Dealing with PMS as a Recovering Binge Eater

Has this happened to you?… You feel like your eating is going pretty well, and you are feeling relatively good in your life, and then suddenly, you start to feel down, and everything seems a little darker and more difficult? At the same time, do you experience an increase in appetite and food cravings?

Whether you have recently stopped binge eating or you are trying to stop, when you experience the above scenario, it might seem worrisome to you. You may think you are falling back into old patterns, or that your urges to binge are going to come back. You may be concerned that feeding an increase in appetite or satisfying cravings will condition you to eat that much all of the time, or worse, send you back into binge eating.

You may start considering that your low mood coupled with a heightened interest in food means that you actually do need food to cope in some way (even though you’ve seen over and over that it only makes problems worse). You might start to think that binge eating seems appealing, when just a few days prior, you felt completely separate from binge urges.

If this happens to you, relax a little and then go check your calendar!

There could be one simple explanation for all of it, an explanation that doesn’t involved you being on the verge of relapse, or flawed in some way; an explanation that doesn’t involve you believing that binge eating is a coping mechanism.

It could simply be PMS.

Most women experience an increase in appetite in the week leading up to menstruation, and some mood swings as well, especially low moods. That’s normal, which is not to say you can’t do certain things to help yourself feel better, but just that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you; and it doesn’t mean you are on a slippery slope back to binge eating or that your binge problem is getting worse.

Even though it’s “normal,” you may wander how to handle PMS as a recovering or newly-recovered binge eater. In this post, I’ll give you some ideas and tips…

Awareness and Acceptance

My first piece of advice is to be aware of your cycle, so that you can make the connection between low moods/increased appetite and PMS. Most women report that the symptoms start about a week before their period and resolve after menstruation begins, but PMS can last longer or be more brief in some women. If you know the cause of what you are experiencing, then it makes the temporary phase much easier to manage. Otherwise, your symptoms can catch you off guard and make you confused and frustrated.

You may experience lethargy, depression and irritability very strongly during PMS, and if you don’t make the connection to the calendar, you may think that suddenly your life’s energy has been drained. You’re likely to get upset with yourself for feeling like staying home and eating ice cream more than you feel like doing anything else…when just last week you were out in the world pursuing goals and activities you enjoyed.

Added to all of that, bloating can occur before menstruation as well, which can exacerbate negative feelings, because not only do you suddenly feel low and want to eat more, you also feel like you may be gaining weight too.  But, if you are aware of your cycle, you will know why you are bloated. You’ll be better able to prevent self-criticism, and relax in knowing that the physical and emotional symptoms will pass.

You’ll know that you’ll soon feel like your normal self again, so you can simply accept the temporary PMS phase without trying to fight it or worry that it’s a permanent state.

Listen to Your Hunger (and use your mind to help guide choices)

Your body uses more calories during the time right before your period, and although there is no clear consensus on exactly how much more energy it uses, evidence suggests that women’s bodies can require up to 15 percent more calories in the few days prior to their period. So, of course you will get hungrier and food will start to look more appealing! Don’t feel guilty about eating more during a time when your body is needing more calories.

That being said, sometimes the food that seems the most appealing during PMS are the highly-rewarding, highly-processed junk foods. While it’s of course okay to choose to have some, if you find yourself only eating those types of foods, it’s going to make you feel worse. If you can instead steer yourself in a more nourishing direction some or most of the time, and eat foods that you think will better fuel your increase in appetite, it will make you feel better physically (or at least not worse!) and even help your mood. Blood sugar fluctuations from too much sugary junk food can make mood swings more severe and make hunger more erratic. So, even if you are craving more junk food than usual during PMS, you can still use your mind to help yourself make better choices. Most people find that adding some protein and healthy fats helps them to feel more satiated and stabilizes blood sugar.

Another benefit of choosing some decent fuel for your increased appetite is that it will prevent your PMS eating from feeling similar to your binge eating. Eating more when you are hungrier should feel good, but when you’re primarily choosing junk food, it can lead your lower brain to send the message that “you’ve already failed, so you might as well binge.” You can of course dismiss that thought if it does come up, but avoiding behaviors that feel very similar to your binges is helpful.

Manage Your Moods/Physical Symptoms with Some Activity

Your body is priming you to take it easy during a time of changing hormones and increased demand on your physiology. It’s good to listen to your body and relax when you can; but also know that exercise can help elevate your mood and relieve some of your physical and emotional symptoms. Try balancing rest with physical activity (even if you don’t feel like being active in the moment) because it can shift your mindset in a powerful way.

Separate PMS Problems from Binge Eating Problems (Dismiss Binge Urges)

Having increased cravings during PMS does not mean you are on a slippery slope back to binge eating. That would mean that the vast majority of women are on a slippery slope to binge eating during a week out of every month, and we know that’s simply not true. PMS and binge eating are two separate problems, although it’s possible that over time, through your repeated behaviors, you’ve conditioned a link between the two.  It’s possible that you do have increased urges to binge prior to your period, whether that’s because you’ve made it a habit to binge during times of low moods or increased appetite and/or when you are feeling bloated. Now, when you experience those triggers, you may automatically have the urges to binge.

You may have habitual thoughts that say you are failure for eating more during PMS so you “might as well binge,” or that because you are bloated, you must be gaining weight, and then use that to illogically justify a binge. You may feel low, and then have thoughts telling you a binge will “make you feel better” (even though you know it won’t.).

The great thing about dismissing binge urges is that you don’t have to give any of these thoughts any special attention or value. Any and all thoughts/feelings that encourage binge eating are false messages from the lower brain; they don’t represent what you truly want–during PMS or on any other day of the month. When the brain sends the message that binge eating is a “solution” for anything, you know right away that’s the lower-brain’s primitive response, aimed at maintaining the habit. You know that a binge during a time of bloating, increased appetite, and/or low moods will only make all of those problems worse. Regardless of why or how the urges surface, you can learn to see all thoughts that try to justify a binge as neurological junk that you don’t need to take seriously or act upon.

*A word of caution: If your PMS feels extreme, or you have seemingly out-of-control moods swings or alarmingly depressive thoughts, please seek professional medical help for hormone issues.