Premenstrual syndrome is the official name for everything women go through before their monthly menstrual period stars, with some of those symptoms continuing on through the cycle. For many, though, “syndrome” doesn’t quite describe it.
Instead, it’s more like a condition, an illness, or something akin to the flu. Many women just plain don’t feel good, don’t feel like themselves, and wish the time would go by as quickly as possible.
It may help some to laugh about it. After all, it does happen once a month, generally, and women have to deal with it. But for many, it’s no laughing matter, and finding solutions is critical to being able to go about their normal lives.
What Is PMS?
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is considered a medical condition that affects women of childbearing age. Definitions usually describe it as a predictable set of disturbing physical and emotional symptoms that occur in relationship to the menstrual period, typically in the one-to-two weeks leading up to it.
Physical symptoms may include the following:
- Breast tenderness
- Headaches and migraines
- Acne flare-ups
- Sleeping disturbances
- Food cravings
PMS can also cause emotional symptoms, including the following:
- Stress and anxiety
- Mood swings
- Difficulty concentrating
- Crying spells
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes it. They understand it comes around as hormones change to prepare the female body for menstruation, but they’re not sure why some women seem to suffer more severe symptoms than others, or why the cycle can cause uncomfortable symptoms at all.
There are some theories that the hormonal changes may cause chemical changes in the brain that lead to symptoms of PMS, and that diet may also play a part in the severity of those symptoms.
Standard Treatments for PMS
If you go to see your doctor about PMS, likely he’ll suggest you start with lifestyle changes, such as making sure you get regular exercise, limit salty foods, and avoid caffeine and alcohol.
If you still suffer from serious symptoms, however, your doctor is likely to suggest one or more of the following:
- Birth control pills: This is a popular solution for PMS, as it helps balance hormones, which can significantly reduce symptoms. Plus, it’s a low-risk option for most women, and something many need during their childbearing years anyway.
- Natural progesterone cream: Some women may not find relief with birth control pills, or may find that pills actually make their symptoms in worse. Natural progesterone may work better in these cases. Progesterone can help balance menstrual hormone levels, which can help reduce symptoms.
- Antidepressants: Women who are suffering from emotional/psychological symptoms may best benefit from antidepressants. These can help balance out the neurotransmitters in the brain, reducing mood swings and irritability.
- Pain-relieving drugs: Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin can help relieve cramps, joint pain, headaches, and breast pain.
- Diuretics: Women who suffer from bloating, edema, and weight gain may benefit most from these water pills, which help the body to flush more water out during the PMS period.
7 Natural Treatments for PMS
Some women may not find enough relief with the above remedies, or may want to avoid potential side effects with more natural approaches. Fortunately, there are seven that have been shown in studies to provide significant relief.
- Get more calcium: Health experts suggest you try food first to get your calcium, but there have been some studies that have shown supplements help—possibly because many women just don’t get enough from food. A 1998 study, for example, showed that symptoms were reduced by 48 percent in women taking 1,200 mg of calcium a day. A more recent 2005 study found that women who consumed more dairy products and who were getting optimal levels of vitamin D were less likely to suffer from PMS. In addition to dairy, leafy green veggies are also great sources of calcium.
- Take magnesium supplements: In addition to calcium and vitamin D, magnesium may also help reduce PMS symptoms. A 1991 study found that women who took a supplement three times a day reduced their pain, and a more recent 2007 study found that women who took magnesium reduced PMS symptoms by about a third. The University of Maryland Medical Center also notes that magnesium supplements can help reduce bloating, leg swelling, breast tenderness, insomnia, and weight gain.
- Take vitamin E supplements: While you’re at it, try some vitamin E, too. The Mayo Clinic states that taking 400 IUs a day reduces hormone-like substances that cause symptoms like breast tenderness and cramps. A 2011 study found that a natural supplement containing vitamin E and essential fatty acids reduced by up to two-thirds symptoms like bloating, tiredness, and aches and pains.
- Eat more fatty fish: As mentioned above, essential fatty acids, like those found in salmon and anchovies, may also help ease symptoms of PMS. A 2013 study found that women who took fatty acid supplements (like fish oil) reduced symptoms of PMS over a period of 45 days, experiencing reduced depression, anxiety, and bloating. After 90 days of taking the supplements, they also had less nervousness, could concentrate better, and had reduced headaches and breast tenderness.
- Strike a pose: If you don’t regularly practice yoga, you may want to start, especially if stress plays a part in your symptoms. A 2015 study reported that after yoga exercise, women with PMS actually had a higher percentage of alpha brain waves—those that signify a more peaceful, relaxed state. They also performed better on an attention test than they did before doing the yoga. An earlier 2011 study also found that yoga helped women with PMS to feel more relaxed.
- Try acupuncture: Studies are mixed, but there is some evidence that acupuncture may give you some relief, particularly if you tend to get depressed during your period. A 2011 review and meta-analysis of ten studies concluded that despite some methodological flaws, the results seemed promising for symptom improvement in women with PMS. A later 2013 review of six studies also concluded that “there is high-level evidence to support the use of acupuncture for treating major depressive disorder….”
- Try homeopathic medicine: This is a medical philosophy based on the idea that “like cures like,” and that with the right stimulation, the body can heal itself. Several studies have found homeopathic remedies to help soothe PMS symptoms. A 2013 study found that women prescribed medicines like “folliculinum” and “Lachesis mutus” experienced reduced irritability, aggression, and tension, as well as bloating and weight gain. An earlier 2001 study also found that homeopathic medicines chosen specifically for each participant improved PMS symptoms by an average of about 30 percent.
Some women report relief with herbal supplements like black cohosh, ginkgo biloba, evening primrose, chasteberry, St. John’s wort, but so far, we don’t have enough quality study results to know for sure. If none of the above treatments help, herbal remedies may be worth a try!
Mayo Clinic Staff, “Premenstrual syndrome (PMS),” Mayo Clinic, December 16, 2014, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/premenstrual-syndrome/basics/definition/con-20020003.
“Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) fact sheet,” Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/premenstrual-syndrome.html.
“Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD),” Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/gynecological_health/premenstrual_dysphoric_disorder_pmdd_85,P00580/.
Laura Johannes, “Does Calcium Lessen the Symptoms of PMS?” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2008, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB122937831273108391.