Many women dread their monthly cycles due to sometimes intense and debilitating symptoms that rob them of energy, emotional balance, and serenity. The temptation is there, and the pharmaceutical companies play the devil’s advocate, to use artificial means to alter the hormonal balances of the body to avoid such unpleasantries. Maybe if we learn more about this condition called Premenstrual Syndrome we can find a more natural way to manage it. Let’s take a look.
What is Premenstrual Syndrome?
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) is a conglomeration of over 150 symptoms experienced by many women between the time they ovulate and the onset of menstruation. PMS includes a variety of physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms. A rare but more severe form of the syndrome is calledpremenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), officially labeled as a disease in 1987. It is estimated that up to 75% of all menstruating women have some symptoms of PMS before or during the menses. Approximately 3-7% of these women experience the more intense symptoms associated with PMDD. These may last from 4-10 days and be very disruptive to a woman’s normal daily activities. Some women report that symptoms begin as early as puberty, but the onset of PMS is most often found between the ages of 20-30. Symptoms usually continue until menopause. They often vary in intensity from month to month.
What Are the Symptoms of PMS?
As with many illnesses, symptoms and intensities vary from person to person, but the major ones include:
- Weight gain
- Fluid retention
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal cramps
- Breast tenderness
- Mood swings
- Crying spells
- Angry moods
- Appetite changes
- Food cravings
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Hot flashes
- Cold sores
- Herpes outbreaks (for those already infected with herpes)
PMDD symptoms are generally more emotionally severe than those of PMS. These may include severe depression, anger, anxiety, low self-esteem, inability to concentrate, tension, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. PMDD is officially a psychiatric designation.
What Causes PMS?
The exact cause of PMS is not fully understood, but there are several known factors that play a role. PMS is thought to be related to the cyclic changes in hormones that all women normally experience during each menstrual cycle. The fact that symptoms tend to disappear during pregnancy and at menopause are clues that point to hormonal involvement. PMS is generally only found during the second half of a woman’s cycle, after ovulation until menstruation begins. The normal monthly menstrual cycle lasts 24-35 days. During this time, hormone levels fluctuate. Estrogen levels gradually rise during the first half of a woman’s cycle (the pre-ovulatory phase), and fall sharply at ovulation. After ovulation, (the post-ovulation phase) progesterone increases gradually until menstruation. Both of these hormones are a function of the ovaries, which also produce the eggs. One of their main jobs is to stimulate the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) to thicken. However, estrogen and progesterone also affect the amount of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) in the brain. Serotonin is known to affect the emotions and the appetite. Researchers are not clear on the details, but are quite sure that PMS is somehow related to chemical reactions in the brain and nervous system. Increasing the serotonin levels of women with PMS has been shown to be helpful to some who experience emotionally difficult symptoms. Low serotonin levels are also thought to be partially responsible for the depression some mothers experience following childbirth (post partem depression) and some women suffer from during menopause.
Other possible causes are suspected as well. Insufficient amounts of certain nutritional substances such as zinc, essential fatty acids, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B6 may be factors. Food allergies have also been suggested as a cause for PMS.
- Zinc levels are generally lowered in women with PMS. Zinc is needed by many of the body’s hormones to function properly. It also helps to regulate hormone secretion.
- Magnesium is critical for cellular functions throughout the body. PMS patients are often lacking magnesium. Supplementation has been clinically proven to help literally all symptoms of PMS. Magnesium is particularly beneficial when use in conjunction with vitamin B6.
- Calcium has proven very useful as well. It helps neurotransmitters to work better, and also relaxes smooth muscle tissue, thus relieving cramping in some PMS patients.
Excessive amounts of sodium and low levels of dietary potassium also may contribute to causing PMS. This combination leads to fluid retention, one of the major symptoms of PMS.
One very interesting line of research has implicated caffeine as a major culprit in the cause of PMS. Drinking coffee, tea, or other caffeinated drinks can bring on PMS and/or worsen the symptoms of existing cases. Caffeine seems to affect symptoms such as mood swings, depression, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety the most. However, it has also been linked to breast tenderness as well. Suffice it to say that if you suffer from PMS at all, you’d best stay away from caffeine.
What Treatments Are Available for PMS?
Mainstream medicine has some treatments, mostly involving pharmaceutical drugs to no surprise, which I would not normally recommend. However, I would like to briefly cover them so that you can be aware and make your own decisions.
- Oral contraceptives: These dangerous drugs work by stopping ovulation from happening and thereby tinkering with the hormonal levels of the body. They do have the effect of stabilizing hormonal swings in some women, but it’s a high price to pay. I would never take anything that artificially alters natural functions of my body such as these. I’m afraid of the long-term effects. It just isn’t natural.
- Antidepressants: I am not a big fan of taking any drugs that are not absolutely necessary, and these are no exception. I have seen too many cases of medications such as these being promiscuously prescribed to folks for other psychiatric purposes. The thought behind it for treating PMS is that these drugs will elevate serotonin levels. In my book, the risks are not worth it. There are other safer and saner ways to lessen the symptoms of PMS.
- Medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depo-Provera) is a drug that is sometimes injected into individuals to treat PMDD. It works by temporarily stopping ovulation. Again, a dangerous drug as far as I am concerned. There must be a better way…
- Natural progesterone creams: Most of these are derived from soybeans and wild yams, both of which have substances that boost the levels of progesterone in the body. There are some good ones out there, but you have to be careful that you know what you are getting. Absolutely stay away from the synthetic hormone replacement therapies offered by many doctors. These can lead to serious health problems down the road, including an increased risk for breast cancer.
- Surgical removal of the ovaries is suggested at times in extreme cases. Unless there is a life and death reason for this, I consider such surgery to be very irresponsible and inappropriate for the treatment of PMS or PMDD.
The best way to treat PMS is to make sensible adjustments in your lifestyle that will keep your body healthier so that you can better manage the symptoms. As usual, diet is one of the critical factors in dealing with PMS. Here are some specific dietary recommendations:
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. This will help you to feel less bloated and may lessen abdominal cramping.
- Limit or eliminate animal products. Load up on high-fiber plant-based foods that are also high in complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Studies have shown that vegetarian women excrete more estrogen from their bodies and have less estrogen in their blood streams than omnivores.
- Vitamin B6 is critical for maintaining hormonal balance within the body, and helps some women with depression and mood swings associated with PMS. Foods such as yams, legumes, and leafy green vegetables are naturally high in B6.
- Avoid foods that are high in sodium. This only makes bloating and fluid retention worse.
- Stay away from caffeine. It is a trigger for PMS.
Other practical steps that can help are:
- Regular and consistent exercise. This is particularly helpful for overcoming fatigue and depression
- Get as much good quality sleep as you can
- Sometimes PMS sufferers can experience significant bouts of insomnia at certain times of the month. Deep breathing exercises can help you relax and get to sleep. Good for anxiety and headaches too.
- One idea that has helped many women is to keep a journal of symptoms and their timing from month to month. After a while you will know what to expect and when, and will not get ambushed with unexpected symptoms. A great management tool.
Let me briefly mention a few herbal remedies that are showing great success at relieving PMS symptoms:
- You might want to look into chastebery (Vitex agnus-castus). In one study involving more than 1500 women, fully one third of them reported complete alleviation of their symptoms, and 90% stated symptoms were lessened. Those are pretty impressive numbers! Look for a high quality supplement from a reputable manufacturer.
- Many are finding supplementation with Vitamin E to be particularly helpful with cramps and breast tenderness.
- A quality pharmaceutical grade fish oil supplement may be a great tool to fight PMS symptoms as well. Make sure it has a lot of Omega-3 fatty acids in it. This works wonders for some women with PMS.
I believe it is important we remember that PMS is not an illness in the traditional sense of the word. It is caused by natural forces that are at work within our bodies. It is not a disease, any more than pregnancy is a disease. It is critical that we learn to work with our bodies and help them to naturally maintain or regain a state of balance with as little synthetic intervention as possible. That is why I feel so strongly about unnatural interventions such as hormone replacement therapy or unnecessary and dangerous medications. Let’s not look for shortcuts that will give us instant gratification while subjecting us to long-term consequences we may regret forever.