If you’re one of the 85% of women and young people estimated to suffer at least one form of PMS symptoms every month, you know first-hand how rough it can be.1But what does the evidence say about PMS? Let’s clear up some of the myths and facts about it, and what you can do to breathe a little easier during that time of the month.
What is PMS?
PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome, and it’s an umbrella term for the group of uncomfortable symptoms that can occur during this phase menstrual cycle. The symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone will experience the same ones. In fact, some people don’t get PMS at all.
The time frame it takes for symptoms to kick in can also vary, so while one sufferer may be feeling lousy from mid-cycle onwards, another might notice only a twinge of discomfort right before a period. One thing’s for sure though: PMS is real. It’s not all in your head, and neither are you a shrieking hysteric at the mercy of raging hormones.
An official diagnosis needs a healthcare provider to confirm a pattern of symptoms. If you think you might have PMS, keep a record of your symptoms over the course of your cycle and the dates of your period for a few months. You can discuss this with your doctor to rule out any other causes for your discomfort, like depression, chronic fatigue syndrome or thyroid disease.
Common PMS symptoms
The symptoms of PMS can vary from person to person but some of the most common complaints are as follows.
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Back pain
- Gastric problems like nausea, constipation or diarrhea
- Fatigue or feeling tired
- Feeling bloated
- Tender breasts
- Appetite changes and cravings for particular foods
- Irritability, tension or mood swings
- Finding it difficult to remember or focus on things
What causes PMS symptoms?
As the name implies, the symptoms of PMS tend to kick in before a period and end once you start to bleed. However, it’s still not exactly clear what causes PMS in the first place, let alone why some will experience certain symptoms more than others. That said, there are a few theories.
Changing hormone balance
In the post-ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle (after your body releases an egg), production of the hormone progesterone ramps up, while estrogen levels drop. Some of the physical and mental symptoms of PMS are thought to be caused as this hormonal see-saw tilts from one side to the other.
The menstrual cycle also affects the levels of chemicals in the brain. One of the chemicals in charge of regulating estrogen levels, serotonin, is thought to play a role in feelings of happiness and emotional stability. The serotonin levels decrease during the premenstrual phase, and it’s been hypothesized that the decrease contributes to why some women feel moody or blue in the lead-up to a period.
Low blood sugar
Serotonin is at it again! Not content with regulating your estrogen and emotional stability, serotonin also affects your insulin resistance and blood sugar levels. As you approach a period, you may experience low blood sugar that causes the symptoms of PMS.
Fighting PMS symptoms naturally
PMS might be annoying, but the good news is it does clear up when a period kicks in and until then, it can often be addressed with self-care, home remedies and a little ingenuity.
Follow a good diet
If your PMS symptoms aren’t so bad that you need a doctor, some simple dietary changes may offer some relief.
- Eat plenty of complex carbs, like those found in beans, lentils, whole grain bread and pasta. These slow-burning carbs help keep you fuller for longer, helping to food cravings and mood swings.
- Include dairy products like yogurt and green vegetables like kale for a calcium boost.
- Try to avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- According to some research, Vitamin B6 could help take the edge off PMS symptoms. Make sure you’re getting enough by eating B6-rich foods like chickpeas, fish, beef liver, chicken breast and fortified cereals.
Stress doesn’t necessarily cause PMS, but it sure can make it feel worse! If you’re prone to stress around a period, look for ways you can cope with stress like taking some time to chill out with your favorite music or TV shows, light exercise, or chatting with your friends. It’s also important to get enough sleep.
Herbal remedies like black cohosh, chasteberry (vitex) and evening primrose oil are popular remedies for women’s health, including PMS. However, herbal medicines are still medicines. It’s important to get yours from an expert, and tell your healthcare provider about any herbs or supplements you take to avoid interactions.
Check your basal body temperature (BBT)
If your cycles are irregular, it can be difficult to work out when a period is due, and PMS symptoms can strike when you’re least prepared to deal with them. Measuring the changes of your basal body temperature (BBT) over the course of the month is a common way for women to try and predict the fertile period of their menstrual cycle.
However, it can also give you an indication of where you’re up to in your cycle and when to expect a period. Showing this chart to a gynecologist can also help them identify any other conditions or imbalances that could be contributing to your symptoms.
PMS discomforts can be improved by over-the-counter pain relief like ibuprofen or naproxen. However, if you ever feel like your PMS symptoms are overwhelming, don’t write it off as “normal” or “just part of being a woman”. See your doctor or a family planning organization. Effective treatments like the oral contraceptive pill can help stop severe PMS symptoms.
A small percentage of PMS sufferers (3 to 8%) have a more extreme form of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).2For example, whereas PMS can cause a depressed or anxious mood, PMDD can trigger panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. If you have severe distress like this around your period, you’re not alone. Help is available, and may include certain birth control pills and/or antidepressant medications.
Don’t give in to PMS!
Female bodies work on their own rhythms and respond to the menstrual cycle, so it’s not surprising that the symptoms of PMS can be a little hard to pin down – let alone try to cure altogether! However, with the right remedies and the right support, you can get on top of it.
If you’re concerned that your PMS symptoms are too hard to handle, or they’re not responding to over-the-counter remedies, don’t hesitate to see a doctor. You’re not crazy or “being hormonal” – you deserve to feel great every day of the month.