PMS (premenstrual syndrome) sucks. That’s not medical jargon, that’s just the way it is. Once a month, up to three-quarters of women experience physical or emotional discomfort or pain which can last up to 14 days (two weeks!!). Over 150 symptoms of PMS have been identified but the most common symptoms are:
- Decreased energy
- Irritability, nervousness, anxiety and anger
- Food cravings
- Altered sex drive
- Breast pain
- Muscle aches and low back pain
- Diarrhea and/ or constipation
- Swelling of the hands and feet
- Trouble concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
What causes PMS?
Honestly, we don’t exactly know what causes PMS. It’s not simply too much or too little of a hormone that leads to PMS symptoms. It’s most likely a combination of hormones, neurotransmitters and environment that leads to symptoms of PMS.
Balancing these diverse systems gives most women relief from their PMS symptoms. It sometimes takes time to determine which treatment is right for you. An experienced Naturopathic Doctor will be able to tailor an individualized plan to give you the best chance for success.
Types of PMS
Dr. Guy Abraham developed a method of classifying PMS based on a woman’s symptoms. Your Naturopathic Doctor may give you a questionnaire to help categorize your PMS and help determine appropriate treatment.
PMS-A (anxiety) – women experience symptoms of irritability, anxiety and mood swings. Believed to be related to high levels of estrogen and low levels of progesterone.
PMS–C (cravings) – women experience increased appetite, sugar cravings, headaches and heart beat irregularities. This may be caused by changes in insulin binding.
PMS–D (depression) – women experience symptoms of sadness, depression, and periods of crying. Low estrogen levels are thought to be the main cause, leading to excessive breakdown of serotonin (an important neurotransmitter).
PMS–H (hyperhydration) – women experience symptoms of weight gain, breast tenderness, swelling of the hands and feet and abdominal bloating. Excess estrogen and stress can lead to elevated aldosterone, resulting in water retention.
Although these categories can be useful, they are only guidelines because most women do not fit into just one of the groups.
10 Tips to Treat PMS Naturally
Exercise is important for your overall health, but it can also decrease symptoms of PMS. Studies have shown again and again that women who engage in regular exercise have fewer PMS symptoms than women who do not. And the exercise doesn’t need to be intense – it just needs to happen regularly (at least 3 times per week throughout the month).
Exercise is thought to reduce PMS symptoms by reducing estrogen levels, improving glucose tolerance and raising endorphin levels. Aerobic exercise (swimming, cycling, running, etc), yoga or tai chi are all beneficial.
2. Cut out sugar
Women who experience PMS have been reported to eat whopping 275% more refined sugar than women who do not get PMS symptoms. Refined sugars deplete our magnesium levels, increase sodium and water retention and create imbalances in our insulin levels. All of these processes have been linked to the development of PMS symptoms.
Eliminating refined sugar and limiting simple carbohydrates in favour of high fiber complex carbohydrates lowers blood levels of estrogen, improves magnesium levels and can significantly improve symptoms of PMS. So cut out the cookies, cakes, bagels and breads in favour of oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, brown rice and other fiber rich foods.
3. Eliminate caffeine
Caffeine consumption is associated with more and worse PMS symptoms. Caffeine is linked especially to breast tenderness,anxiety, irritability and difficulty sleeping during PMS. The impact is even worse when combined with sugar (pay attention all you Frappuccino drinkers!). Eliminating caffeine, or limiting it during the premenstrual phase can improve PMS symptoms for a lot of women.
4. Take a probiotic
Probiotics are not just for digestive health! Having good bacteria in our intestines has wide ranging benefits for our health. Healthy bacteria can decrease symptoms of PMS by increasing beta-glucuronidase enzyme activity and promoting estrogen excretion.
The best way to establish a healthy bacteria flora in your intestinal tract is to take a probiotic supplement. Try for one with both Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. Taken with food, probiotics are extremely safe and have no negative side effects (you can experience bloating if you take too much – 1 to 10 billion is usually a safe amount).
5. Take a calcium and magnesium supplement
There is a direct relationship between calcium and estrogen. Estrogen is involved in the absorption, metabolism and utilization of calcium in our bodies. Clinical trials have found that both mood and physical symptoms of PMS are improved with daily calcium supplementation
Magnesium deficiency is a major concern and is seen in a majority of women with PMS. Magnesium deficiency causes fatigue, irritability, mental confusion, menstrual cramps, insomnia, muscle aches and pains and heart beat irregularities.
Dietary sources of calcium include dark green leafy vegetables, dairy (cheese, yogurt, milk), tofu, and almonds. Dietary sources of magnesium are similar and include green leafy vegetables, tofu, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Calcium and magnesium supplements should be taken in the evening, away from iron supplements and thyroid medications.
6. Take B vitamins
B vitamins are involved in hundreds of different processes in our bodies. The liver uses various B vitamins to detoxify estrogen and allow our bodies to eliminate it.
Additionally, pyridoxine (vitamin B6) can ease symptoms of PMS by increasing production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of these neurotransmitters have been suggested as a cause of many PMS symptoms including low energy, irritability and mood swings.
As if that wasn’t enough, B6 is also involved in transfer of magnesium into cells – without B6 magnesium wouldn’t be able to enter cells. This is another reason why B vitamins, and especially B6 are so important in the relief of PMS symptoms.
7. Dong Quai
Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis) is a traditional Chinese herb with thousands of years of use for imbalances in the female reproductive system. It has been used for menopause, painful menstruation, no menstruation and as a uterine tonic. Dong quai has phytoestrogenic properties and is best used for women who experience PMS symptoms in addition to painful menstruation.
Dong quai is usually used from ovulation (day 14) until menstruation begins. If you are also experiencing painful periods, continue it until your period stops.
8. Chaste tree
While best known as a treatment for menopause, chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus) is probably the single most important herb in the treatment of PMS.
The effects of chaste tree appear to be due to the impact it has on the hypothalamus and pituitary – the starting point for hormone production in the body. As a result, chaste tree is able to normalize the secretion of many hormones, for instance, reducing prolactin levels and normalizing the estrogen to progesterone ratio.
Chaste tree is best taken daily throughout the menstrual cycle. Studies have found it to be useful for almost all symptoms associated with PMS including irritability, mood swings, anger, anxiety, headache, and breast tenderness.
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is an amazing herb! It has been used in both Western and Eastern herbal medicine for thousands of years for a wide variety of ailments. It also has impressive modern scientific research to back up its historical uses.
Licorice is useful in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome because it lowers estrogen levels while simultaneously raising progesterone levels. Licorice also blocks the hormone aldosterone, decreasing water retention.
Licorice is usually taken from ovulation (day 14) until your period starts. It should not be used if you have a history of kidney disease or high blood pressure. You should be under the care of a Naturopathic Doctor while taking licorice.
10. See a Naturopathic Doctor
This is probably the best thing you can do to help manage your PMS symptoms. Naturopathic Doctors are experts in correcting the underlying imbalances that lead to PMS symptoms. Your unique set of symptoms will give an experienced ND a lot of information that can be used to individualize a treatment plan just for you. NDs also can order comprehensive hormone panels that will identify imbalances in prolactin, estrogen, progesterone or testosterone that may be contributing to your symptoms. You can find a licensed Naturopathic Doctor in your area by visiting the national association websites – CAND in Canada and AANP in the United States.
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.