A great deal of research has been done on the effect of carbohydrates on depression, with continued interest in psycho-diet behavior in relation to PMS and other behavioral disorders. The clinical name for depression is psychological affective disorder. Since women with cyclical PMS do not qualify for clinical depression, many women with clinical depression suffer from PMS or PMDD. The distinction should be made clear. Because you may become depressed for a few days or up to a week every month due to changes in hormones does not mean you should be classified as being clinically depressed. However, that being said, if you are mildly to moderately depressed, pms can actually become worse over time. Following the Cycle Diet will help you supply the necessary nutrients for positive brain chemistry.
If you are markedly depressed all of the time as well as during the luteal phase, please seek professional psychological help from a board certified Psychiatrist. There are many new therapies for women who are clinically depressed.
The latest trend in PMS treatment is prescribed selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI's) during the luteal phase. Research does show relief from many symptoms but if the causes of PMS symptoms are nutritionally related, the nutrient deficiency could be masked. If drug therapy loses effectiveness, nutritional factors could be the reason.
Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter, has functions in appetite regulation as well as a mood enhancer. Depression is a direct result of low serotonin levels in the brain. Carbohydrate cravings can be caused by a biochemical response due to the low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. It is very common to crave sweets and salty snack foods during the luteal phase. A lack of will power is not the problem.
The precursor to serotonin is an important amino-acid called L-tryptophan → (5-HTP) found in high biological value protein. Normally, if you get enough high quality protein in your diet, like chicken, fish, eggs and red meat, you'll have enough tryptophan to supply your body and brain. However, high biological value protein is also a tremendous source of other neutral and branch chain amino acids (LNAAs) that compete with tryptophan for a brain cell receptor. You might say L-tryptophan is a slow amino acid, since the other amino acids (tyrosine, leucine, phenylalanine, and valine) not only crowd it out but beat it to receptors on the cell surface.
When LNAA's, especially tyrosine crowd tryptophan out, your brain sends signals to your appetite to crave sugar or carbohydrates, preferably highly refined carbs so they hit your blood stream faster. These cravings can be very strong for sugary sweets. With large amounts of glucose (sugar) hitting the system all at once, the pancreas pumps enough insulin to not only clear the glucose but those LNAA's as well. Insulin helps clear the neutral amino acids out of the way primarily in muscle so the concentration of tryptophan can increase to enable the brain to make more serotonin.
Why do you crave salt as well? Salt acts in conjunction with this process in a response to lower the concentrations of so much protein in the blood stream by retaining fluids causing bloating. Taking a diuretic can help only short term, but works against your body's attempt to lower protein concentration in circulation prolonging the serotonin shortage and your bad mood. The solution is to drink more water, which helps the body get to a better balance. The kidney's then release sodium in your urine and you lose the bloat. This is a rather simple explanation of what biochemists currently think happens.
Another way to help clear LNAA's from your system is to exercise, muscle uses branch chain amino acids as fuel, but not tryptophan. Exercise is a potent component to good health and improved mental health as well, increasing feel good neurotransmitters like endorphin. If you don't move, get going now any way you can!
Eat Less Protein, Not More
So why not eat more high quality meat protein or take supplemental 5-HTP during the luteal phase instead of less? A small study done at UCLA (Rasgon et al, 1999) tested L-tryptophan in women who suffered from PMS and found that even at high levels of tryptophan in the blood stream a blunting of the uptake of L-tryptophan during the luteal phase was happening. Women who suffer from PMS seem to have a more difficult time processing certain amino acids (animal proteins) at that time.
This is the reasoning behind limiting animal protein during the highest levels of estrogen and progesterone. Researchers point to the possibility of enzymatic differences between women with PMS and those who don't suffer. More research needs to be done in this area before we will know for sure.
Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD
SAD can also exasperate PMS. If you live in northern latitudes, upper United States, Canada, UK, Sweden, Norway, Finland or get depressed in the winter months, you may be suffering from SAD. It is thought that the biological clock hormone known as melatonin may be the culprit due to its production during darkness. Melatonin helps a person feel sleepy when it's dark, your body's way of telling you it's time to go to sleep. Strong day light seems to limit its production. People with SAD have been shown to produce more melatonin than people who don't suffer, so it's important to get natural sunlight during the winter. On a nutritional note, vitamin D production is also tied to sunlight. If you do not get at least 15-20 minutes a day of sunlight on your skin, vitamin D may be needed as a supplement. Estimates of Vitamin D stored in the liver can be used up over a long winter or in about 3 months. Vitamin D is necessary in the absorption of calcium, an important mineral in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body as well as bone health. Calcium has also been shown to improve PMS symptoms. People with SAD who live in the northern USA will begin to show symptoms as early as late September. Special lamps and light bulbs can be purchased easily. For more information about Seasonal Effective Disorder, please see the following NIH Med-line link.