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Women's Health: Premenstrual Syndrome

Updated on February 23, 2018

Every 28 days or so, the complex cycle of menstruation takes place in a woman's body. Viewing this cycle of rising and falling hormones, growth and maturity of egg cells, and preparation of the uterus for pregnancy objectively is really quite amazing and beautiful. However, the reality of the accompanying symptoms may not be so pleasant! For centuries, women have known when to expect their periods, but may not have understood all of the physical changes going on inside their bodies. Understanding these physical changes can empower and inspire us to get back in touch with and appreciate our bodies.

PMS Symptoms

As PMS has become recognized as a syndrome resulting from metabolic imbalances, influenced by changes in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle, more than 150 symptoms of PMS have been identified. Several common symptoms of PMS often occur together in women. Symptoms of PMS can affect every part of a woman's life, from close relationships with friends and family members to productivity at work, as well as her ability to enjoy her body.

Common Symptoms of PMS

breast tenderness, swelling
weight gain
sore throat
abdominal bloating
joint pain, swelling
mood swings
less frequent urination
emotional outbursts
anger, hostility
sugar cravings

Though each woman's experiences will vary, there are common factors which appear to intensify PMS symptoms. If you experience irregular bleeding or abnormally heavy bleeding, consult your physician. During PMS, a woman may feel as if her world is falling apart around her. Fortunately, simple remedies can help to relieve some of these common symptoms.

Factors That May Intensify PMS Symptoms

  • Age over 30 years of age or older (most severe symptoms are experienced by women in their 30s and 40s)
  • Poor nutritional habits
  • Significant emotional stress
  • Suffering bothersome side effects from birth control pills
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • History of a pregnancy complicated by toxemia
  • Previous pregnancy

Building Body Awareness

The first step in tackling the problems of PMS is identifying any symptoms you have during your cycle. By tracking your symptoms of PMS each week, you get in touch with your body's cyclical rhythms. This builds your body awareness and empowers you with tangible information you can use to make yourself feel better. Once you identify your most common symptoms, you can focus on healthy eating for PMS and important nutrients all cycle long. Small changes in your food choices can make all the difference. Record regularly to chart your progress.

Keep a diary of your menstrual symptoms, every week of your cycle. Note whether you feel mild, moderate, severe, or no symptoms. Once you have identified your symptoms and when they occur, discuss this with your health care provider. In addition to the guidelines below, they can help you plan ways to minimize your PMS symptoms.

Alleviating PMS

Nutrition and lifestyle strategies can help decrease PMS symptoms. Eating a healthy diet, reducing stress, maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in routine exercise can help. In addition, there are some strategies that may help further reduce symptoms.

Dietary Tips to Reduce PMS Symptoms

Eat a plant based diet
Women who eat a typical Western diet, high in protein and fat and low in fiber, frequently do not get enough nutrients from food. The Food Guide Pyramid provides a good plant-based model to follow. Focus on a foundation of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, and small portions of lean meat, poultry, or fish. Whole grains provide complex forms of carbohydrate which can help stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce sweet cravings. Whole grains, as well as legumes, vegetables and fruits can provide dietary fiber to help maintain bowel regularity.
Try soy foods
Tofu and other soy-based foods have received attention from the scientific community because of their naturally-occurring plant estrogens, called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are weak forms of estrogen which can compete with your body's own estrogen level when elevated and help relieve symptoms of PMS.
Cut back on salt and sodium
Eating a typical Western high salt diet (which can contain as much as 8,000 mg of sodium a day) can make fluid retention, bloating, and breast tenderness worse. Unfortunately, salt is plentiful in our food supply. Focus on fresh foods, as close to their natural form as possible, and avoid adding salt to foods. A good goal for low salt intake is 2,400 mg a day.
Limit caffeine
If you have a serious caffeine habit of several cups of coffee (or tea, or soft drinks) a day, cut back now. High amounts of caffeine can cause breast tenderness and worsen symptoms of anxiety, mood swings, and irritability.
Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all
Alcohol in moderation may be beneficial to overall health but can also replace important nutrients in the diet. Moderation is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks for men. Alcohol in excess depletes the body's B vitamins and minerals, disrupts carbohydrate metabolism, and intensifies symptoms of sweet cravings, fatigue, and headaches. Excess alcohol calories can also lead to weight gain.
Get adequate B vitamins every day
Emotional stress can cause increased loss of B vitamins from the body and result in irritability and fatigue in PMS. The B vitamins are found in whole grains and other food sources, and help regulate important metabolic functions, including glucose metabolism and inactivation of estrogen by the liver. Some care providers suggest therapeutic doses, higher than recommended intakes for the B vitamins, to help ease PMS symptoms. If you are considering vitamin supplements, it is prudent to first investigate safe doses and always discuss any pills you are taking with your health care provider.
Get adequate vitamin C every day
An important antioxidant found in fruit, vegetables and other foods, vitamin C is important for immune function and hormone production in the adrenal glands. The recommended amount of vitamin C established by scientific groups in the U.S. and Canada is 60 mg for women. Some health care providers recommend therapeutic doses of up to 500 mg per day for PMS. Vitamin C is water soluble and many people safely ingest up to 1,000 mg a day with no negative side effects. However, long term effects from regular use of high doses is not known and therefore not recommended.
Get adequate vitamin E every day
Research has shown that vitamin E can be effective in reducing symptoms of PMS-related breast tenderness, anxiety, depression, irritability and food cravings in some women. The recommended amount of vitamin E established by scientific groups in the U.S. and Canada is 8 mg for women. Vitamin E is found in plant oils, vegetables, and other food sources. Large therapeutic doses for PMS should be considered cautiously. Although most adults appear to tolerate 100-800 mg per day with no side effects, vitamin E toxicity can negatively affect blood clotting.
Get adequate calcium every day
Women need 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium a day. Calcium may help to prevent cramps and pain in PMS. More and more, food companies are fortifying new items with calcium. For example, if you don't like dairy milk, you can now get flavored soy, rice, and whole grain milk fortified with the same amount of calcium found in cow's milk. Consider a calcium supplement for extra help in meeting the recommended amount.
Get enough magnesium every day
Magnesium may help decrease menstrual cramps, fatigue, sweet cravings, and help stabilize mood in PMS. Magnesium is found in many foods. The recommended amount of magnesium established by scientific groups in the U.S. and Canada is 280 mg for women.


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