It’s called The Curse for a reason — with your monthly period often comes the hell that is known as pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS. For some women, it’s barely a blip on their radar — some mild cramping perhaps, or a bit of a headache.
For others, PMS takes over their lives. “We don’t fully understand what causes PMS,” says Dr Sinead Beirne. “Most doctors believe it’s linked to the changing levels of hormones in the body during a woman’s menstrual cycle.”
Research conducted on more than 500 Irish women by Cleanmarine found that 50pc of us regularly experience PMS, with one-third of these women taking a day off work in the last year as a result. Extreme abdominal pain, migraine, dizziness, massive bloating and mood swings can all contribute to a miserable few days every cycle, and many women are at a loss as to what can be done about it. “It has been estimated that women affected by PMS experience 3,000 days of severe symptoms over their lifetime,” says pharmacist Grace O’Connor. “That’s over eight years of a woman’s life!”
The good news is, there are many things that can help. Instead of just resigning yourself to feeling bad one week out of every four, follow these 15 tips and tricks to reclaim your body from PMS’ clutches.
1 stop smoking
If you needed another reason to knock cigarettes on the head, the news that they make your monthly visit even harder to handle might just do it. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, women who smoke experience more severe premenstrual symptoms and have a 50pc increase in the likelihood of cramps lasting two or more days.
2 Exercise more
Experts agree: getting a regular workout, even if it’s mild, will help you feel far better at that time of the month. “Research shows that you’re more likely to to have PMS if you’re obese (having a body mass of more than 30) and if you do little exercise,” says women’s health expert Dr Sinead Beirne, who advocates 150 minutes of moderate-activity exercise a week.
Dr Rachel Mackey of the Women’s Health Clinic in Dun Laoghaire (www.womenshealthclinic.ie) agrees. “Vigorous exercise releases natural painkillers called endorphins, which can help a lot with cramps.”
Grace recommends breathing and stretching exercises to help with both cramps and your mind space. “Yoga in particular has proven to cause a significant drop in both physical and emotional symptoms associated with PMS.”
3 Limit alcohol
“I believe the type of lifestyle you lead has a big bearing on the extent of the PMS symptoms that you get,” says Dr Beirne. Drinking too much is part and parcel of that, as it dehydrates the body and increases the likelihood of bloating. Grace agrees. “Cut out the bad stuff such as caffeine, salt, alcohol and sugar. These all lead to bloating, mood swings, lack of energy and anxiousness.”
4 Swap coffee for green tea
Speaking of caffeine, that cup of Joe in the morning that you swear peps you up could be detrimental when it comes to PMS: it can contribute to mood swings and that sense of being unbalanced during your period. Instead, Grace recommends you try health snacks to keep you feeling energised. “Top up ‘feel-good’ serotonin hormone levels by eating tryptophan-rich foods such as turkey, brown rice and almonds.”
5 Stay well-hydrated
For many women, bloating is a nightmare for at least a week every month. Some of us can’t wear jeans, and find ourselves limited to leggings because our bellies are so rounded from hormonal bloat. “Reducing salt intake and increasing water intake will help with bloating,” explains Dr Mackey. Dr Beirne agrees, and advises eating smaller meals more frequently too. Smaller portions won’t sit so heavy in your stomach, while eating five little meals instead of three big ones will keep your appetite and energy levels even.
6 Stabilise your blood sugars
“Eating a low GI diet similar to a diabetic diet will help with cravings, as your bloods sugars are more stable,” says Dr Mackey.
Mood swings also tend to be associated with fluctuating blood sugar levels, so a low GI diet with regular small meals should help.”
If that sounds daunting, it’s not really — and it’s not about following a specific diet. All low GI means is to avoid refined carbohydrates or high-sugar products. “Avoid refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta and rice, and instead go for complex carbohydrates which can be found in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains,” says Dr Beirne.
7 Cook your own meals
You know you need to stay well-hydrated to avoid bloat, headaches, cramps and cravings, but drinking lots of water won’t help if you’re still stuffing salty food in your mouth! To keep track of the amount of salt in your food, prep all your own meals (and avoid sprinkling any white stuff on top at the table). That way, you know what seasoning has gone in to cooking, and eating fresh, processed and home-cooked foods rich in vitamins will help with PMS across the board.
8 Nix cravings
Chocolate and other sweet snacks do boost serotonin levels in the brain, giving a feeling of well-being, but only temporarily, as they can cause a major sugar crash. So you might be happy when you’re munching, but soon the rush will be gone. And in the tender mental state brought on by PMS hormones, it could make you feel worse in the long run — guilty about calorie consumption and still craving more carbs.
Load up on vitamin B12, found in lean meat like grilled chicken. The protein will keep you full, while the B12 fights the lethargy. Other good foods to eat include bananas (sweet and full of melatonin to help you rest) and salmon, which contains omega 3s to boost your mood. If you want something sweet, don’t deny yourself — go for an low-sugar option like dark chocolate or a yoghurt-topped rice cake.
9 Consider contraceptives
“When symptoms are very marked, a combined oral contraceptive pill is often extremely helpful,” says Dr Mackey. “Take one of the brands that have 24 pills with a four-day break as this prevents breakthrough symptoms.” If you’re over 35 and/or a smoker, talk to your doctor before taking anything that contains oestrogen. Still, progesterone-only contraceptives like the coil can also help, so discuss it with your GP.
10 Try a supplement or two
Dr Mackey advises taking 50-100mg of vitamin B6 daily to help alleviate symptoms. However Dr Beirne is more of an advocate of a healthy diet and regular exercise. “But some people find supplements beneficial, and that’s great.”
A good all-in-one tablet is Krill Oil, as it’s formulated especially for women and includes B vitamins, rosemary oil and vitamin D3.
11 Give natural remedies a go
Peppermint is used to aid bloating, so try a cup of peppermint tea. You might find it soothing. Evening primrose oil contains an essential fatty acid that can help with breast pain, while Valerian root can help you relax. Some women also swear by acupuncture to alleviate PMS symptoms, particularly headaches. Discuss it with your local practitioner or GP.
12 consider painkillers
Some women feel like they have to suffer through PMS without any pharmaceutical aid, but that’s not the case. If you’re in a lot of pain, taking an over-the-counter remedy a couple of times a month can really help. “Pain killers like paracetamol and ibuprofen can help with cramps, muscle and joint pain during PMS,” explains Dr Beirne. Just don’t take them for longer than a couple of days, and try more natural lifestyle changes before reaching for the medicine box.
13 Try to relax
Go easy on yourself. Life is tough enough without getting your period every month, so don’t be dismissive of this added little headache. Life should go on as normal, but there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself — running a bath, using nice products and getting some extra shut-eye are all going to help in making you feel better. “Symptoms of PMS can be worse if you get stressed easily,” says Dr Beirne, so cut yourself some slack and chill out when it’s that time of the month!
14 Look for underlying issues
Yes, we can blame mood swings on our hormones. But it’s important to remember that the arrival of our period each month isn’t always welcomed, especially if we’re trying to conceive. It’s easy to write off feeling low as a symptom, but don’t ignore it altogether. Also, if you’re around the age of menopause, this could be why your symptoms are worse. “For women in their 40s, it is often perimenopausal symptoms which occur, which is just exaggerated PMS,” says Dr Mackey.
After pregnancy, the hormone balance can be off. “Women should be aware that after their period returns, the cycles can often be more challenging than before their pregnancy. PMS can often appear for the first time so they should talk to their doctor about what approach is right for them.”
15 Seek support
If you’ve tried everything else, and PMS is still bringing you down, there’s no shame in asking for help. “I would highly recommend doing some computerised cognitive behaviour therapy online,” says Dr Beirne. “There’s a great website with a free CBT course called www.getselfhelp.co.uk. Try to practice mindfulness and start by uploading the headspace on your smartphone.”
If you still feel like you’re struggling, talk to your GP. “We’ve got lots of medications that can help such as anti depressants, which can work really well.”
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