We grow into womanhood believing that PMS is an inevitable part of being female. Then so many of us experience it, we believe that must be true. We just accept that once a month for a few days, a week — or even longer — we feel crabby, angry, low, anxious, lacking in confidence, frustrated, as well as bloated, ravenously hungry, craving sugar, and covered in acne.
But PMS is not normal. Menstruating women are not destined to suffer before their period. You know what else? The solution isn’t drugs. The Pill may seem to help, but it only masks symptoms — all while the root causes of PMS continue to simmer under the surface. It’s the same story with over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and painkillers, like ibuprofen. These drugs mask the pain. They don’t treat the deeper root causes.
It’s a myth that women have to suffer every month, and it’s a myth that drugs address the deeper hormone imbalances that contribute to premenstrual syndrome and period pain.
So what causes PMS? What helps erase the symptoms? Here is everything you need to know about PMS and natural strategies for easing premenstrual symptoms.
What is PMS?
PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome, but it can strike anytime after ovulation, which occurs in the middle of your 28-day cycle, also known as the infradian rhythm, and the start of your period. The time between ovulation and the start of your period is known as the luteal phase.
PMS refers to a group of physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms that menstruating women experience during the luteal phase. Symptoms include:
– Bloating/retaining fluid
– Breast tenderness
– Food cravings and/or increased appetite
– Mood swings
– Feeling irritable, cranky, and/or depressed
– Headaches and/or migraines
– Difficulty concentrating
– Low back pain
What causes PMS?
Experts believe PMS is triggered (in part) by cyclical changes in sex hormones each month. And while it is true that our sex hormones naturally shift in a cyclical pattern each month, problems crop up only when our hormones are out of balance — when, for example, we have too much estrogen in our bodies relative to progesterone (a condition known as estrogen dominance), or when we have too little progesterone overall.
In other words, monthly hormone shifts are normal and expected. They happen! But they are not the root cause of the problem. The root cause of the problem is when we have more or less estrogen and progesterone than we need. As our bodies move through the 28-day hormone cycle in this hormonally imbalanced environment, that is when we experience symptoms.
If you address the underlying hormone imbalance with food and lifestyle, you can erase the symptoms of PMS. You will still be cycling through the four phases of your menstrual cycle — as you should be! — but without all the symptoms you experienced before.
Experts also believe that nutrient deficiencies play a role in PMS symptoms. Research has shown a connection between low levels of vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium and PMS symptoms. Studies also suggest that supplementing with magnesium and vitamin B6 can make a significant difference in the severity of PMS.
Why the Pill Make PMS worse
Women with severe PMS are sometimes prescribed hormonal birth control to help ease symptoms. The pill stops ovulation and that can lead to reduced symptoms throughout one’s cycle. But not ovulating causes its own problems.
Research has shown that consistent ovulation protects women’s long term health, especially when it comes to avoiding issues like osteoporosis, heart disease, heart attacks, and breast cancer (all top killers of women). Hormonal birth control (except, sometimes, the hormonal IUD) suppresses ovulation. Suppressing ovulation for years, decades even, has long term consequences, even if ovulation returns shortly after you come off the medication. Exposure to synthetic hormones plus a lack of exposure to the body’s own hormone cycles, is the root cause. In short: ovulation is important — and not just for when you want to conceive.
The pill poses other problems, too. It’s been shown to disturb the microbiome, increase inflammation, and drain the body of essential micronutrients, among other things.
Finally, the pill paves over the root causes of hormone imbalance without directly addressing root causes. That means that whenever you come off the pill, your symptoms are likely to come roaring back, often worse than before.
Lifestyle factors that make PMS worse
Modern life brings together a perfect storm of factors that undermine hormone balance and make PMS worse. Here are some of the habits and lifestyle factors that conspire to throw your hormones out of alignment:
We live in a society that places a high value on always being busy. If you ask someone how they’re doing or what’s new and they reply, “I’ve been SO busy,” it often sounds as much like a point of pride as it does a complaint. But we need to reverse our stance on stress. Research shows that the higher the level of our perceived stress, the worse our PMS—and that stress reduction techniques might be effective non-pharmaceutical interventions for easing PMS. So grab your yoga mat, download that meditation app, or make more time for the leisure activity that relaxes you.
Inflammation is a system-wide response to injury or stress, and it can be brought on by a large number of environmental factors, from eating unhealthy foods and being too sedentary to using toxic health and body care products. Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that control the body’s inflammatory response and experts believe they can trigger many of the symptoms of PMS. (Prostaglandin overproduction is why some women get relief by taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen. NSAIDs block the synthesis of prostaglandins.)
3. Eating too much sugar
Sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods you can eat — and more inflammation means more PMS (see #2, above). Cutting down on sugar is a must when you’re trying to tame PMS.
Smoking is bad for overall health, of course, including hormone balance. Women who smoke are twice as likely to develop PMS. Just say no to cigarettes.
5. Drinking coffee
6. Carrying HIDDEN weight
When I say this, I’m not talking about overweight and obesity per se. While being overweight is associated with a greater risk of PMS, the real problem is how ‘fat’ you are on the inside, which is not reflected in how much you weigh. You can be skinny on the outside and overweight on the inside — this is known in medical literature as being a “medically obese, normal-weight individual,” though a lot of practitioners refer this condition as being “skinny fat” — so you can’t just look in the mirror or step on the scale to know what’s happening on the inside. Your PMS might be telling you to address internal obesity.
7. You’re not living in sync with your cycle.
You’ve probably read about the importance of the 24-hour circadian cycle—how important it is to get high-quality, consecutive hours of sleep during the night, for example, and to get some safe sun exposure during the day, etc. But you probably haven’t heard about the importance of living in sync with your 28-day cycle—and, for women, that cycle is just as important to tend to as the circadian cycle. Research shows that our 28-day menstrual cycle affects our brain function, emotions, mood, sensory processing, appetite, and even our perception of pain. If you’re not supporting your body’s unique hormonal needs during each of the four phases of the 28-day cycle, you won’t have healthy, pain-free periods.
How to Erase PMS symptoms: Lifestyle Strategies for PMS
You can take a multi-pronged approach to ease the symptoms of PMS. Here are some of my top food, supplement, and lifestyle strategies.
Let’s start with lifestyle. Here’s how to arrange your environment to help defeat PMS:
1. Stomp out inflammation.
Eat low inflammatory foods, like cruciferous vegetables, pastured eggs and pastured animal proteins, and nuts and seeds. Reduce the amount of sugar you eat or eliminate it altogether. A high-sugar diet drives up the production of advanced-glycation end products, which contribute to inflammation. Two foods that have been shown to help specifically with prostaglandin reduction are pomegranate and small, oily fish that contain high levels of inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.
2. Make “organic” and “clean” the main part of your life.
When you’re standing in the grocery aisle or at the makeup counter and the clean products and organic foods are more expensive than the conventional option, it can be easy to make the wallet-friendly choice. But what you need to keep in mind in these moments is the true cost of the choice you’re making. The toxins in these foods and products come into direct contact with the body and alter endocrine function, making period problems like PMS worse. You may save at check-out, but you are ultimately paying with your health. Eat organic and clean whenever possible.
3. Give up coffee.
This piece of advice is self-explanatory and, after the first week of withdrawal, not nearly as hard as you think. Within a month you won’t even miss it. Skip caffeinated tea, too. In case you’re tempted to skip tip #3, allow me to repeat myself: no more caffeine!
4. Improve your health from the inside out.
You might look lean in the mirror, but if you don’t exercise (hence, you don’t have much lean muscle mass), and if you eat a high-sugar diet and/or you don’t have enough phytonutrient-rich vegetables on your plate, you might have the bloodwork profile of someone with overweight or obesity—and being overweight or obese is strongly correlated with PMS. When you start correcting what’s going on internally, you can see a reduction in symptoms.
5. Find what relaxes you… and make it a regular part of your life.
In the medical literature, high levels of stress are associated with more severe PMS. The time for stress reduction is now, not when you finish this big project or after that big presentation. Because guess what? When you finish those things there will just be more to do. The time is now. Your health depends on it.
6. Start Cycle Syncing
All of the biohacks I just mentioned will only get you so far if you don’t start to live in accordance with your cycle. Eating and exercising for each week-long phase of your 28-day cycle is the foundation of feeling better and having a symptom-free period. For too long, we’ve been living the same way day in and day out. This works for men, but not for women. Syncing your cycle will not only fix your period problems, it will help you find more happiness, energy, and success in life. Simply put, tending to your 28-day cycle is as important as tending to your 24-hour circadian cycle. If the idea of syncing with your cycle is new to you, I have an app and a treasure trove of articles on the blog to help you get started.
How to Tame PMS-Related Food Cravings
Before I get to my recommended list of foods for PMS, I want to tackle a very important topic: food cravings.
Many of the women I’ve worked with over the years have struggled to maintain their otherwise healthy eating habits when they’re in their premenstrual or luteal phase. It’s then that their resolve is weakest. I get it – the intense cravings that PMS brings can derail the best of us.
I help women address the root causes of cravings. I also know it’s important to have healthy alternatives on hand when cravings strike! Here are the most common food cravings during the luteal phase, along with healthy alternatives that won’t make your hormone imbalances worse.
PMS food craving #1: Coffee
A coffee habit can be a sign of imbalanced cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) and not having enough internal oomph to get through the day. You’re searching for a quick hit of energy that you can’t generate on your own.
What’s the alternative? Try kukicha tea, which has a nutty, non-herbal flavor profile as it’s made from roasting the twigs that grow right below tea leaves. Kukicha still contains some caffeine, but not enough to negatively impact your health. Mixing kukicha with Oatstraw and Holy Basil tea will help support your adrenals and bring them back in balance.
PMS food craving #2: Chocolate
Chocolate cravings can signal a magnesium deficiency. It may also indicate an overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeast in your gut, which makes you crave sugar. Taking a high-quality magnesium supplement can help curb sugar cravings. So can taking a high-quality probiotic.
What’s the alternative? The great news here is that chocolate is a superfood and I eat a little chocolate most days myself, BUT it’s all about what kind of chocolate you have. Chocolate with dairy and sugar is a no-go, but good quality, organic, dark chocolate with minimal or, even better, no sugar or dairy is a healthy, hormone-supportive choice. Try adding raw cacao powder to smoothies or sprinkling on fruit salad, or try a high-quality dark chocolate bar. One of my favorite brands is Endangered Species.
PMS food craving #3: Pasta
When only white carbs will do – be that a big pile of spaghetti or a loaf of white bread – it’s usually blood sugar instability and/or a vitamin B deficiency that’s causing your cravings. Skipping meals, or eating too little or too sporadically throughout the day, can lead to blood sugar imbalances. So can eating meals high in simple carbs — simple carbs beget more carbs!
What’s the alternative? You can break the cycle of blood sugar imbalance with meals that are high in healthy protein, healthy fat, and complex carbs from whole food sources. You will get a steady release of energy from a well-balanced meal and you won’t find yourself craving a candy bar 45 minutes after dinner. The takeaway? Don’t eat carbs in isolation (and don’t eat too many, if any, simple carbs, like those found in white bread or pasta). Instead, focus on integrating some carbs into each meal. And try to eat regularly, before you get so hungry that you will eat anything in front of you. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Taking a high-quality vitamin B supplement can also help.
PMS food craving #4: Soda
If you find yourself craving soda, your blood sugar might be off and you need to re-set with whole-food-based meals that have enough healthy fat and healthy protein to stabilize your blood sugar. You might also be dehydrated. Soda contains salt (along with a bunch of sugar), and that salty-sweet combo gives soda the allure of a hydrating beverage while actually dehydrating you (the salt makes you thirsty all over again).
What’s the alternative? Increasing electrolytes is a great way to combat dehydration. Try coconut water, which has a sweet and salty flavor, or plain carbonated water with a touch of 100-percent fruit juice mixed in. The classic choice — a big glass of water (!) — is a great option, too.
PMS food craving #5: Steak
If you find yourself craving red meat, you may have an iron deficiency. And if the only thing that will satisfy you during your luteal phase is a big, juicy steak, go ahead! If it is grass-fed, organic meat, there is nothing wrong with that. If you’re open to what meat you eat, the healthier choice is organic, grass-fed bison or lamb. If you don’t eat red meat, you might need to supplement with iron.
What’s the alternative? Take liquid chlorophyll. It’s only one molecule different from hemoglobin and it is high in magnesium, which helps erase the symptoms of PMS.
The Best Foods for PMS
What specific foods can help ease the symptoms of PMS? Here are my favorites:
Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and other dark leafy greens
All brassica vegetables contain indole-3 carbinol, which helps the liver metabolize excess estrogen and prevent estrogen dominance (which is a common hormone imbalance that gives rise to a bunch of period problems, including PMS).
Coconut yogurt contains probiotics in the form of live cultures (which helps the gut metabolize estrogen and keep hormones balanced) and it is rich in healthy fats, which help keep blood sugar stable.
Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet and can help satisfy your sweet cravings. The vitamin A in sweet potatoes supports the liver as it metabolizes excess estrogen.
Bone broth can be a good source of magnesium and calcium, both of which can help alleviate the symptoms of PMS.
The Best Natural Supplements to Prevent PMS
You can’t spot treat PMS. You have to address the root causes to get rid of it. In order for your body to produce adequate amounts of the right hormones at the right times, you need several key micronutrients:
Research suggests that magnesium helps alleviate symptoms of PMS, including weight gain, breast tenderness, and bloating. Magnesium is also great for promoting relaxation, reducing anxiety and stress, and encouraging good sleep. A high-quality magnesium supplement makes a great addition to your PMS-fighting arsenal.
Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D3
Both of these nutrients help promote hormone balance. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with reproductive hormone imbalances in both men and women. Omega-3s help protect against anxiety and depression and may help reduce cramps.
Vitamin helps reduce breast premenstrual breast tenderness, according to research. (So does vitamin B6!).
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)
ALA offers powerful antioxidant support for the liver as it works to metabolize excess estrogen — remember: too much estrogen relative to progesterone can trigger PMS symptoms — and also supports stable blood sugar.
Calcium supplements have been shown to help with mood swings during the luteal phase.
Taking targeted, high-quality supplements can fast track your hormonal healing. I created the Balance by FLO Living supplement kit to give you the essential micronutrient support you need to have a symptom-free cycle. With Balance by FLO Living, you can start feeling better in just one month.
Additional Natural Supplement Support to Prevent PMS
I recommend that women who are experiencing PMS start with the micronutrients I outlined above. These are essential micronutrients you need to support your endocrine system and erase symptoms. But if you incorporate these micronutrients and still experience PMS and other problems, I recommend specific herbs. In most cases, you will only need the micronutrients (and not the herbs), but if you do opt for herbs, remember that these are powerful compounds. Use them only in specific situations and always consult a trusted healthcare practitioner on dosage and timing.
Vitex supports the production of progesterone and luteinizing hormone — both of which are necessary for your body to ovulate, for regular menstrual cycles, and for you to avoid symptoms of hormonal imbalance like PMS. Vitex is well-researched and It is an effective and often successful natural treatment for cycle-related problems. But I believe that should be used as a short-term, not a long term, solution. Vitex alone will not address the root causes of PMS and other period problems.
This herb has muscle-relaxing effects and helps relieve pre-period cramps and aches. Important note! This powerful supplement should not be used during pregnancy, breastfeeding, or if you have a family history of female cancers.
Evening Primrose Oil
Evening primrose oil can help with cramps, aches and pains, and headaches in the luteal phase.
Always remember that once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making health choices that finally start to work for you. You can do this – the science of your body is on your side.