How Your Mind Tricks You Into Feeling 'Fat' During Your Period

It can seem inevitable. You hit the dreaded PMS week each month and you're tired, you're in pain and you feel as if you're heavier than usual for no apparent reason. Is there any crueler gender-specific biological punishment?

But before you fall into another unproductive bout of self-pity about your body, know there's new research that puts that weight-related symptom in context.

While previous studies have suggested hormones may cause a woman to obsess about body size, that hypothesis misses a very important link. The new study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests that it's actually the guilt a woman may feel about how much she's eating as a result of those hormones that puts her at higher risk of suffering feelings of self-loathing -- whether or not she's actually gaining weight.

"In the long run, we know that it's not that women's weights are changing dramatically as a result of this food intake," Kelly L. Klump, a psychology professor at Michigan State University and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "The problem is, because there's this increased food intake and emotional eating in the moment, they feel really bad about themselves."

It's important to understand that, for the most part, this type of increased eating is a biologically-driven effect of the mid-luteal phase -- the time when a fertilized egg would implant upon conception, but your appetite ramps up even if you don't conceive. Understanding this may help women identify what's going on in their bodies and prevent unnecessary dwelling or guilt as a result of emotional eating, or eating in response to negative emotions.

"I think women can very much beat themselves up about, 'Oh, why did I eat more? Now I feel like I've gained all this weight,'" said Klump.

It's already been established that ovarian hormones predict binge eating and emotional eating, but the study's researchers set out to find the source of the over-thinking and shame they noticed anecdotally. Obsessing about body shape and size can cloud women's views of their bodies and leave them vulnerable to eating disorders on a monthly basis. Hormones seemed like a reasonable root of that thought process, but the researchers weren't sure.

To find out, they distributed daily questionnaires to track the weight preoccupation, negative feelings and emotional eating of 352 women from the ages of 15 to 25 for 45 days -- enough time for the entire sample to go through one full menstrual cycle. Researchers also took saliva samples from participants each day to track the two ovarian hormones, estradiol and progesterone.

As ovarian hormones shifted and participants entered into the mid-luteal phase of their cycles, they were more likely to engage in emotional eating, which led to increased preoccupation with weight during the premenstrual and menstrual phases. In layman's terms: Ovarian hormones predicted the emotional eating, which predicted the weight preoccupation.

The highest period of risk for emotional eating is during the mid-luteal stage -- when you have high levels of progesterone and estradiol -- but the researchers found that weight preoccupation didn't occur until after that hormonal spike.

"You're consuming larger amounts of food; you're eating in a way that's not necessarily typical for you on a day-to-day basis or even meal-to-meal," Britny Hildebrandt, a graduate student at Michigan State University and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "That might be boosting this preoccupation with weight."

Of course, not every woman is going to eat more or become more preoccupied with her body at these times every single month. These findings simply suggest that your body is wired to do these things, so there is an increased chance they're going to happen.

Klump added that this pattern wouldn't be possible without the cultural messages women get about their bodies and "socially acceptable" eating habits.

"To be honest, if we didn't have such a weight-focused, weight-obsessed culture, these natural changes in food intake across the menstrual cycle would not have these effects on women," Klump said.

At the end of the day, just know that if you're extra-hungry at certain times of the month, listen to your body and free yourself of any self-judgement. It's a natural biological process, not the enemy.

1. There Is Such A Thing As Too Much Flow.
"A lot of adolescents get these 'blow out' periods, and they have no idea that they're too heavy -- or that there are things they can do to help control them," said McGuire. "They just assume that everyone's [period] is this way." While having a heavy flow is relatively common (and most women tend to bleed more in the first few days), if you find yourself needing to change your pad or tampon more than every two to three hours, or if your period lasts longer than seven days, it's likely time to talk to a health care provider about your options. Hormonal birth control can help decrease the amount of flow a woman experiences, as can certain pain relievers. There's also a small chance that heavy flow is a sign of menorrhagia, a term used to define periods that are so intense, they keep a woman from doing her usual activities. The bottom line -- if you think your flow is abnormally heavy, ask!
2. Pain Relief Requires Foresight ...
For women who have painful periods (and evidence suggests there's a lot of us out there), getting relief from cramping and other common physical symptoms often requires taking over-the-counter pain relievers before any bleeding even starts. "If you take [medication] when the symptoms are already bad, you're behind the ball," said McGuire. "If your periods are pretty regular, and if you know you start on a Wednesday or Thursday, for example, I might start dosing on a Tuesday." Research also suggests that certain lifestyle changes -- like getting plenty of exercise and sleep, eating healthy foods and finding ways to relax -- can help provide some women with some relief.
3. ... And Your Period Shouldn't Mess Up Your Life.
"In most instances, your period should not keep you from your normal activities," said Dr. Mary Rosser, an assistant professor and attending physician in obstetrics and gynecology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. "Studies have shown that 90 percent of women will experience some symptoms, [but] mostly mild. And 10 to 20 percent will have symptoms that interfere with normal activities." Those symptoms can crop up when you're actively bleeding, or as a part of PMS, which occurs because of hormonal changes in the week or two prior to your period. See your doctor if you have you have cramps that keep you from doing your normal, daily activities, or PMS symptoms that interfere with your day-to-day.
4. You Can Get Pregnant During Your Period.
It's highly unlikely, but it is possible for you to become pregnant during your period. As Health.com explains, some women have long periods that overlap with the beginning of ovulation -- even though they're still menstruating. Or, as Dr. Michele Hakakha, an OBGYN and author of Expecting 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Pregnancy, told Parents.com: "A woman with a shorter menstrual cycle (24 days, for example), could have seven days of bleeding, have intercourse on her final day of bleeding and ovulate three days later. Since sperm live for three to five days, she could definitely get pregnant."
5. You Have Your Own Discharge Pattern -- And It's More Complex Than You Think.
When it comes to the complete menstrual cycle, every woman has a slightly different pattern. However, most women bleed, then are dry for a few days, then experience a light, mucus-like discharge (pre-ovulation) that becomes increasingly cloudy and thick (a sign that ovulation has likely ended). "What's different from one woman to another is the quantity of discharge," McGuire said. "It's just like how some people have oily skin, and others have dry skin." Clueing into your own pattern is just good practice, namely so you have a sense of what is happening in your body and can watch out for any changes.
6. Even If You're Regular, You Might Not Be Totally Regular.
First thing's first: there is no one typical cycle -- cycles can range from 21 to 35 days, said Rosser. Teen girls' cycles can last anywhere from 21 to 45 days. And "most women do not get their period on the exact same day of the month," Rosser added. "That is normal!" Think about it -- most months have 30 or 31 days in them, so even if your cycle is 100-percent precise, your period won't start on exactly the same day or date every month.
In addition, it is not necessarily uncommon to have one or two abnormal periods per year, Rosser said, adding that irregular or missed periods can come from a variety of causes, including illness, stress, significant weight loss or gain, or pregnancy. If you're feeling totally fine otherwise, but your period is irregular, it's typically OK to just wait until your next period, she said. But if that irregularity becomes persistent, or if you have any concerns, you should see your health care provider.
7. How You Deal With Hygiene Is Important.
Sure, movies and TV shows tend to portray women's periods as somehow "gross," but menstruation is a perfectly normal biological process and women shouldn't go overboard in the hygiene department, McGuire says. "Most patients are too aggressive with cleaning," she said. "It's good to use a soap that has a pH that's similar to your own body's ... no douches, no powders, no talcs, no perfume sprays, none of the wipes that are so popular now, because they can cause irritation." In fact, McGuire said she frequently encounters women who think they're having problems with vaginitis or other bacterial infections, but really, they're just being overzealous in cleaning themselves with harsh soaps.
8. When Your Mom Stopped Getting Her Period Matters For You.
"In many cases, our moms never talked to us about when they went through menopause," said Dr. Shannon Laughlin-Tommaso, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology with the Mayo Clinic -- but it has implications for when you might stop getting your period. In fact, the age at which your mother went through menopause is one of the biggest predictors for when you will, Laughlin-Tommaso said. And that's extremely useful information to have, because there's significant range -- the average age at which a woman has her last period is 51, but anything between age 40 and 56 is within the normal range, she said.