PMS Symptoms + the Best (and Worst) Period Foods

PMS symptoms - Dr. Axe

The average woman experiences 450 periods in her lifetime. That’s triple the amount of our ancestors, who generally lived shorter lives and spent more time pregnant and nursing. (1) And since more than 75 percent of women today deal with PMS symptoms during menstruation, it’s clear that a lot of women are experiencing the uncomfortable side effects of this natural biological process. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of women reporting PMS symptoms say PMS impairs their daily activities, leaving many of them looking for natural remedies for PMS and cramps. (2)

Still, you are not alone. PMS is one of the most common forms of hormonal imbalance for women of childbearing age, resulting in both psychological and physical period symptoms. If you’re a woman who has spent years dealing with PMS symptoms then it’s probably very hard to believe that this monthly health phenomenon was barely recognized by medical doctors before the 1980s. For those of you who suffer from PMS, the symptoms are very recognizable and very unwanted.

PMS symptoms may start a week or two before you period and may be mild to severe. If you have dysmenorrhea then you experience painful menstruation, typically involving abdominal cramps (one of the most unpleasant period symptoms).

Hormone balance is the primary factor that will determine the PMS symptoms that someone experiences. You might have just been Googling “how to get rid of period cramps?” when you came across this article. Well, I have the answer to that question and more using simple, natural diet and lifestyle changes that aren’t hard or costly, but they really do work.


PMS Symptoms & Causes 

PMS symptoms usually start 7 to 10 days before menstrual flow begins and end shortly thereafter. PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) is the term used to describe severe PMS symptoms. This conditions follows the same cycle and range of symptoms, but produces a more debilitating outcome. But even for general PMS, some months PMS symptoms can be worse or better than others.

Possible symptoms of PMS include: (3)

  • Acne
  • Back pain
  • Bloated stomach/abdomen
  • Changes in appetite, including cravings for certain foods
  • Constipation
  • Crying spells
  • Depression
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling irritable, tense or anxious
  • Feeling tired
  • Headache
  • Hot flashes
  • Joint pain
  • Mood swings
  • Not feeling as interested in sex
  • Tender and swollen breasts
  • Trouble concentrating/brain fog
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Swollen hands or feet
  • Wanting to be alone
  • Weight gain

Conventional medicine believes that the exact cause of PMS is not known, but it appears to be related to fluctuating hormone levels, including estrogen and progesterone, that occur in preparation for menstruation. When it comes to PMS and PMDD, underlying depression and anxiety are common. It’s theorized that the hormonal changes that trigger menstruation worsen the symptoms of mood disorders.

Causes of PMS symptoms include: (4)

  • Hormonal changes and imbalances
  • Chemical changes in the brain
  • Poor diet, including ultra-processed foods
  • Low vitamin and mineral levels
  • Stress
  • Emotional problems
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Thyroid problems
  • Environmental toxins
  • Consuming alcohol and caffeine, which may alter mood and energy level
  • Eating too many salty foods, which can cause fluid retention and bloating
  • Obesity
  • Lack of exercise

Other health conditions that share symptoms with PMS include anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, endocrine system problems, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and menopause. (5) Your doctor might check to see if one of these other issues are at the root of your symptoms.

The good news is if you can improve your diet, manage stress and take some of the suggested natural remedies, you can greatly learn how to reduce PMS symptoms and get rid of period cramps.


Conventional Treatment of PMS 

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen are the most commonly used conventional medicine option for PMS symptoms. PMS sufferers also commonly turn to pain relievers containing acetaminophen, too. These drugs do achieve symptomatic pain relief in about two thirds of women, but they may cause adverse side effects. Ibuprofen warns of serious gastrointestinal side effects like stomach bleeding (be careful, ibuprofen overdose is a thing, too), while acetaminophen-containing products warn of possible liver damage right on the bottle.

A typical treatment to get rid of period cramps is an over-the-counter medicine like Midol®, which mainly works to relieve the most painful of PMS symptom: menstrual cramps. While an over-the-counter option like this might work, it doesn’t come without scary side effects. Common side effects include an increase in the thickness of lung secretions, chronic trouble sleeping, irritation of the stomach or intestines and stomach cramps are all possible and even likely. Rare side effects range from acute liver failure to blood disorders. (6)

So you’re period cramps might stop, but you might give yourself new health issues, maybe even serious ones, to address. I highly recommend you don’t get on the merry-go-round of conventional treatment when it comes to your premenstrual syndrome, especially when there are natural treatments that can get at the root of your period symptoms.


Natural PMS Treatments 

Foods that Decrease PMS Symptoms

Women who experience PMS symptoms typically are not getting enough calcium, B vitamins (especially B6) and vitamins K and E, among other nutrients from their diets. For instance, magnesium deficiency also plays a role. When you don’t consume an ample daily supply of these essential nutrients, your body demands urgent attention by intensifying your PMS symptoms. (7) Here are the best foods to consume to obtain vital nutrients and decrease PMS symptoms:

Plant foods

Studies have shown that women with plant-based diets high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and herbs have fewer symptoms of PMS. (8)

Calcium-rich foods

So far, calcium is among the most science-backed nutrients when it comes to effective dietary treatments for PMS. (9) Some good choices include raw milk, cooked kale, broccoli, sardines and yogurt. Kefir benefits can also go a long way in reducing menstrual cramps and related symptoms.

High-fiber foods

PMS can cause GI disturbances, which is why it’s critical to get at least 30 grams of fiber daily. Fiber also helps to maintain proper hormone balance by binding to estrogen and carrying it out of the body. When you’re looking at the best PMS foods, high-fiber foods are a must.

Leafy green vegetables

These veggies possess a diuretic effect and are also a great source of calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamin K, which helps get rid of period cramps.

Flaxseed

Flaxseed products can help promote healthy estrogen metabolism, which is a key component of managing PMS symptoms.

Wheat germ

This food is rich in E and B vitamins. Other vitamin E-rich foods include almonds, sunflower seeds and spinach.

Wild-caught fish

Foods high in omega-3 fats like wild-caught salmon, sardines and anchoives help reduce pain and inflammation that make PMS symptoms worse.

Avocado

Eating a half or full avocado daily can naturally balance hormones because of its nutritional profile is rich in healthy fat, fiber, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6. An avocado sliced up in a salad full of dark, leafy greens plus feta cheese is the ultimate PMS food combo because it provides a potent dose of PMS symptom-fighting nutrients in one healthy meal.

PMS symptoms - Dr. Axe

Foods that Trigger PMS Symptoms

Trans fats and hydrogenated fats

A diet high in these industrial fats can make PMS symptoms worse. Overly processed foods commonly contain these ingredients. Read ingredients labels and avoid anything that says “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated,” even if it says 0% trans fat on the nutritional profile.

Any potential food allergen

Food allergies can make PMS symptoms worse. You can try an elimination diet to get an idea of potential food allergies and intolerances. You can also ask your doctor to perform tests.

High fructose corn syrup & refined sugar

Causes fluctuations in blood sugar that may exacerbate mood swings, headaches, or difficulty concentrating. HFCS and sugar also deplete the body of critical minerals and encourage inflammation.

Salt

Water retention during your period may be made worse by consuming a diet high in sodium.

Caffeine

Caffeine is dehydrating and can worsen depression, anxiety, and breast tenderness.

Alcohol

Alcohol consumption makes PMS symptoms worse and may increase the risk for prolonged cramping (dysmenorrhea) during menstruation. (10)

Top 5 Natural Supplements for PMS and Cramps

Taking supplements and home remedies for PMS and cramps can greatly reduce symptoms.  Here are some common natural PMS supplements, but as with any dietary supplement, be sure to consult with your healthcare practitioner before using these supplements.

#1 Vitex (chasteberry) (240 mg daily)
Vitex is used to helps balance estrogen/ progesterone ratios.

#2 Vitamin B6 (100 mg daily)
Vitamin B6 is involved in estrogen metabolism.

#3 Progesterone Cream (1/4 tsp, 10 mg daily)
This may help balance hormones. Doctors often suggest starting after ovulation and using until the day before your period begins.

#4 Indole-3-carbinol (300 mg daily)
This helps the liver metabolize estrogen.

#5 Magnesium (250 mg 2x daily)
Magnesium is required in the metabolism of estrogen and can help relieve cramping.

Bonus Herbal Remedies & Activities
Ashwagandha and holy basil — these two adaptogenic herbs have been shown to reduce cortisol, balance hormones and reduce PMS symptoms.

Exercise also helps balance hormones and reduce stress, which can reduce the symptoms of PMS. Research has shown that PMS is more likely if you’re obese, which means having a body mass index of over 30,  and if you don’t exercise enough. (11)

You’ll also want to make sure that you’re reducing stress in your daily life as much as possible, since stress makes PMS symptoms worse. In a recent study, women who thought their stress levels were high during the early weeks of two consecutive monthly cycles increased their chances of having PMS symptoms by up to 25 times. Why? When you’re stressed, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise. This has a negative effect on hormonal balance. Simply put: the more stressed you are, the more premenstrual symptoms you are likely to experience each month. (12)

Essential Oils for PMS and Cramps

Essential oils can be an effective natural treatment for PMS. Clary sage oil helps naturally balance hormones, which can reduce symptoms. Mix 2 to 3 drops of oil with a carrier oil (like almond oil) and then rub on the lower abdomen. Apply a warm compress to the area for 2 to 5 minutes. Cypress oil improves circulation and can help you get rid of cramps. Mix with a carrier oil and apply it in the same way or along with clary sage.

To reduce tension, stress and cramping, you can mix apply ylang ylang oil along with lavender oil  in a carrier oil like almond oil and apply to the back of neck and lower abdomen.


PMS Symptoms vs. Early Pregnancy Signs

There are common symptoms, like fatigue, that overlap between PMS and pregnancy. Without a positive pregnancy test, you might be wondering is it PMS or am I pregnant? The two most common overlapping symptoms are breast tenderness and stomach cramping, but thankfully there are some ways to differentiate between the symptoms. (13)

If you’re pregnant, you may experience implantation cramps. If you’re about to get your period, then you might experience cramps a day or two before you get your period. How do you tell the difference? Implantation cramps are typically felt shortly after ovulation rather than right before your period is due. Menstrual cramps occur a day or two before menstruation starts and are typically more intense than implantation cramps.

When it comes to breast changes, your breasts may feel tender with early pregnancy, as well as PMS. However, a breast change that is common with pregnancy, but not PMS, is a darkening of the areola.

Unique early pregnancy signs: (14)

  • Increased urination. Frequent urination is a common symptom of early pregnancy and is not a common PMS symptom.
  • Food aversions. Does just looking at or smelling certain foods make you feel sick to your stomach? You could be pregnant because this does not typically occur with PMS.
  • Morning sickness. If you’re otherwise healthy but feeling extremely nauseous or vomiting then you may be experiencing morning sickness, a classic pregnancy symptom.
  • Spotting. Most women do not experience spotting during PMS, but a woman in the early stages of pregnancy might have light bleeding whenever the fertilized egg affixes itself to the lining of the uterus. This usually happens six to twelve days after egg fertilization. Bleeding is lighter, shorter and the blood will have a brownish or pink color.
  • Breast changes. If you are experiencing PMS, then it’s common to experience tender and swollen breasts. Breasts can also become tender when pregnant, but darkening of the areola is typically a sign of early pregnancy, resulting from an increase in your estrogen levels.

Precautions on PMS Symptoms

It’s always a good idea to make sure that your PMS symptoms are in fact due to PMS and not due to a more ongoing chronic issue like depression, anxiety or endocrine system problems. Speak with your doctor if your PMS symptoms are keeping you from daily activities or if you have signs of another health issue.

Also, if it’s possible that you may be pregnant rather than suffering from PMS, you will want to be careful not to use any essential oils or natural supplements that may have negative effects on your pregnancy. The best way to tell the difference between PMS symptoms and early pregnancy is to take a pregnancy test. It’s also a great idea track your PMS symptoms monthly so you notice when there’s a change.


Final Thoughts on PMS Symptoms 

  • Conventional OTC treatments for PMS can lead to all kinds of short-term and long-term health issues on top of PMS.
  • Natural treatments for PMS help to correct the hormonal imbalances at the root of PMS symptoms.
  • Trans fats, sugar, salt, caffeine and alcohol should be reduced or eliminated to overcome PMS.
  • A diet high in vital nutrients is a key part of naturally treating PMS.
  • Both food and supplements can help you increase your intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Exercise, stress reduction and release of emotional baggage are all extremely helpful in ending unwanted PMS symptoms.
  • Natural PMS remedies are not costly or difficult.

Read Next: Mood-Boosting Foods: 7 Foods for Greater Happiness


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