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Hormones to Blame continued...

And when cortisol levels are high enough, the body turns on its fight-or-flight response, a woman becomes more metabolically charged, and her appetite is stimulated. This, in turn, causes a woman to seek out carbs and fat, "the actual fuels of the fight-and-flight response," Peeke says.

Whether a woman will crave sweets or croissants, though, depends on yet another player: the brain chemical serotonin, she says. Most women with PMS experience a drop in serotonin levels, which triggers cravings for carbs because the body uses carbs to make serotonin.

"If cortisol is high and serotonin is low, you'll seek carbs and fats, but really heavy duty on the simple carbs -- sugar-based sweets like chocolate bars," Peeke says. The reason: Simple sugars are metabolized more quickly than complex carbs, so they offer a quick serotonin fix.

If cortisol is way up but serotonin is relatively normal, a woman is more likely to crave a fat-carb combo without a huge sweet component, such as a bagel laden with cream cheese, Peeke says.

The Blood-Sugar Connection

Other research has linked PMS to a state of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, in the second half of the menstrual cycle, says Susan M. Lark, MD, a clinician in Los Altos, Calif., and author of Premenstrual Syndrome Self-Help Book: A Woman's Guide to Feeling Good All Month. "Women in these studies experienced a significant drop in blood sugar after eating, accompanied by edginess and irritability," Lark says. "Then within an hour or two, they are hungry again and craving more food."

Whether it's blood sugar, cortisol, or serotonin levels that are out of whack, experts say, eating huge servings of ice cream, chocolate, and chips are not the only way to bring levels backs into check -- in fact, they are the worst way. Proper nutrition and lifestyle habits will achieve the same thing, with long-lasting results.

12 Ways To Fight PMS Cravings

How to Fight Food Cravings

So how can a woman combat PMS cravings and keep from gaining weight?

Eat complex carbs
Though it might seem counterintuitive to feed a diet, Wurtman suggests reaching for a snack high in complex carbs whenever you feel an attack of the grumpies coming on. Taking in a few extra calories in rice cakes now will prevent you from raiding the icebox later on. Meals also should be high in complex carbs, such as whole-grain breads, pasta, and cereals. "Eaten on an empty stomach, baked potatoes, even half a bagel or low-sugar cereals, will increase serotonin levels within an hour," Wurtman says.

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