What is PMS and what can I do about it?

PMS is an abbreviation for "premenstrual syndrome" and means, among other things, that your mood may change in the period before you have your period. PMS is very common and it is estimated that around 75% of women of childbearing age suffer from some form of PMS symptoms. If you have very severe PMS it is called PMDS which stands for "premenstrual dysphoric syndrome". PMDS often causes stronger psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression and is usually treated with antidepressants in consultation with a doctor. This article will only deal with PMS, not PMDS.

PMS occurs after ovulation, usually about 1 week before menstruation and lasts until the period. It can also continue for a few days into the period, but most people find that the symptoms disappear when they have their period.

Symptoms of PMS can be both physical and psychological and include:

  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sore breasts
  • Weight gain
  • Worry and anxiety
  • Depressed
  • Irritability
  • Swelling
  • Headaches
  • Craving for a certain type of food
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach ache

The list of symptoms could be even longer, as the symptoms are very individual, but these are among the most common signs of PMS. Stress exacerbates PMS, which certainly sounds logical, but stress is a factor that can be difficult to remove in the everyday life we live in today.

What causes PMS?

In fact, we are not entirely sure what causes PMS, but the symptoms seem to be linked to the hormone progesterone. During the first half of the menstrual cycle, the hormone oestrogen dominates in the body, but after ovulation, during the second half of the cycle, progesterone dominates instead. One theory is that PMS symptoms are caused by falling progesterone levels and another is that some women are hypersensitive to a substance produced when progesterone is broken down (allopregnanolone).

Can symptoms of PMS be reduced?

YES! You can definitely influence how you feel during your menstrual cycle, it's just a matter of finding the right tools for you. A healthy lifestyle can help in many ways and is the first step to alleviating your PMS symptoms.

Here are some effective tips:

  • Exercise and movement, preferably several times a week
  • Eat a healthy, nutritious diet
  • Eat regularly
  • Relaxation like yoga or meditation
  • Enough sleep
  • Stress less
  • Be careful with alcohol and caffeine (they have a negative effect)
  • Quit smoking (it can make your symptoms worse)
  • Cut down on sugar
  • Keep track of your menstrual cycle so you're prepared and know what it is when the symptoms come
  • Tell those around you and ask for support

Good diet for PMS

There are many nutrients that can help the body maintain a stable hormonal balance. Vitamin B6 is a water-soluble vitamin that helps regulate hormonal activity and is abundant in foods such as wheat germ, fruit, potatoes, spinach, eggs, sesame seeds and poultry. Fruit and vegetables in general are great as they are bursting with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that the body needs. Healthy fats found in oily fish, flaxseeds, olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds are also good for the body's hormones.

Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system and muscles and is found in spinach, nuts, bananas, avocados, whole grain products, fish and seafood, for example. Studies have also shown that women with PMS often have low levels of zinc. You can get zinc from legumes, seeds, seafood, meat, quorn and tofu, for example.  

Eating regularly to keep your blood sugar in balance is important for keeping your mood in check, and one key is to choose slow carbohydrates over fast ones. Examples such as lentils and beans, vegetables, quinoa, wholemeal rice and coarse breads are high in fibre, which keeps you feeling full and keeps your blood sugar down. A high-protein diet also provides a high sense of satiety and also contains essential amino acids needed for the production of "feel-good" hormones.

There are also benefits to cutting down on caffeine during PMS as it stimulates the body's stress hormones which can lead to poor sleep, anxiety and irritability. Drink more water or a good herbal tea instead.