Do you find yourself unusually irritable, "worn out," or craving chocolate-covered potato chips for a few days before you start menstruating each month? If so, you are not alone. Most women report symptoms ranging from anxiety, insomnia and headache, to feeling bloated or depressed just before their period begins. This hodgepodge of symptoms is known as Premenstrual Syndrome, or, more popularly, PMS.
Gaining medical and public attention in the past few years, PMS has been discussed in college dorms and at the hairdresser's for a long time. There was no name for it but women have recognized PMS for decades. PMS cannot be diagnosed by standard medical tests, but if you have it, you probably know it.
What causes PMS? No one knows exactly, but some researchers associate it with the hormonal, biochemical, or cell-level changes that naturally accompany the menstrual cycle. Others blame nutritional imbalances for PMS.
Treatments sometimes prescribed by holistic practitioners are herbal remedies and massage therapy. Popular, but questionable and potentially harmful remedies include: primrose oil (made from fatty acids, vitamin E, and other substances); vitamin E and magnesium; mega doses of pyridoxine (vitamin B-6); and a low calcium diet.
There is no one established "PMS prescription" used by physicians. While one doctor may suggest a therapeutic use of birth control pills for PMS, another may opt to treat the symptoms, such as depression, with mood elevating drugs. Still another might suggest dietary treatments, which are sound, moderate, and offer helpful advice for anyone. These health tips include eating less sugar and fat, consuming more complex carbohydrates, limiting caffeine, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco.
Because many advertised remedies are hoaxes, can any sound nutritional advice be given to PMS sufferers? Here are a few common suggestions from registered dietitians:
- Select adequate but moderate amounts of food from the five food groups to prevent nutritional imbalance.
- If you are bothered by breast tenderness, limit foods containing methylxanthines (coffee, cola, black tea, and cocoa) at that time of the month.
- If your hands, feet, or abdomen bloat, avoid salty, processed, and fast foods.
- Stress levels can be high during menstruation, so be sure to take in enough calcium for proper nerve functioning. Fat-free milk, low-fat cheese and yogurt, calcium-fortified orange juice, and soy products may help. Non nutritional stress relievers range from a relaxing bath or walk, to meditation, watching a funny movie, or just calling a good friend to chat.
- If munching on sweets gives you "sugar monster blues," try complex carbohydrates instead of a chocolate bar. For example, plain popcorn, a bagel (no jelly, please) or a baked potato with nutritious toppings such as salsa or broccoli and low fat cheese, may satisfy the craving for sweets.
- If you choose to take a supplement, select a "one-a-day" multivitamin and mineral.
- Exercise may help and is a natural stress reliever. When it comes to exercise, there is no "best way." Dancing, swimming, walking, Tae Bo, or Pilates -- do what you like and you will do it more often! The new "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" recommend that most Americans should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise, preferably daily. And, it does not have to be done all at once. So if you can get in 10 minutes of exercise before lunch, and 20 minutes later in the day, that is great!
In recent years, female health issues have gained the interest of health professionals and consumers alike. Unfortunately, they also have attracted charlatans and "quacks" in the field as well. Do not fall prey to practitioners or clinics promising a purchasable "miracle cure" because there are no such solutions. Personal trial and error to find what is just right for you may be the only real solution.
By Paula Mydlenski, MS, RD, CDN
Nutrition Consultant and Specialist, Training and Technical Assistance Services
Western Kentucky University
The National PMS Hotline, 800-344-4PMS;
PMS Access, 800-222-4PMS.