Why bad moods make us crave junk food?


Last week, I was a hot mess of stomach pains and intense food cravings.  I still have irregular periods and consequently when I do get my period, my hormones go wild!  In the course of an hour I traveled through the full emotional spectrum: from angry to sad, and every emotion in between.   In the midst of Aunt Flow's arrival my arms and legs felt like a heavy sack of potatoes; I moved as slow as an elderly person sloshing through a large pile of mud in .  My mom had it right when she said: “I think you’re in a funk.”
Working out was not an option and neither was healthy eating.  I slept for the majority of the day and when I woke up I'd scavenge around the kitchen for anything that made my mouth water.  Because we didn’t have any true sweets in our house—courtesy of my mother—I was forced to improvise and make my own concoctions.  I threw my gluten free eating plans out the window, smearing as much butter as I could over pieces of whole wheat bread drenched with maple syrup (I had already gone through all the waffles).  I ate half a box of English shortbread cookies without tea or milk and dipped handfuls of pretzels into salsa.

On a normal day these foods would not appeal to me in the least, especially because I have a partial intolerance to gluten.  But in the moment—as my hormones raged a war inside of me—each bite felt like a new revelation in my mouth.  Alone in the kitchen, I found comfort in the mechanical motion of bringing food to my mouth and swallowing.

This was not an unfamiliar experience for me.  When PMS blues come around I often attempt to shut my feelings down by inhaling an excessive amount of sugar and carbs.   Each time the same monologue plays itself out in my head.  What is 1000 more calories? I've already completely disowned my healthy eating goals for this summer.  I might as well just embrace the fact that I am a big FAT failure.
The next day I usually try to make up for my naughty cravings, by working out hard and restricting my diet.  However, despite my greatest intentions, by night time I usually crash and end up binging all over again.  Logically, I understand that I am not hungry; however, this does not stop me from diving into a gallon of coffee ice cream when I get a bad case of the midnight munchies.   

Determined to find out the cause of my cravings, I did some research on the link between PMS and junk food cravings. Netnutritionist.com explains how women in particular see large drops in serotonin and dopamine levels during the final 14 days of their menstrual cycle. During this time period, insulin sensitivity in females increases; this can have a large impact on our cravings for certain foods.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in our brain that causes calmness, mood stability, reduced stress, sleepiness, and appetite and pain control. According to The Physiology of Nutrition, reductions in serotonin can lead to overeating or binges on junk food, especially rich in carbohydrates.  This may be due to the fact that 80 to 90 percent of the human body’s total serotonin is found within the stomach.    When we are low in serotonin levels our gut sends our brain messages, which may explain why we desperately crave chocolate covered strawberries at two in the morning for no good reason.
Fortunately there are steps we can take to increase our serotonin levels when we  go through these emotional funks.  Though I am no expert, here are some natural serotonin boosting methods I have found helpful at keep cravings at bay for the entire month:

1) Replace excessive cravings for carbohydrates and sugar with protein.  Why?  Because over eating carbs and sugars can actually lead to a decrease in serotonin levels. The best article I read on boosting serotonin entitled Understanding Our Bodies: Serotonin, The Connection Between Food and Mood reccomends food high in protein like nuts, fish, yogurt, milk, meat, and eggs.  

2) Avoid extreme dieting. Studies have shown that women who greatly reduce calorie intake, and completely cut out carbs from their diet can have dramatic decreases in serotonin levels.  This most likely explains my own viscous cycle between eating healthy during the day and binging at night.

3) Try Vitamin B supplements. In a study of women who took Vitamin B supplements for an entire year, results showed that these women had increased levels of serotonin and experienced a greater sense of well being.

4)  Get outside. Sunlight and nature helps to boost serotonin levels.

5)   Get sleep. A lack of sleep can actually prevent proper serotonin signaling in our brains.

6)   Engage in activities that naturally boost your mood.  Try mediation, yoga, working out, or any other activity that takes your mind away from that Dairy Queen Blizzard.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel better to know that when I overeat it is not necessarily because I lack will power or strength. With this in mind, I can  stop beating myself up and learn to better deal with hormonal triggers that cause me to binge on junk food.  Most importantly, I can begin to take care of my bodies need for serotonin, without giving into unhealthy cravings. 

Has anybody else gotten a bad case of the midnight munchies during PMS?  I'd be interested to hear your comments.