It's said that many women eat a lot of sugar and junk in the run up to and during their period, and I'm no exception. Obviously I know that it's not great for my waistline or my blood sugar levels, but it never occurred to me that my chocolate binges could be ageing me!
During my period, I get an intense craving for sweet, sugary foods, and I'll desperately seek doughnuts, cakes and chocolate. I know I'm not alone in these cravings, a survey I conducted found that 50% of women consume more junk food during their monthly cycle, typically eating more sugary foods, processed foods and takeaways.
Usually, I work out 4 times a week, and I eat healthily, But, for one week during every month, I am, shall we say, less than vigilant with my food choices!
Obviously I don't want the fact that I fall to pieces once a month to sabotage all my other anti-ageing efforts. It's scary to think that for 12 weeks of the year I eat junk and empty calories that do my body no good at all.
So I set about finding out if our periods are, therefore, causing us to age at an accelerated rate. Depressingly, the answer is a resounding yes.
World renowned anti-ageing expert Dr Daniel Sister says: "Premenstrual syndrome is generally caused by women having lower levels of progesterone at this point in their menstrual cycle. This leads to mood swings, which can leave them feeling depressed. This depression triggers a need for more comfort food, which is often high in sugar content.
"Eating too much sugar over time ages the skin, making it dull and more prone to wrinkles. This is due to a process called glycation. Sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins and forms harmful molecules called 'advanced glycation end products' - often called AGE.
"AGEs damage proteins, making cells stiffer, less flexible and more prone to damage and premature ageing. Collagen and elastin are particularly prone to this damage - and the effects start at around the age of 35 and increase quickly.
"So the more sugar you eat, the more AGEs develop, meaning the more you crave sugary foods around the time of your period - the quicker you are ageing!"
So, why do we crave sugar, and perhaps more importantly, what can we do to combat it?
Nutritionist Kate Leinweber says that during the run up to a woman's period, she has an increased need for magnesium, and her body seeks it. Interestingly, cocoa beans are very rich in magnesium! So if you are craving chocolate as aresult, try to eat products with a high percentage of cocoa, many chocolate bars have lost most of their magnesium content through over processing, but dark chocolate that's been minimally processed should provide you with a decent magnesium dose. Green vegetables and oats are also magnesium rich. Magnesium can decrease common menstrual symptoms like cramping, constipation, insomnia, headaches, water retention, anxiety and sore swollen breasts.
Also, during menstruation women are cleansing their bodies of toxins and processing emotions which often places increased energy needs on the body. This can result in increased hunger which it's important to respond to and to give your body the nourishment it needs. If hunger signals are ignored they can result in terrible sugar cravings so it's preferable to eat when you're hungry.
A craving can also be a simple response to low blood sugar - some women's bodies are more responsive to insulin during their menstrual cycle, resulting in them being more sensitive to plummeting blood sugar levels. A craving is often a sign that the body needs more fuel.
There is also evidence that eating chocolate increases serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Dr Judith Wurtman, author of The Serotonin Power Diet, says that Pre Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) can remove a woman's sense of emotional well-being, replacing it with irritability, anger, exhaustion and depression which often results in an uncontrollable urge to eat junk.
The solution is to increase the production of serotonin, the brain chemical involved in regulating mood and weight according to Dr Wurtman. The study showed that serotonin activity is diminished during PMS so simply increasing serotonin production reduces the unpleasant mood and overeating during this time of the month she claims.
Serotonin is made when a non-fruit carbohydrate is eaten. So, she advises, you should twice a day (or more if necessary) eat a snack containing 30-35 grams of a starchy or sweet carbohydrate.
The snacks should be regarded as edible therapy for the PMS, not as a source of nutrition she says. Make sure you take your usual vitamin and calcium supplements and eat as many fruits, vegetables, low or non-fat dairy products and lean protein as your PMS cravings will allow. She advises that good snack choices include popcorn, and sweetened breakfast cereal.