Using nutrition to get relief from Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS)

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In this article I’d like to educate you about how nutrition can act as a natural treatment and provide relief from the symptoms of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS).

Ladies, how many times throughout your life have you experienced mood swings and behavioural changes such as irritability, tension, depression, tearfulness, bloating, sugar cravings and breast tenderness? Moreover, they all seem to happen at the same time. This usually takes place in a late phase of your menstrual cycle and intensifies for around 2 days, just before your actual period day. Different women experience these at different times in their cycle, however all of them experience PMS before the first day of their period. (1).

The relationship between food and PMS sypmtoms

Believe it or not, the food you eat affects your body, mind, emotional health and even the way you deal with stress. In the case of PMS, it is important that your hormones are in balance and harmonise throughout the whole month. Therefore, food can be your best friend in minimising and sometimes preventing the many PMS symptoms.

What would you think if I told you that women who experience PMS consume excessive levels of dairy products, alcohol and refined sugar (2)? Fried foods, sweets and fast food are the foods women are likely to crave before their period is due. The issue here is that those foods were proven to have a relationship with PMS symptoms (5).

Moreover, consuming high fat and high sugar foods will, most often, increase calorie intake. Studies also suggest that premenstrual women consume decreased amounts of protein (3,4,5). I see this as one of the main factors in the occurrence of symptoms such as cravings, blood sugar irregularities and sudden energy drops.

Alternatively, women who experience PMS may typically indulge on cakes, desserts and cereals (6) due to sugar cravings that actually may be a physiological response to serotonin deficiency. Eating these types of carbohydrates will increase the brain uptake of tryptophan which then increases serotonin synthesis. Temporarily the PMS might be lowered, however, long term intake of simple sugars can worsen PMS symptoms (16).

What I noticed in my clinical practice is that even small adjustments to dietary habits can have a positive impact on how one feels a few days before their period arrives.

More research into different dietary habits and PMS is warranted. This is because a one size diet does not fit all. In some respects a lower fat and higher carb diet has been shown to reduce breast tenderness, swelling and nodularity in women experiencing PMS.(12).

Alcohol’s affect on PMS

This may sound painful for some, but some studies have shown alcohol to have negative effects on the way a woman’s body handles the premenstrual tension (4,17). However, some research has indicated that alcohol consumption might be a symptom of PMS rather than a direct trigger for PMS. (17,).  Furthermore, there is a correlation between a moderate to high increase in PMS symptoms with how much women drink (7). Early intake of alcohol, at a young age, was suggested to increase the chance of experiencing PMS (19).

Coffee’s affect on PMS

I must be honest with you, I love my flat white and it feels like a social ritual to me. I know that applies to most of the women as well. What do studies have to say about coffee and PMS?

The data shows that there is a potential increase in PMS in women who drink caffeinated beverages. However, the levels of association depended on the amounts of coffee consumed on a daily basis (9 ,10). At the same time, some studies have not revealed any correlation between coffee intake and PMS symptoms (11).  Higher caffeine intake was also not found to be a factor predisposing to breast tenderness (8). I would honestly recommend that you drink as little coffee as possible to balance your hormones and for your general health.

Is your diet causing inflammation?

Eating a wholefood diet is probably a significant way to protect you from low-grade inflammation. Low-grade inflammation has been associated with unpleasant menstrual cycle symptoms (13, 14). Again, what you eat will have a direct impact on how your body handles the inflammation.

The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism from July 2005 reveals a “close link between sex steroids, subclinical inflammation, insulin resistance, and body fat distribution in regularly menstruating women” (15). Your nutrition can help improve all of the above. Making sure that you give your body the best possible fuel that nourishes and energises it, this is a must for women of any age, and especially for women who struggle with premenstrual tensions symptoms.

How to use nutrition to provide some relief from PMS symptoms

Remember that knowing the theory is not enough! You need to apply it in the real life, otherwise you cannot expect the quality of your life and health to improve.

Below I created a list of easy steps to follow when dealing with premenstrual syndrome.  When you start to apply these tips, look for a reduction in bloating, cravings, breast tenderness, and anxiety.

Balance your blood sugar

Make sure to balance your blood sugar throughout the whole month, not just when you experience your first PMS before your period. I always opt for prevention rather than healing. It is easier and uses less of your energy and time. I would recommend:

  • Avoiding simple sugar and simple carbohydrates such as white pasta, white rice for lunch or dinner or croissants for breakfast.
  • Have a good source of protein with every meal, either an animal or vegetarian source such as salmon or lentils.
  • If you like a smoothie in the morning add a vegan protein such as pea or rice. You can also add a little cinnamon to the smoothie as well for additional blood sugar balancing effects.
  • If you struggle to maintain a fast between meals, especially your lunch and dinner, then a small snack of something like some blueberries and almonds can be a good choice. In some, this can be an effective strategy to help prevent overeating in the evening meal and also prevent feelings associated with low blood glucose. For some it is a matter of training the body to get better at fasting between meals, and this may come with practice, for others, just have a plan for the snack!

Try a coffee detox

I suggest going on a full month coffee detox and observe how coffee affects your hormonal health. There is no better way to figure this out than testing it yourself. If you feel you need coffee to function, then you really have to dig a little deeper to find out why that might be. Are you caught in a cycle of inadequate sleep or poor sleep quality and excess caffeine? Do you suffer with fatigue in general? Are there other symptoms going on that are worthy of investigating?

Reduce inflammation

Use anti-inflammatory nutrition to counteract the inflammatory effect of the hormonal changes during the ovulation and during the menstrual cycle. Adding 2 extra portions of colourful vegetables to your diet is a great start. Think of broccoli, red pepper, sweet potato, cauliflower and asparagus to name a few.

Another great anti-inflammatory trick is to replace that second black coffee or flat white with ginger and/or turmeric tea. Pair it with black pepper and potentially a little olive oil to enhance absorption.

Consume more Omega 3 and less Omega 6 fatty acids

Minimise your intake of vegetable oils rich in omega 6 fatty acids and emphasise your intake of Omega 3 from oily fish, walnuts, flax and chia seeds. Maybe it is finally time to ditch those French Fries in exchange for better health and hormones? See where you can make swaps, instead of deep fried foods then oven bake or instead of processed ready meals see what amazing recipes you can create yourself.

Try cutting out dairy

Dairy products! What about them? I have no intention to deprive your nutrition but enhance it. Eliminating milk for a month or two to see how you feel is not a bad idea at all. If you are worried about calcium intake, fear not! You can also get similar amounts of calcium from almonds, tahini, buckwheat, green leafy vegetables, turnips, and sardines. If you do eliminate dairy and feel some benefit you can re-introduce dairy back in small quantities to see how you feel. Perhaps start with things like kefir, yoghurt, grass fed butter and some non-cow cheeses and see how you get on.

Keep alcohol to a minimum

Alcohol is not a health food, as much as some people will try and have you believe, especially when it comes to female health and hormone regulation. If you drink because you feel lonely or for help in a social situation, seek help from a therapist or a life coach/behaviour change specialist.

From my experience of working with women, I also know that “wine nights” rarely end up with just one glass or two.

Eat a whole food diet

Embracing whole foods to benefit what mother nature has to offer is one of the best ways to support female hormone health.

The purpose of this article was not to overwhelm you with tons of ideas that you will unlikely apply. The list of suggestions to decrease PMS extends way further. Anyway, my objective is to make sure that you know that small changes to your daily menu can save you from experiencing unwelcome PMS symptoms. If you need to, take your time implementing changes gradually. I like to believe that the strategy to success has always been consistency!

Thank you to Nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner Daria Tiesler for this article.

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