Menstrual Cycle and Blood Sugar: What to Know
Morgane Leten - Nutrition & Fertility Coach
Your menstrual cycle is a real cocktail of hormones, with each phase triggering various physical and emotional changes. But have you ever wondered why, in the week leading up to your period, you find yourself reaching for that extra piece of chocolate or experiencing intense mood swings?
In this article, we'll take a look at the connection between blood sugar levels and your menstrual cycle. We'll also explore how blood sugar can influence your life and your cycle, why those premenstrual cravings are a real thing, natural ways to stabilize blood sugar, and how sugar can impact your hormones.
What is Blood Sugar?
Blood sugar, also known as blood glucose, is the main sugar found in your blood. It is your body’s primary source of energy and it comes from the food you eat. When you eat, your body transforms that food into glucose and releases it into your bloodstream. When your blood sugar goes up, it tells your pancreas to release more insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps the glucose get into your cells to transform into energy to power your every move.
What Happens When Your Blood Sugar Spikes?
A spike in blood sugar means that your blood sugar levels rise sharply after you eat. When your blood sugar rises like this and then crashes, it can make you feel tired, thirsty or hungry. It is hard work for your body to manage blood sugar that rises and falls like this many times per day and over time, your body may not be able to cope any longer. In some cases, this can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a disease in which your blood glucose levels are too high. When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make enough insulin, can’t use it as well as it should, or both. When too much glucose stays in your blood and doesn’t reach your cells, it can cause serious health problems.
What About Low Blood Sugar?
Your blood sugar gets low when we haven’t eaten for a few hours. When this happens, another hormone (called glucagon) steps in to convert the stored energy back into usable energy. This requires a real effort from your liver. This necessary process ensures our brain, heart, and muscles have the energy required to function. However, your liver is working super hard so it takes its attention away from its usual job of eliminating excess estrogen and other toxins from the body.
So, you don’t want your blood sugar levels to spike, or get too low. The key is to try to keep your blood sugar stable. The good news is that you can do this in many, natural and easy ways like diet, exercise and water intake (we’ll get into that in a minute!)
Influence of Blood Sugar Levels on the Menstrual Cycle
Your menstrual cycle, which typically spans 28 days, is controlled by a balance of hormones. Insulin and cortisol, hormones involved in blood sugar regulation and stress response, play essential roles in your cycle, too. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can disrupt this balance, leading to irregular periods, mood swings, and fatigue.
You may not notice a difference, or you might be one of the unlucky ones who experience slight rises in blood glucose and get lots of different symptoms like increased thirst, frequent urination, fatigue or tummy pain. There is no universal list of symptoms - everyone has a different experience.
Jessie Inhauspe from Glucose Goddess explains: “Our menstrual cycle impacts our glucose levels. In the two weeks before our period (the luteal phase), our glucose usually spikes higher than usual for the same food. Scientists believe that this is because sex hormones impact insulin sensitivity (how well you can dispose of glucose in your blood). What does this mean? That in our luteal phase, we will trigger glucose rollercoasters and cravings cycles more easily.”
Why Do You Have Cravings the Week Before Your Period?
Most women start to experience cravings about a week before their period starts. Remember: everyone is different so there’s no exact time but most often, the cravings end as soon as your period starts, or a few days in.
The cravings come down to one thing: changes in your hormones. Before your period, there is a drop in progesterone and a rise in estrogen. This can cause blood sugar levels to drop. When this happens, the brain sends a signal to replenish the sugar, which is why you start craving things. And it’s not just candy and biscuits either. While many women report cravings for chocolate, other women crave salty snacks like crisps and fried foods as well as carbs. Whether it’s a slice of pizza or a bowl of pasta, foods rich in carbohydrates can provide a sense of comfort during your period. All of these things can cause spikes in blood sugar.
The key to managing the hormones in your body is blood sugar regulation. Your body treats blood sugar balance seriously. It’s a matter of life and death so your body will prioritise managing insulin and cortisol to regulate blood sugar. This will be at the expense of other hormones, especially your female hormones like progesterone and estrogen. As a result, being mindful of diet can make a big difference to the way you feel during your period. If you eat a lot of high sugar or high carbohydrate food, you may notice that your PMS symptoms are worse. And, if you routinely struggle with PMS, you might want to try eating more mindfully to stabilize your blood sugar levels. (More on that in the next section!)
How to Naturally Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels
The good news is that you can take proactive steps to maintain stable blood sugar levels throughout your menstrual cycle. Here are some of the key ways you naturally stabilize your blood sugar:
One of the best ways to naturally stabilize blood sugar levels is to focus on your diet. It’s important to incorporate complex carbohydrates, fiber-rich foods and lean proteins into your meals. The reason is that with the presence of fibre and protein, your body works harder to metabolise the food so that the energy from this food is released into your body more consistently over time, instead of in one big spike. This is what you want because it will keep you feeling energised and full for longer. Good fats are also essential. These fats are needed to synthesize our hormones and keep our cells and hormones able to communicate with each other. Good fats also help make you feel full so cravings can be reduced.
Here are some examples of the types of foods you should regularly incorporate into your diet to help manage blood sugar levels:
- Complex carbohydrates: whole wheat bread, brown rice, starchy vegetables like corn and peas
- Protein-rich foods: Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes
- Fibre-rich foods: Beans, broccoli, whole grains, lentils
- Good fats: Nuts, seeds, fish, olive oil, avocados and coconut
Eating a balanced diet can also have a positive impact on your menstrual cycle. To learn more about how to eat according to your cycle, check out our blog post called Hack Your Cycle With Food.
Studies have shown that drinking water could help control blood glucose levels. This is because water allows more glucose to be flushed out of the blood. When you’re dehydrated, it means your overall blood volume is lower than normal, but your sugars will be the same. This means your blood is more concentrated (not diluted with water) and your blood sugar levels will be higher. Drinking water regularly throughout the day can help ensure you avoid spikes and crashes in blood sugar. It can also help stave off cravings, too.
To add more water into your day, get yourself a water bottle that you love and take it everywhere. You can also add some lemon or cucumber slices to give it a little extra kick. If you want a hot drink, try herbal teas. They count too!
Exercise can help control blood sugar levels in two key ways:
- Firstly, exercise increases insulin sensitivity so your muscles can better use the insulin that’s available. And, increased insulin sensitivity can last 24 hours or more after your workout!
- Exercise causes muscles to contract which allows your cells to use the glucose for energy, regardless if insulin is available.
What type of exercise is best? There’s no one size fits all approach and the type of exercise you choose should be something you enjoy doing. It also doesn’t need to be a high intensity workout either. A combination of different exercise throughout the week will give you the most benefit. Some great options include:
- Aerobic exercise like walking, cycling, jogging or hiking.
- Resistance training like repetitive exercises using weights, resistance bands or body weight
- Interval training which is short bursts of vigorous exercise like running or cycling combined with periods of rest up to three minutes in length
- Low impact exercise like swimming, yoga or walking
Whether it’s related to work, relationships, or to some other aspect of your life, research has continually shown that emotional stress can cause blood sugar to surge. Stress triggers an increase in the body’s levels of the “fight-or-flight” hormone (aka cortisol). Your body literally reacts as if it is under attack. As a result, your body releases extra energy into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. That way, if you actually did need to flee an attack, you would have the energy to do it!
From time-to-time, this isn’t an issue, but it’s important to understand the difference between short-term stress and chronic, long-term stress. Everyone gets stressed out once in a while - this is normal. Stuck in traffic? Fighting with your partner? Cue: a temporary rise in blood sugar. This is normal. However, if you are chronically stressed every single day, for a long period of time, this can cause serious damage. Stress can also impact your menstrual cycle, so it’s a good idea to try to manage stress however you can. Check out our blog post here for some practical tips on how to get your stress in line.
What Can You Do to Lower Blood Sugar Levels?
Diet, exercise, water intake and stress management are great ways to stabilize blood sugar levels, but they can also help lower it too. Here are a few other ways you can lower blood sugar levels.
Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep not only feels great (hello, energy and focus!) but it’s also necessary to keep your blood sugar levels stable. Bad sleeping habits or lack of quality sleep can impact insulin sensitivity which affects blood sugar levels. Bad sleep can also increase appetite and promote weight gain. Sleep deprivation raises your cortisol levels which, as you now know, plays a key role in managing your blood sugar levels. And, lack of sleep can also wreck havoc on your menstrual cycle.
You need to make sure you are not just getting enough sleep, but that the sleep you are getting is a good quality. No sense laying in bed for 12 hours if your body never gets into a deep, restorative sleep. On average, adults need 7-8 hours of high quality sleep per night.
To learn more about how to get some quality Zzzzs, check out our blog post called Sleep and Your Cycle.
Ensure You’re Getting Enough / The Right Nutrients
To help stabilize or lower your blood sugar levels, one thing you can do is to ensure you’re not deficient in any micronutrients or minerals. Low blood sugar has been linked to deficiencies in minerals like chromium and magnesium.
Chromium is used to metabolize carbs and fats. If you’re low on chromium, it might stop your body from being able to properly regulate blood sugar. Some examples of chromium-rich foods include meats, whole grain products, fruit, vegetables and nuts.
Magnesium has also been shown to benefit blood sugar levels. In fact, people who have a diet that is rich in magnesium are usually associated with a significantly lower risk of diabetes. Getting enough magnesium is easy. You can either get it in a supplement, or through food like dark leafy greens, squash or pumpkin seeds, tuna, beans, whole grains and dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is an especially excellent choice if you’re on your period and craving something sweet. If you’re craving comfort, you could also try an epsom salt bath. The salts are packed full of magnesium and are absorbed through your skin as you lounge in the warm bath water!
Vitamin D is a vitamin that is produced naturally in our bodies in response to direct sunlight. It’s also found in food and supplements. Studies have shown that low vitamin D levels have been linked to insulin resistance, and in some cases, an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. So, it may be beneficial to add a Vitamin D supplement to your diet as it can help reduce high blood sugar levels.
Vitamin B is also one to think about. It can help manage blood sugar and keep cravings at bay. People with Vitamin B deficiencies struggle with both sugar and carbohydrate cravings. To counter this, it’s important to consider upping your intake of this nutrient which is easy to do through food or supplements. Add lots of health grains and legumes to your diet, or grab a supplement with Vitamin B in it.
Making sure you’re getting adequate vitamins and minerals not only helps stabalise blood sugar, it can also help alleviate many menstrual complaints like cramps, headaches, tiredness and mood swings. It’s sometimes overlooked, but when you get the balance right, your body will thank you!
Not sure what supplements are right for you? Take our quiz to find out. Still have questions? Get in touch with one of our experts and ask us anything! We’re here to help you.
Add Specific Foods to Your Diet
Cinnamon is a spice derived from the inner bark of trees. It is thought that this spice can increase insulin sensitivity. Studies have shown that cinnamon significantly reduces fasting blood sugar scores (which is a measure of insulin resistance) so consider adding a little dash of this common spice to your drinks or meals.
Apple Cider Vinegar is another one to think about. While research is limited, studies have shown that people who consumed apple cider vinegar had a significant improvement in blood glucose levels just 30 minutes after consuming it! It won’t cure diabetes, but it could moderately lower blood sugar levels. And it’s generally harmless and easy to buy in most supermarkets.
A Day of Balanced Blood Sugar
Alright, so now you know some practical ways to avoid spikes and crashes in blood sugar, but what does that look like on an average day?
In her book, The Woman Code, functional nutritionist Alisa Vitti provides a practical example of how you might go about your day to stabilize blood sugar levels. Here is what she says:
- Start your day with a glass of water. Either room temperature, or warm water with lemon is best.
- Always eat breakfast, and within the first hour and a half of waking. It’s important to eat breakfast before consuming that first cup of coffee or tea.
- Breakfast should include protein (think eggs, black beans, turkey bacon)
- In order to avoid blood sugar from getting too low, snacks or small meals should be consumed every 2-3 hours. Healthy snacks include almonds, avocado, and hummus with veggies.
- Avoid grains at dinner, and instead choose steamed veggies and a lean protein.
- When you eat a few too many carbs, go for a walk! Exercise helps the body reduce the glucose load by directly using it as fuel for the muscles.
Of course, you’re not going to be able to do this every single day, but the key is balance. The goal is consistency, not perfection.
The Impact of Sugar on Our Hormones
While a sweet treat now and then can be satisfying, excessive sugar consumption can wreak havoc on your hormonal balance. And if you’ve made it this far in this blog post, you know that balance is everything when it comes to your health and overall wellbeing.
Your cycle might make you crave sweets or simple carbs, but this can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes which will make you feel tired, slow and potentially even more hungry.
And while the sweet treat might create temporary comfort, the crazy cocktail of hormones it creates could actually make your PMS symptoms worse. For women who experience severe PMS, high dietary sugar consumption has been linked to worse cramps, mood, irritability and depression.
Blood glucose or blood sugar monitoring can sound a bit intimidating, but when you understand the relationship between blood sugar levels, your cycle and how it can make you feel, you can take charge of your health in ways you might not have realized. This is super empowering! Armed with knowledge of how to naturally stabilize your blood sugar, you can alleviate the intensity of PMS symptoms and enhance your overall quality of life.
So, next time those sugar cravings strike, you’ll not only understand the science behind them, but you will now, hopefully, have the tools to conquer them.
Still have questions about your hormonal health? Talk to us. We’re here to support you.