Most of us will experience some kind of mental or physical discomfort in the days leading up to a period. In ancient times it was believed that the moon influenced the female cycle and that women were therefore at their most influential just before or during their period, which is why they were isolated from other members of the tribe. Just in case they tried to sway important decisions in their own interest. So ladies, even though you don’t feel so hot in that last week or two before your period, you are at your most “dangerous”…
You will know most of the symptoms by heart. Fatigue, irritability, anxiety, stress, headaches, constipation, insomnia, fluid retention, breast tenderness, cramps, mood swings and the occasional hysterical crying fit.
There are plenty of resources on the exact hormonal causes for PMS but in short, your oestrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate during the month and the imbalances influence other hormones in the body, including serotonin (the feel-good hormone) which wreaks havoc with your mood and general coping skills.
Most of us simply grin and bear it but there are a few ways to make the whole episode a little less miserable. Here are a few tips on how to curb the enthusiasm of those PMS symptoms:
1. Don’t let PMS be a surprise
Most of us know when Aunt Flo is supposed to show up but isn’t it strange how we are always slightly surprised by the first emotional meltdown in the last week or so before she arrives? Usually, some silly male will take his life in his hands and utter the phrase: “Must be that time of the month”. At which point he is instantly decapitated and paraded through the streets on a wooden stake…Ahem…never mind…
Get the app: Don’t let it be a surprise. Download an app like Clue or one of the many others to help you keep track of your cycle. They send you little messages to let you know where you are in your cycle and to prepare yourself for choppy waters. They also let you enter notes on your mood, how heavy your flow is, your sex drive, sleep, energy levels and any pain or discomfort you may feel.
Keep a journal: If you are more of a pen and ink kind of girl, get yourself a notebook and start keeping track of any emotional or physical symptoms. Sometimes the simple act of writing down how you feel and having a bit of a cry to yourself helps.
Keeping a diary will also allow you to notice significant changes in your cycle that could indicate anything from pregnancy, hormonal imbalances, to the onset of menopause or illness.
2. Eat to balance your hormones (cravings)
Cravings are a normal part of your menstrual cycle. It’s actually just your brain trying to encourage you to eat things full of the nutrients that it needs. It wants magnesium so it makes you crave chocolate. It wants essential fatty acids and good fats so you feel like richer, fattier foods. Unfortunately, most of us will go for quick and easy junk food instead of the stuff our bodies actually need.
Another reason that we crave comfort food is that the large amounts of oestrogen and progesterone in the body interfere with the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. The brain is trying to lift your mood so it encourages you to eat comforting and sugary foods that will give you a boost.
Here are a few diet tips to keep your hormones under control:
- Keep your blood sugar constant by eating small, healthy meals six times a day. This will keep your energy levels up and cravings under control.
- Avoid sugar and simple carbohydrates as they will just give you a brief energy boost and then drop your mood again leaving you tired and irritable. Try complex carbs and protein instead.
- Eat high fibre foods to help you stay fuller for longer but also to help your body eliminate excess oestrogen through bowel movements.
- Avoid foods that stimulate oestrogen production like caffeine, red meat, sugar and unhealthy fats.
- Eat healthy fats to help balance your hormones. Get your omega-3 essential fatty acids instead of saturated, hydrogenated or polyunsaturated fats in junk food.
- Get your magnesium from nuts, seeds, beans, brown rice and even dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids and over). Magnesium helps to relieve the discomfort of bloating, headaches and tender breasts. It also soothes anxiety and stress.
3. Beat water retention
Water retention is just a normal part of the menstrual cycle. Larger amounts of oestrogen in your system will cause the body to reabsorb sodium instead of eliminating it. We all know that salt hangs onto water so your body does the same. It retains moisture in the tissues because of higher sodium levels. Excess fluid can make headaches and sore breasts worse.
- Get enough Vitamin B6 to help flush excess oestrogen from the body.
- Eat high fibre and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli or cauliflower) to keep your bowels moving and eliminate excess oestrogen.
- Drink more water than usual to flush excess sodium out of your system. Seems counter-intuitive but more water gets rid of excess fluid.
4. Calm the mood swings
PMS mood swings are due to an imbalance between oestrogen and progesterone in the body. This imbalance affects the levels of serotonin in your body which can make you feel sad, irritable, anxious, depressed and over sensitive.
Keep a diary of your feelings, if they become worse or are very severe and debilitating, it may be a good idea to go see your doctor. They can do a few tests to make sure that you are not suffering from a thyroid condition, anxiety or depression. There is also a severe form of PMS called
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD that will need medical treatment.
1 cup Epsom salt
5 drops Geranium Essential Oil
5 drops Frankincense Essential Oil
5 drops Lavender Essential Oil
1 tablespoon Coconut Oil
Add the Epsom salt to the bath while the hot water is running then add all the oils to the bath. Soak for 30 minutes and relax.
The following nutrients will help you to keep those mood swings under control:
- Vitamin B6 helps to eliminate excess oestrogen from the body and promotes progesterone balance as well. Our overly processed diet means that we don’t get as much B6 as we should. Birth control and antibiotics can also deplete the amount of Vitamin B6 in the body. Get it from Fish, organ meats, eggs, carrots, spinach or sweet potato.
- Magnesium improves your mood, soothes anxiety, helps you sleep and is even a mild pain killer. Coffee, alcohol and sugar deplete magnesium in the body. Get it from nuts, seeds, whole grains and leafy greens. Epsom salts in your bath is also a great source!
- Potassium supports the function of magnesium and helps relieve anxiety or stress. Get it from banana, pineapple, apricot, kiwi, beans, sprouts, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
- Zinc also improves mood and helps to prevent depression. Get it from meat, shellfish, seeds, nuts, dairy and eggs.
Exercise also helps to boost your mood and relieve stress. When you are feeling a bit fragile, go for a walk or do some yoga to release endorphins and serotonin. It also relieves muscle stiffness, cramps and headaches.
5. Avoid insomnia
During the last few days before menstruation starts, some women report trouble falling and staying asleep. They may also experience vivid nightmares and restlessness during the night.
Melatonin regulates your body clock and therefore your sleep cycle. In the week or so before your period starts, women have lower levels of melatonin. It’s a good idea to take a melatonin supplement and set a sleep ritual to signal the brain that it is time to wind down and go to sleep.
6. Reduce stress and anxiety
Aside from crying, irritability and depression, PMS can also cause the sufferer to feel more stressed and anxious. Situations that are normally just mildly annoying can cause major stress and upheaval.
The stress hormone cortisol increases in the last few days before menstruation begins. Many women feel anxious about the expected pain and discomfort of having a period itself as well as worries about coping with day to day issues.
Here are a few coping strategies:
- Gentle exercise in fresh air helps to release serotonin and calm feelings of stress.
- Try yoga and meditation to calm your mind.
- Keep a journal and write down your struggles and feelings. It is also a good idea to think about the positives and things that you are grateful for to lift your mood.
- Deep breathing exercises to relieve stress and help you focus.
- Spend time doing things that you enjoy. Hobbies or activities lift the mood and calm anxiety.
- Don’t hide in the dark. Even if you feel like hibernating and hiding, get some natural light and fresh air to improve your mood.
- Spend time with friends. Let your friends lift your mood and distract you. Stewing in your own misery doesn’t make it any better.
7. Treat Hormonal Acne
Most of us will experience breakouts before our period starts. They are generally hard, red, inflamed papules on the chin, jawline, neck or cheeks. They are painful but squeezing them will only leave you with scarring and pigmentation. If you struggle with hyperpigmentation they may leave marks even if you don’t squeeze them.
Testosterone and progesterone cause the skin to produce excess sebum in the last week or so before menstruation. This also promotes the growth of extra bacteria that feed on the oils. Along with all that, there is also inflammation in the skin and body that can cause pores to become blocked. It’s a glorious recipe for disaster.
- Drink more water than usual to keep skin supple and flush toxins.
- Don’t over exfoliate or over cleanse. You will simply irritate sensitive skin and cause more breakouts.
- Try chemical exfoliation instead of rough scrubs. Look for products containing salicylic or glycolic acid.
- Keep moisturising! If you let your skin dry out, it will just make MORE oil to compensate.
- Let your skin breathe. Don’t slap loads of pore-clogging makeup on your spots.
- Clean up your diet. Avoid saturated fats, caffeine, processed food and sugar.
- Make sure that you are eliminating properly. Keep your bowels moving by drinking enough water and eating high fibre foods.
- No squeezing or popping! Papules don’t come to a head and you will only end up with a crater in your skin or hyperpigmentation.
8. Calm painful breasts
In preparation for pregnancy, the sex hormones in your body will trigger cell growth in the milk-producing glands. It also sends extra nutrient-rich blood to the breasts causing them to swell. You know, that hot, swollen on heavy feeling.
Because of all this growth and expansion, breast fibres stretch and as your breasts are full of nerve endings, they become sore, sensitive and inflamed.
Massage oil for painful breasts:
3 capsules Evening Primrose oil – omega-6 fatty acids that help reduce pain
3 drops lavender essential oil – anti-inflammatory and sedative
2 drops frankincense essential oil – relieves pain and anti-inflammatory
3 drops clary sage essential oil – antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory
1 tablespoon carrier oil – sweet almond oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil
Combine the oils and use it to gently massage your painful breasts.
So, what should you do about painful breasts?
- Take evening primrose oil daily to help balance hormones and reduce PMS symptoms in general.
- Gently massage your breasts to improve circulation and to relieve inflammation.
- Wear supportive bras to reduce movement and therefore pain.
- Try a sauna or steam room to warm your body and reduce water retention as well as inflammation. It will also relax you.
- Make sure that you are having at least one bowel movement a day to eliminate excess oestrogen which causes breast tenderness and other symptoms.
- Reduce general inflammation in the body by avoiding foods full of sugar, salt, saturated fats. Limit the amount of dairy, caffeine and alcohol as well.
- Drink enough water to help with the elimination process.
9. Reduce constipation and bloating
The hormone progesterone starts to increase in the body just after ovulation. It is a muscle relaxant and can interfere with bowel movements because it may relax the contractions in the bowel that push waste down and out. This can cause constipation and bloat due to trapped gasses. Luckily constipation will ease off in the last few days before your period when progesterone levels drop back.
So, what can you do about it?
- Increase your fibre intake through whole grains and vegetables. Broccoli and cauliflower are your friends.
- Drink more water to keep everything moving along smoothly.
- Avoid eating gas-causing foods like excessive fat, sugar, fizzy drinks, cabbage, lentils, dairy, beans, onions wheat, alcohol or potato.
- Get enough physical exercise to keep the bowels moving.
10. Dealing with cramps
Sometimes in the days leading up to your period, you will feel a dull ache or the odd stabbing cramp. Unless the pain is truly intense, this is pretty normal for most women.
If you do not become pregnant during your cycle, the body expels the lining of the uterus. To do this, the uterus will contract. Most women will only experience cramps at the beginning of menstruation but due to hormone sensitivity, some women will experience pain in the week leading up to their period as well. The uterus contracts early and causes pain and discomfort.
Tea for mild cramps:
1 teaspoon / 1 teabag chamomile tea leaves – promotes relaxation
1 teaspoon chopped root ginger – antispasmodic properties
250ml hot water
Brew the tea and keep it in a flask to sip throughout the day to soothe cramps.
What are the best ways to deal with cramps?
- If your cramps persist for a little while, use a heating pad on the lower abdomen to soothe the muscles in the area.
- As a rule of thumb, try to stay warm. When you are cold, muscles contract even more and pain feels worse.
- Get moving as much as possible. You don’t have to do anything strenuous. Try yoga or go for a gentle walk.
- Try Agnus Castus. Also known as Chaste Berry, this old remedy helps with the symptoms of PMS including cramps, irritability, breast tenderness and bloating.
- Get some extra magnesium. It reduces inflammation, relaxes muscles and relieves pain.
PMS isn’t the end of the world, even when it feels that way but sometimes we just need to take better care of ourselves to relieve the worst of the symptoms. I know we usually just power through and get on with our lives but there is nothing wrong with taking some extra time for yourself. Please be aware of your symptoms and if you are struggling to cope with the emotional issues, go see your doctor and get some help.
Stay strong ladies!