New research has shown that more than half of all women are affected daily by pre-menstrual syndrome, but there are ways to recognise and offset the severity, writes Tanya Sweeney
When asked how they thought men would cope, 77pc of women felt that their man would treat it similarly to getting "man flu", and look for sympathy
I T'S NO mean feat, but I managed to fall out with five people in the space of an afternoon recently.
One face-to-face encounter, a Skype session, an email exchange and two google chats and I was running the risk of halving my circle of close friends in one fell swoop. It was only afterwards that the fog began to lift and I could see the afternoon for what it was – I was tetchy, aggressive and itching for a fight, and all because of PMS, or pre-menstrual syndrome.
PMS may have once seemed like the sole preserve of hysterical, overly dramatic women, but recent research tells a different story. Conducted by Cleanmarine Krill Oil for Women, it shows that more than half of all women's daily lives are affected due to suffering from PMS. The study of more than 500 women from throughout the island of Ireland revealed some shocking statistics, including the fact that more than two-thirds (68pc) say their personality changes for the worse, while more than one in 10 (16pc) say they don't recognise themselves sometimes when suffering from PMS symptoms. Those who said they suffer the most from PMS symptoms are aged between 25 and 34.
Almost 90pc of women believe PMS is a normal part of the monthly cycle. Experts also reckon that 5pc are blighted with more acute symptoms, leading to a diagnosis of PMDD (premenstrual dysmorphia disorder).
Adding insult to injury, almost half (46pc) of respondents feel their boyfriend or husband doesn't understand. When asked how they thought men would cope, 77pc of women said they felt their man would treat it similarly to getting 'man flu' once a month and would look for constant sympathy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the legal systems in several countries recognise PMS as a form of legal insanity, and PMS has been used as a "diminished capacity" defence in many legal cases.
The exact causes of PMS are not fully understood, and it is unknown what makes one woman more susceptible to those teary/tetchy pre-period episodes. However, scientists claim that the sudden drop in levels of hormones – specifically oestrogen – plays a part. This hormone drop is thought to be linked to activity of serotonin (the feel-good chemical) in the brain.
"Hormones affect different people in different ways, although it's not clear why some women get more acute PMS than others," says Bernadette Carr, medical director at VHI (www.vhi.ie). "It can be related to changes in levels of progesterone and oestrogen that happen right before a period. Variations of the pill are known to regulate hormones.
"We've long known that hormones impact how we feel – a rise of testosterone in the system is linked with levels of aggression, while a surge in oestrogen in the body means that one is more placid."
Hormones aside, genetics are thought to play a part (be sure to ring your mum and say thanks during your next 'episode'). Stress, caffeine intake, age and diet – in particular a lack of magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin B6 and manganese – are also factors that affect levels of PMS severity.
As for the notion that the pill also reduces users to quivering emotional wrecks, Bernadette counters: "The pill has often been prescribed as a treatment for PMS, but if people have a pre-conceived idea that they are going to become more emotional on the pill, then it's very likely this will happen."
After spending a year in Los Angeles working as a sex blogger, Mullingar native Ruth McCormack (22) returned to Dublin last year having noticed that Americans were far more accepting of PMS than were the Irish.
"In LA everyone is so much more open about their bodies and sex," she says. "My boss would have no problem saying, 'God, I'm so hormonal right now'. I'm not sure how that would go down in an office in Ireland.
"At this stage I've learned how to deal with it, but I've found the physical symptoms worse these days. When I was younger, I got bad emotional PMS. I suffered from depression when I was younger so my periods were always very tearful. I don't normally ever cry, but I'd stub my toe and want to cry for hours."
Alas, the symptoms don't stop there: "I end up with bad fatigue every month: no matter how much I've slept it's like I've had a four-day bender. I often get really bad back pain. I would think I'd strained myself but then I'd remember, 'Oh, hang on, it's just me being a woman'.
"Sometimes I couldn't go into work. And I hate to be a big cliche, but when I'm coming up to that time of the month, I'm like, 'Just hand me the chocolate'!"
Anne O'Brien (36), who works for the Peter McVerry trust, was a late starter when it came to her periods, even though the PMS was straight out of the traps.
"I suffered so badly that I was put on the pill at a young age for my periods," she says. "I'd go through phases where they would feel even worse than normal. After I had my son at 30 they got even worse. I'd have breast tenderness and be quite weepy and moody up to two weeks prior.
"I'd get skin eruptions, I'd feel heavier and I'd even end up with mouth ulcers because I'd be so highly strung about it all."
In time, she got to know when to expect the onslaught of PMS and exercise due care and preparation. "I'm aware of it, so I would go into myself and avoid social situations right before my period," she says.
Happily, Ruth – who now works as a matchmaking consultant – has figured out how to launch a pre-emptive strike of sorts against the dreaded PMS.
"By now I know to treat myself well at that time of the month.
"If needs be, get some chocolate and enjoy a massage, a good book or a mope with 'The Notebook'. We have to deal with this every month, so treating yourself well is a good idea. I've tried evening primrose oil, and stretches actually work wonders on the backaches.
"People recommend salad, water and exercise, but genuinely, what woman wants to do that, aside from a self-pitying walk to the shop to buy some chocolate?"
As with many things in life, a healthy lifestyle is one of the best defences against PMS.
"Low GI foods are good in terms of symptom management," says Bernadette. "Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and water and reduce your intake of sugars, salt, caffeine and alcohol. Some people get more anxious and excitable with alcohol, and there's already that association between alcohol and higher levels of stress. Alcohol also affects our ability to get a good night's sleep – sleep plays a part in battling PMS – and it also upsets the fluid balance in our bodies, which aggravates PMS symptoms like bloating and thirst.
"It's also a good idea to keep one's stress levels under control," she adds. "Take it easy for the few days before your period – relax, have a bath, read. Enjoy a night in rather than a night out."
Chinese medicine practitioners have long suggested that acupuncture may help anyone with PMS, and it is recognised by Vivas, VHI and Bupa health insurances as a treatment.
According to the laws of Chinese medicine, the emotional symptoms of PMS – flying off the handle and feeling touchy – denote Liver Qi stagnation. In some cases, a homeopathic remedy such as Nux Vomica and supplements including vitamin B complex, evening primrose oil and St John's wort also have their uses in the battle against PMS. An omega 3 supplement such as Cleanmarine Krill Oil also helps – it contains soy isoflavones, a plant-derived ingredient to help ease headaches, cramps and back pain.
'I started using the krill oil and felt a huge improvement to my skin and mood," says Anne.
"I took up hot yoga at the same time and definitely noticed a difference. I've improved my lifestyle a lot in my 30s. I eat well and don't drink so much any more. I do think it has contributed to the symptoms of PMS easing off. The breast tenderness is gone and my skin is finally clear."
Physical symptoms aside, one of the biggest pitfalls of PMS is that so few women realise that their erratic behaviour or grim symptoms are a result of hormone fluctuation. Even those with menstrual cycles that run like clockwork often fail to put two and two together. Happily, there is a smartphone app called Period Tracker Lite, which women can use to track their pre-menstrual moods and symptoms.
"Every month I forget, and I have to say to myself, 'Next month, I'll know that I'm dealing with PMS'. But time and time again I don't know what's wrong with me. Because I suffered from depression before and I'm happier now, I find it easier to deal with than before. I'm better equipped for the emotional side. I'm getting better at saying, 'Relax, it'll pass'," says Ruth.
Should the symptoms persist after a lifestyle overhaul, it may well be time to seek help from your local GP.
"A doctor might suggest you keep a diary for a few months to find out what your symptoms are, when do they start and end, and what, if anything, has made the PMS worse," says Bernadette. "Keeping a diary will help you get a handle on the situation and help you feel in control, so at least you'll feel less swamped."