What is PMS?
Sore boobs, an insatiable appetite for Cadbury, crying at the drop of a hat… we all know what time it is. If you’re a menstruating woman, there’s a high chance you’ll have dealt with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS is the cyclic recurrence of physical and mental symptoms experienced in the week leading up to the menstrual period.
But why on earth do we get it? How can we treat it? And can we treat it naturally by modifying our diet and lifestyle?
One of the most common questions we get here at Moonbox is ‘How do I get rid of PMS and period pain?’ Read on for our 101 on PMS.
What causes PMS?
Women will experience PMS differently and why it occurs will vary from individual to individual. However, they’re all associated with an excess or deficiency (or ‘imbalance’) of our sex hormones: oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
You may notice in some cases that your PMS is particularly bad after a stressful event such as an exam period or break-up. Stress is a huge factor in worsening PMS, and other contributors to PMS include nutritional excesses or inadequacies, inflammation, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle.
What are the main symptoms of PMS?
Common PMS symptoms include food cravings, abdominal cramps, fatigue, insomnia, breast tenderness, acne, and mood swings. These symptoms can occur as early as immediately after ovulation (‘mid cycle’) and peak during the last 5 days before the period.
You’ll know if it’s hormonal if your symptoms occur cyclically in the 1-2 weeks leading up to your period (the ‘luteal’ phase of the menstrual cycle) and disappear once your period begins. We recommend using a menstrual cycle diary or app to help you identify if it’s hormonal. So why do we experience these symptoms
In the week leading up to our period, our serotonin (the mood-boosting brain chemical) drops. We’re likely to crave ‘comfort food’ such as chocolate, ice cream and a big bowl of creamy fettuccine because they give us a boost in serotonin. We may also experience an increase in appetite, and this is completely normal as our metabolism is almost 10% higher in our luteal phase (Benton, Hutchins & Dawes, 2020). So, if you’re feeling extra hungry, enjoy an extra snack (or three!).
Abdominal cramps are at best annoying and at worst they can become so debilitating that some of us can’t get out of bed. We can all blame pesky prostaglandins for causing our premenstrual cramps. Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that are released during the luteal phase and cause the uterus muscles to contract and constrict resulting in painful cramps.
Fatigue and insomnia
As we approach our period, there is a slight increase in body temperature, most likely due to the rise in progesterone during the luteal phase (Baker & Driver, 2007). This is an issue as the evening drop in body temperature is one of the main triggers for inducing sleep. The less restorative sleep we get, the more fatigued we feel. If you’d like some top tips on beating female fatigue check this blog out.
If you’ve ever experienced breasts that feel heavy and sore to touch- you’re not alone. Breast tenderness is one of the common symptoms of PMS and it’s caused by the rise and fall of our sex hormones.
Whilst we may have hoped that pimples were something we waved sayonara to as we entered adulthood- adult acne is real. The drop in our female sex hormones before our period triggers our sebaceous glands in our skin to secrete more oil (or ‘sebum’). This results in those pesky pimples that pop out right before our period. Read our blog here on improving your skin.
Unfortunately for us (and our poor family members, friends, and partners), mood swings are also a common symptom of PMS. We experience mood swings, depression and anxiety episodes when our ‘happy chemicals’ serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels drop along with our sex hormones in the week leading up to our period.
Now that we’ve read about all the unpleasant symptoms of PMS, here’s what we can do to treat them.
Treatment Options for PMS
Conventional treatments for PMS & period pain/cramps
If you’ve been to a general health care practitioner more likely than not, you’ll be prescribed the oral contraceptive pill (OCP), anti-depressants and/or pain killers. These pharmaceutical drugs are often the first-line therapy for “Western” or conventional medicine. Find out how these medications work below.
OCP (Oral Contraceptive Pill)
Whilst the oral contraceptive pill is intended to act as a contraceptive, many doctors will prescribe the pill for women to ‘treat’ hormonal symptoms such as acne, period cramps and irregular periods. The OCP provides synthetic hormones that shut down ovulation, disrupts the natural rhythm of our hormones and subsequently stops premenstrual syndrome symptoms.
Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are used to reduce the psychological symptoms of PMS such as depression, mood swings and irritability (“PMS: Should I Try an SSRI Medicine for My Symptoms?”, 2021). They work by increasing the levels of brain chemicals or neurotransmitters in the body such as serotonin. Some women choose to use these only in the luteal and menstrual phases of their cycles if they only experience mood changes some weeks of the month.
Pain killers such as aspirin and ibuprofen are anti-inflammatory medications that provide pain relief by blocking prostaglandins (pain-causing chemicals). Individuals will take these before or during their period to stop painful cramps.
Conventional treatments are often effective and provide quick relief for PMS symptoms. However, they never address the ‘root cause’ of why we’re experiencing PMS symptoms (unbalanced hormones) and these symptoms will return as soon as we stop using these medications.
They may also cause negative side effects such as weight gain, nutrient depletion, depression, and gastrointestinal upset (Rapkin, Korotkaya & Taylor, 2019). Individuals with or are at risk for certain health conditions should also take caution and speak to their healthcare practitioner before using them (for example the OCP should be avoided for those who are at risk for blood clots) (Jin, 2014).
For more information on non-hormonal birth control options, read this detailed blog.
Natural treatments for PMS, cramps & period pain relief
Can we treat PMS naturally? Absolutely, there’s so much we can do holistically to treat period pain and other PMS symptoms.
Nutrient deficiencies are one of the top reasons for PMS symptoms. A nutritionally adequate diet supports healthy sex hormone production and excretion, builds our resilience to stress, and helps reduce inflammation.
We can fight inflammation by reducing our intake of inflammatory foods including refined carbohydrates, processed foods and sugar whilst adding in more anti-inflammatory foods. A Mediterranean style of eating is what we always recommend as it’s packed full of anti-inflammatory and hormone loving foods such as extra virgin olive oil, dark leafy greens, colourful vegetables, and oily fish.
We also recommend adding lots of culinary herbs into your meals such as turmeric and ginger as these have great anti-inflammatory properties and both have shown to be effective in relieving PMS symptoms (Khayat et al., 2014) (Khayat et al., 2015). Luna’s Gold is our all-in-one anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich elixir that contains both of these in addition to other delicious ingredients (think cinnamon, maca & vanilla). Enjoy 1-2 cups of these daily for optimal PMS-fighting benefits.
Also, ensure you’re eating regularly, and your meals/snacks are balanced in all three macronutrients including carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. This will help keep your blood sugar stable, which is key for balanced moods, consistent energy levels and keeping cravings at bay. If you’re looking for delicious, hormone friendly meals we recommend checking out our blog.
Exercise has amazing benefits in improving period pain and other PMS symptoms by helping increase the release of several pain-relieving neurotransmitters and inhibiting the release of prostaglandins (Dani, Sheth, Mishra & Vaghela, 2019).
And we don’t need to be smashing out an F45 class or intense boxing session to reap these benefits. In fact, yoga is more effective in relieving PMS symptoms compared to aerobic exercise. But we always recommend sticking to the exercise routine you like so if you’re a cardio bunny and the thought of yoga makes you snore- you do you.
And if you’re looking for a non-caffeinated, natural pre-workout, we recommend Luna’s Beets, our beetroot containing elixir. Beetroot increases the blood and oxygen delivery to our muscles which in turn helps boost our overall exercise performance (Domínguez et al., 2017).
Another lifestyle tip we recommend is meditation and mindfulness. Leading up to our period, we may succumb to listening to our ‘inner mean girl’ and become self-critical of ourselves. It’s especially important to practise self-love to support our mental health during this phase of our cycle. Treat meditation for your mind like you would exercise for your body- be consistent and you’ll reap the most benefits (even if it’s just for 5 minutes a day!). We recommend utilising meditation tools such as the Calm and Insight apps.
If we had to recommend one supplement for PMS, it’d be magnesium. Magnesium plays an incredible role in the prevention and treatment of female reproductive disorders including PMS. Magnesium helps calm the nervous system, eases period cramps and helps with sleep. Whilst taking magnesium orally (through food and supplements) is great, we also like to use magnesium transdermally (‘through the skin’) using our Moon Boost spray. This allows the magnesium to bypass the digestive system and be rapidly absorbed by our body. Read our blog here on the 10 reasons why every woman needs magnesium!
Omega-3 fatty acids
Our other favourite supplement for PMS is omega-3 fatty acids. As our hormones and over half our brain is made from fat, it’s important to consume the best quality fats for both our hormonal and brain health. Research has shown omega-3 supplementation helps reduce PMS symptoms including depression, moodiness, headaches, and bloating (Sohrabi, Kashanian, Ghafoori & Malakouti, 2013).
Our Earth Seeds are our vegan-friendly, delicious mix of seeds that are packed with dietary fibre, protein, and healthy fats. Some easy ways to incorporate Earth Seeds into your diet are sprinkling them on top of smoothies, oatmeal, chia pudding, stir-fries, or yoghurt.
Disclaimer: we advise speaking to a nutritionist, naturopath or your healthcare practitioner on which vitamin supplements are best for you.
Did you know that we need a healthy gut and liver to properly metabolise and excrete sex hormones? Support a healthy hormone balance by increasing the consumption of vegetables from the brassica family such as cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli. These foods are high in dietary fibre which helps keeps us regular and support the liver’s detoxification ability (double win!).
Did you also know up to 90% of our body’s serotonin is made in the gut? Gut health is not only important for regulating our hormones but also for our mood, immunity, and cognition. Eat for a healthy gut by consuming gut-loving foods such as unsweetened yoghurt (a favourite non-dairy brand of ours are Nakula and Co yo), kimchi, miso, onions, garlic, apples and kombucha.
Xenoestrogens are hormone-disrupting chemicals found in our environment. They mimic estrogen and when we’re exposed to these often, they can contribute to hormonal imbalance. Xenoestrogens are found in plastic water bottles and containers, personal care products and perfumes. We can reduce our endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure by using glass or other non-plastic cutlery and food storage in addition to switching to more natural personal care and beauty products.
Whilst you may be aware of the hormone-disrupting chemicals in your plastic water bottles (looking at you, BPA), our skincare and perfumes- have you ever considered the hormone-disrupting by-products in your period products? Single-use pads and tampons can contain hormone-disrupting chemicals such as pesticides, dioxins, and BPA (Nicole, 2014). Hence, if you haven’t yet switched over to non-toxic, reusable period products- this is your sign to make the switch.
Period undies, silicone period cups and reusable pads are all great hormone friendly period products we recommend. These not only are safe for our hormones but great for the environment and our wallets (let’s be honest, buying new pads and tampons every month is an annoying expense). Our favourite brands for these products are Lunette and Modi Bodi.
Here at Moonbox, we recognise that we’re all unique individuals and hence your approach to healing your PMS symptoms will be unique to you. You know your body best and we’re here to support you to make the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes that suit you the best. That’s why we’ve created our Healthy Hormones, Happy Periods E-book bundle, our in-depth guide on tackling imbalanced hormones and living our most vibrant and healthy lives.
Our other and more complete option is our Moonbox specifically designed to help you tackle PMS and period pain: the PMS & Cramps Moonbox. This is a great starting point for anyone looking for a natural, organic solution to period pain and PMS.
If you found this blog interesting and useful, share it with your friends and don’t forget to tell us on our social media!
Clinical Nutritionist Judy Cho,
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