Ah, PMS. Back pain. Bloating. Mood swings. Carb cravings and water weight gain. Oh, and let’s not forget about migraines, breast pain, fatigue, spotting, and irritability. What a lovely time to be a woman! No wonder periods have been sarcastically called a monthly “curse” for decades.
But seriously, your PMS symptoms are a powerful sign of communication inside your body. Believe it or not, periods *can* be gentle and more friendly if you listen carefully to what your PMS symptoms may be telling you and seek both medical and holistic care.
Read on for helpful information about your PMS symptoms and how to give your body what it is asking for (which is probably more than chocolate) so your symptoms can stop yelling and start whispering instead.
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What is PMS?
PMS, or Premenstrual Syndrome, is a collection of symptoms that mark roughly one week before the start of a period in women. As mentioned above, PMS symptoms can include back pain, mood changes, breast tenderness, bloating and other digestive issues, water retention, fatigue, food cravings, and increased appetite.
Every woman is unique, and some women barely notice the week before their period, while other women can feel miserable with pronounced symptoms several days before the start of their periods. PMS is brought on by an imbalance in the female hormones estrogen and progesterone and is frequently manageable with a few simple lifestyle and dietary changes.
Hormone balance and PMS
The female hormones estrogen and progesterone, along with follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH), work together to ensure monthly ovulation in females of childbearing age. Females produce a touch of testosterone during the menstrual cycle at ovulation and just before starting a period. Testosterone helps women maintain sex drive, build strong muscles and bones, and enhances a woman’s overall “verve” in life.A typical menstrual cycle goes something like this:
- The pituitary gland in the brain releases FSH and stimulates the maturation of a follicle--a small sac in the ovary that carries an egg or ovum.
- The pituitary gland then releases LH to “tell” the follicle to rupture, sending a mature egg into the fallopian tube adjacent to the ovary--otherwise known as “ovulation.”
- Meanwhile, estrogen (released from the ovaries, adrenal glands, and fat tissue) has been hard at work building the uterine lining in the first half of the menstrual cycle and also maturing the egg in the follicle.
- After ovulation, progesterone increases to control the growth of the uterine lining. If no pregnancy occurs at ovulation, progesterone levels drop which signals the lining of the uterus to “shed,” bringing on a period.
When fluctuating hormone levels alter this process, a host of PMS symptoms can result. PMS may be more pronounced just after menstruation begins during puberty while your body is regulating its menstrual cycle, and again during perimenopause and menopause. Too much or too little of any of the hormones listed above can cause PMS symptoms in varying levels of intensity.
Hormone tests can guide treatment options
Getting your hormone levels tested can be an important part of managing the symptoms of PMS. See your doctor for testing recommendations. Some tests are most accurate at certain points of the menstrual cycle, so tracking your period manually or with a period tracker app can give your doctor a better feel for when to conduct tests to give you the best results.
Accurate testing may lead to more effective treatment recommendations. So, help your doctor help you, and get familiar with the details of your cycle--especially when you ovulate.
Effective natural remedies for PMS
Once you know whether your hormones may be out of balance, you can begin some lifestyle changes to address your PMS symptoms naturally. Read on for PMS relief!
Even though sugar and starch cravings are totally a “thing” during PMS, doing your best to eat healthfully goes a long way to providing PMS symptom relief. Try eliminating inflammatory foods like gluten, cow’s dairy, and, yes, sugar.
Systemically, these foods tend to trigger our body’s inflammatory response, which means you can be walking around in a baseline state of low-grade inflammation all the time. Couple that with hormone fluctuations, and you’ve got a--ahem--recipe for more intense PMS.
Taking a multivitamin or targeted doses of the following vitamins may help decrease PMS symptoms:
- Magnesium (water retention, breast tenderness)
- Zinc (helps acne, improves immune function, and can balance out the effects of elevated testosterone or other androgens like unwanted hair growth)
- Essential Fatty Acids (general symptom improvement)
- Vitamin D (anxiety, depression, irritability)
- Iron (fatigue, heavy periods)
Before running to the vitamin store to stock up on supplements, check with your doctor to see how much of each supplement may be recommended for you, or if she recommends any blood work before beginning supplement use. For example, taking too much iron can harm your liver, so you want to be sure your doctor is aware of any changes in your treatment protocol for PMS.
Gentle movement has been shown to elevate mood during PMS. The endorphins generated by exercise may also help to reduce premenstrual pain or discomfort as well. Some tried-and-true options for gentle movement include walking, stretching and basic yoga, and swimming.
Yes, you read that correctly. A small amount of high quality dark chocolate (65% or higher cacao content) may help alleviate PMS symptoms. Dark chocolate contains magnesium, a vitamin that can reduce symptom severity. Consuming chocolate also produces endorphins, our natural pain killer. Finally, dark chocolate acts as a vasodilator which can lower blood pressure and help us to feel more relaxed.
Remember, everything in moderation, and be sure to consume chocolate alongside a variety of remedies to find the combination that works best for you.
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