickpeas or black beans to an omelet or salad. Or reach for hummus with raw veggies as a snack. You can also trade your usual grain for lentils at dinner, or make a meatless meal with pulses as the star ingredient.
It’s true! Dark chocolate alleviates PMS symptoms in several ways. First, its antioxidants trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. That may be why research has shown that enjoying about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate daily for two weeks can reduce stress hormone levels. This treat also contains magnesium, a mineral that has been found to help alleviate PMS symptoms like bloating, fatigue, depression, and irritability. Finally, dark chocolate contains unique natural substances that may enhance mood, and even trigger a sense of euphoria that’s similar to the feeling of being in love.
Kitchen prep: Enjoy a few squares without any distractions (that means no phone, no TV) as part of daily “you time.” Think of it as chocolate meditation. Or chop and sprinkle dark chocolate into oatmeal or Greek yogurt along with fresh fruit. Whip it into a smoothie (my favorite combo is dark chocolate, ripe pear, fresh grated ginger, and almond or coconut milk). Or melt and drizzle over fresh berries. You're welcome.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.