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What Is Pre-Menstrual Syndrome?
Pre-Menstrual Syndrome is a group of uncomfortable symptoms that typically arrive 1-2 weeks before your period and usually disappear when your period begins. As many as 90% of women say they have several PMS symptoms each month.
This group of symptoms includes physical manifestations:
- Joint and muscle pain
- Fluid retention
And emotional/behavioral manifestations:
- Anxious Feelings
- Feeling depressed or irritable
- Inability to concentrate
- Food cravings
What Causes Pre-Menstrual Syndrome?
The entire menstrual cycle can be divided into four phases. Day one of your period is considered the first day of your menstrual cycle. The phases are follicular (before ovulation), ovulatory (during ovulation), luteal (after ovulation), and menstruation. The follicular phase lasts about two weeks. At the beginning of your follicular phase, you’re on your period so estrogen and progesterone are low. During the ovulatory phase which only lasts about 32 hours, progesterone begins to increase. Estrogen is higher during the luteal phase but decreases towards the end (assuming no egg was fertilized). The plunging of your hormones right before your period is one of the main reasons why your mood might be unpleasant during this time.
Let's look at the specific reasons behind the main emotional symptoms of PMS and see what can be done about them.
Why Does PMS Cause Anxious Feelings?
The most likely reason you feel anxiety right before your period is that cortisol levels rise during this time. Cortisol is the hormone that not only controls your “fight-or-flight response” but also aids in reducing inflammation, the metabolic process, and the control of blood pressure. Increased levels of cortisol can also cause stress and anxiety.
What Can You Do About It?
One way you can beat anxious PMS feelings is through exercise. Exercise has been proven to both lower cortisol levels and release endorphins. Taking a brisk walk outside or enjoying a vigorous workout at the gym may help you reduce those anxious feelings. Other things you can do to help combat PMS anxiety include reducing caffeine intake and increasing your intake of vitamin C. Foods that are excellent sources of vitamin C are pineapples, broccoli, mangos, papayas, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, watermelon, lemon, and strawberries.
Why Does PMS Cause Depressed Feelings?
While PMS can exacerbate existing depression (a serious medical condition that should be brought up with your doctor), it can also cause a general “low feeling” because serotonin levels fall right before your period. Serotonin is very important as it helps regulate digestion, sexual function, and a variety of other processes. Lower levels of serotonin can make sleeping difficult as well as cause you to feel irritable.
One study suggested that exposure to bright light, exercise, and diet are natural ways to increase serotonin levels. Bright light has commonly been used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This same study pointed out that just a few generations ago, the world population was far more agrarian than it is today. Spending time outdoors farming provided both exercise and bright light exposure, increasing serotonin levels naturally. If you happen to be stuck in an office all day consider purchasing a full spectrum light. Certain foods may also increase serotonin levels via the amino acid tryptophan. Foods high in tryptophan are eggs, nuts, cheeses, salmon, and turkey.
Why Does PMS Cause Difficulty Concentrating?
Brain fog is actually one of the most common but least discussed emotional/behavioral manifestations of PMS. Your difficulty concentrating around the time of your period is likely due to poor sleep as well as the natural lowering of serotonin. It can also be due to iron deficiency which can be exacerbated by a heavy period.
What Can You Do?
One thing you can do to beat the brain fog caused by PMS is to increase your iron intake through iron-rich foods such as leafy greens like spinach and arugula, red meats, and beans. Also, be sure to hydrate as brain fog is often associated with dehydration and one study showed that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated! You can even get some extra vitamin C by squeezing a fresh lemon into your water.
PMS Causes Food Cravings
Perhaps the most well-known symptom of PMS is food cravings. (Thanks, pop culture!) Because your body is under a certain amount of natural stress at this point in your menstrual cycle, it’s craving certain nutrients such as magnesium (which chocolate has high levels of, by the way) and salt. Sugar also tends to give serotonin levels a quick boost, which may be why you're especially tempted by those break room doughnuts.
Can Anything Be Done?
By eating more whole foods, your body will naturally have higher levels of the nutrients it’s craving. Eating six small meals rather than three large ones during this time can also help keep you from bingeing on unhealthy foods that will provide a quick rise in serotonin but inevitably leave you feeling bloated and tired. Increasing your protein intake can also keep you full longer. As for chocolate, dark chocolate or plain cocoa nibs have the highest levels of magnesium, and milk chocolate has very little. Try sticking to the darker types of chocolate to get more satisfaction from less sugar.
PMS Causes Insomnia
Studies show that women get less REM sleep during PMS and 33% of women report difficulty sleeping during this phase of their menstrual cycle. This is in part because of reduced levels of serotonin and increased levels of cortisol levels. The general sense of physical discomfort you feel during PMS can also make sleeping difficult.
How Can You Get Sleep?
Ask your physician about supplementing with Melatonin during this part of your cycle. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain and it helps you regulate your sleep-wake cycle known as your circadian rhythm. Getting more exercise can also help you get a better night’s sleep. By reducing your caffeine intake right before your period, you can also lower cortisol levels which will inevitably help you sleep better as well.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Abigail Hreha (author) from Oregon on July 31, 2019:
I’m so glad it helped you!!
Sugandha00096 on July 31, 2019:
Nice post on PMS, and this post answers my many concerns related to periods and ovulation cycle. Thanks Abigail
Abigail Hreha (author) from Oregon on May 31, 2019:
Thank you both for the kind words!!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 31, 2019:
I agree with Lorna that this is a very informative article, and I think it will help many women.
Lorna Lamon on May 31, 2019:
This is a really informative piece and one I can certainly relate to. Thank you for sharing.