Dr. Stephen Pound, OB/GYN at Virginia Physicians for Women explores the relationship between sugar consumption and hormonal fluctuations and shares his tips for finding balance and feeling better.
We all know sugar is the common enemy of nutrition and wellness. Consuming sugar leads to a short-term energy boost, but is followed by fatigue, irritability and brain fog. In the long term it can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other major health problems. But did you know that for women, it can also affect the way you experience periods, pregnancy, and even menopause?
I’d like to take a moment to answer some commonly asked questions to highlight how what we eat can impact how women experience PMS, menses, pregnancy, and menopause. We’ll also explore how sugar can impact fertility. Then I’ll share some tips for how to navigate these symptoms and feel your best. The good news is, once you understand the relationship between sugar and hormones, you can learn how to control your blood sugar to help manage these symptoms – without giving up the things you love!
What happens to your body when you eat sugar?
Consuming sugar leads to a spike in your blood sugar level that results in your body’s release of insulin. Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that helps the body utilize sugar in order to use it for energy. The trouble is, if you do not use the sugar immediately for fuel, your body stores it up (as fat) for later use. The spike in blood sugar after eating something sweet unfortunately is followed by a precipitous drop in blood sugar commonly referred to as a “crash”. This explains the feeling you get of hunger (“hangry”), fatigue, sluggishness, and irritability. Think post-Thanksgiving food coma.
In the long term, high blood sugar and chronically high levels of circulating insulin from eating a high-sugar diet can lead to obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, and other problems, in addition to disrupting your energy and mood.
How does your body handle when we overindulge?
If your body is metabolically well, it can handle a spike in blood sugar. The rare celebration, birthday, vacation, etc. is okay. The trouble is if you either A) are metabolically unwell or B) do this over and over – then your body is primed to secrete insulin leading to the above problems.
Over time, your body enters into a vicious cycle of insulin resistance leading to even more production of insulin leading to storing everything as fat (i.e. chronic disease).
So what does that mean for your cycles?
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is characterized by irritability, anxiety, depression, mood swings, bloating and fatigue. These symptoms are thought to be largely due to the decrease in estrogen and progesterone that occur in the week leading up to your period. It also appears that women that struggle with PMS and PMDD (a more severe form) have low levels of serotonin during this time as well. A woman’s premenstrual symptoms appear to closely correlate with the effects of ingesting sugars. Thus, consuming sugar during these times will only exacerbate these symptoms.
For women who experience severe PMS, high dietary sugar consumption has been linked to worse cramps, mood, irritability, and depression. Interestingly, the physiology of chronic disease brought on by sugar consumption also increases estrogen and testosterone hormones which disrupt your body’s natural hormone cycle. Consuming sugar hurts in the short term as well as the long term.
Check out Dr. Santosh’s blog post, How Women’s Hormones Can Affect Their Sleep – and Tips for Improving It! And Dr. Coble’s blog post, What is PMS and Do I Have It?
Why do women get cravings at certain times during their cycles?
Cravings seem to be closely related to your body’s hormonal regulation. Any spike or drop in those levels leads to cravings. Rises in estrogen and progesterone levels tend to correlate with rises in cortisol (stress hormone) levels which lead to cravings for carbohydrates, including sugar. Your serotonin levels tend to decrease during this time, which also leads to sugar cravings.
Does sugar’s impact on the body change during or after menopause?
Unfortunately, the end of your menstrual cycle does not spell the end of the body’s difficulty with sugar. Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone are all lower (even absent) after menopause, which leads to insulin resistance. Your body is less able to maintain a balanced blood sugar level leading to fatigue, irritability, brain fog, weight gain, and difficulty sleeping. (Sound familiar?) Consuming dietary sugar (especially simple sugars) therefore worsens all of these symptoms and has been linked to hot flashes that are worse in both frequency and intensity.
Does sugar’s impact on the body change during pregnancy?
Hormonally, PMS, menopause, and pregnancy all look very similar. Thus, consuming sugar during pregnancy will have the same effects as before your period or after menopause; symptoms of fatigue, hunger irritability, difficulty sleeping, etc. will be exacerbated.
Beyond these symptoms, consuming too much sugar during pregnancy can also cause pregnancy complications. It can put you at risk for gestational diabetes, hypertension, and preterm birth. It can even have implications for your baby’s cognitive development.
Does sugar consumption have any effect on fertility?
It does. Discussing insulin resistance and hormonal regulation invariably dances around the discussion of ovulation. Conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are an example of chronically high insulin levels, blood sugar dysfunction, and menstrual disturbances. Women who suffer from PCOS often have difficulty with ovulation and thus more difficulty getting pregnant.
Check out my blog post for tips on nutrition and exercise if you’re trying to become pregnant and schedule an appointment for a preconception visit if you’d like to discuss your fertility health with a VPFW provider.
9 Tips for Managing Sugar Consumption And Feeling Better
Eating carbohydrates does not always = eating junk food. The best way to treat your body during pregnancy, menses, and menopause is to eat foods rich in NATURAL sugars and COMPLEX carbohydrates, as well as using exercise to help keep your blood sugar in balance. There are ways to fuel your body without those rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar that zap your energy and your mood, especially if they might be compounded by hormonal fluctuations.
Here are a few tips:
- Avoid junk food, especially before your period.
Avoiding junk food is not just good for your overall health, it’s great for your energy and mood – especially at times when they are out of whack due to hormonal fluctuations. Stay away from simple sugars and unbalanced foods such as soda, candy, ice cream (sorry), fried foods, fast food, processed foods.
The general theme is to eat real foods as much as possible. If it comes in a box or is made in a factory it is probably not ideal.
- Eat foods with natural sugar rather than added sugar.
Foods that contain natural sugar (including fruit and veggies like sweet potatoes and carrots) will help satisfy your sweet tooth and provide a boost of energy but will digest more slowly than those with added sugar. That means consuming them will help stabilize your metabolism so you can maintain energy and keep mood swings at bay. These foods also offer many other nutrients your body needs!
- Eat complex carbohydrates.
Foods that are complex carbohydrates (including foods with natural sugar) are the foods your body can use to maintain blood sugar and energy levels as well as avoid weight gain, inflammation and chronic disease.
Good foods to eat include vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and beans. These foods generally contain more fiber, so they are more filling. They also take longer to break down and digest, making it easier for your body to regulate blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates also contain vitamins and minerals that provide many other health benefits.
- Don’t eat sugar by itself – pair it with a balanced meal.
Since consuming a lot of simple sugar can cause blood sugar to spike and then crash, it’s best to mitigate those effects with a more balanced meal. If you’re craving sugar, pair it with other foods that include protein (like beans, fish, eggs, nuts, and/or lean meat), healthy fats (like avocados or nuts), and complex carbohydrates to provide some balance and stabilize your blood sugar. Snack idea: trail mix with raisins, nuts and a little bit of chocolate.
- Take a short walk after meals (especially if you’ve consumed sugar).
Exercise helps the body maintain blood sugar levels and mood as well, and it’s known to relieve PMS symptoms. While 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise at least 3 times a week is ideal, just taking a short 2-5 minute walk after a meal can help your body control its blood sugar level. (Tied to your desk? Even standing up helps!)
When your body actually uses some of the energy it has just consumed, you can avoid a rapid drop in blood sugar that leaves you feeling fatigued and irritable. Exercise can also help your body release endorphins, the “feel good” hormone!
- Opt for protein over sugar in the morning.
Choosing foods that are high in protein rather than sugar for breakfast can set you up for successfully resisting sugar temptations throughout the day. If you opt for sugar in the morning, blood sugar levels will spike and drop rapidly, causing you to crave more sugary foods. This cycle will continue throughout the day.
- Avoid eating sweets late at night.
In general, late at night is the worst time to eat something high in sugar because your body does not metabolize it properly. It leads to weight gain and poor sleep, and worsens the cycle of symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, etc.
- Practice making healthy choices.
It’s usually not necessary to cut sugar out completely in order to start feeling better. However, you should try to get in the habit of making healthy food choices. Try choosing water instead of soda or juice, or opting for whole grain bread or brown over of white bread or white rice. You will soon feel the difference.
- Intaking or increasing magnesium and calcium helps.
If you experience sugar cravings, you may have a magnesium and/or calcium deficiency. Increasing your magnesium and calcium intake either through your diet or with supplements can help stabilize blood sugar and reduce the cravings.
Focus on Balance and Moderation
So can you still eat chocolate on Valentine’s Day? Of course. I know I will! Fluctuations in blood sugar and hormones are normal, but there are a lot of things you can do to maintain some balance and control. Following the tips above can help you reduce your symptoms of fatigue, mood swings, cravings, and irritability, especially when your hormonal state makes you most susceptible to them.
If making these adjustments doesn’t help you feel better, let your provider know. We’ll be sure to look for any underlying issues and help you get the treatment you need.
About Dr. Stephen Pound
Dr. Stephen Pound is an OB/GYN at Virginia Physicians for Women who sees patients at VPFW’s Johnston-Willis and Prince George offices.
To schedule an appointment with a VPFW provider, you can call us at 804-897-2100 or set an appointment online.