In my Reproductive Health class, we spent a quick 2-3 weeks on men’s reproductive health and then moved on to the much more complicated world of women’s reproductive health. It has been really fascinating and I love learning about all of the science and nutrition behind the big issues we hear about frequently, such as PMS or infertility. It’s amazing how much nutrition can help!

PMS refers to recurrent signs and symptoms that females experience 7-14 days prior to menstruation. It’s easy for others to attribute their friend/mom/wife/sister’s crankiness to PMS, but it is important to understand that PMS is very real and affects people at very different levels.

During a healthy menstrual cycle, the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and ovaries work together to secrete a balance of hormones that will release a single egg and prepare the uterus for implantation of a fertilized egg. The hormones estrogen and progesterone must be in perfect balance for this to occur. The cycle is completed in about a month, and consists of three distinct phases.

However, when a woman’s hormones are out of balance or one of their systems is not functioning optimally, menstruation is disrupted and PMS symptoms occur. Some common hormonal abnormalities in women include low thyroid function, elevated cortisol, and elevated prolactin levels. Many women with PMS have elevated estrogen levels and reduced progesterone levels. These imbalances can not only cause symptoms of PMS, but other more serious issues as well.

As I mentioned, PMS symptoms can be moderate to severe. They include behavioral symptoms such as nervousness, anxiety, mood swings or depression; gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or sugar cravings; female symptoms such as tender breasts or uterine cramping; and other general symptoms including headaches, backaches, acne, or swelling.

Although people experience PMS for a variety of reasons, there are some specific risk factors to be aware of. They include:

  • Coming off of birth control pills
  • Birth of a child
  • Death in the family or other trauma
  • Decreased light associated with seasonal changes
  • High consumption of dairy products
  • Excessive caffeine or sugar intake
  • Blood sugar imbalances (too many carbs or sugars in diet)
  • High blood levels of estrogen due to diet, body fat, or a poorly functioning liver
  • Vitamins B6 & B12 deficiencies
  • Low levels of vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium (they are required to metabolize excess estrogen)
  • Magnesium deficiency
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Luckily, there are some nutritional and lifestyle changes we can make to reduce or even eliminate symptoms of PMS. We need to focus on balancing hormones and increasing the quality of what we put into our body. If you are experiencing PMS symptoms that are interfering with your quality of life, I recommend addressing them as soon as possible, as they can lead to more serious reproductive health issues down the line. Some changes to make include:

  • Reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates. They can lead to mood alterations and irritability, as well as depression and anxiety. Focus on complex carbohydrates such as fresh fruits and vegetables, brown rice, oatmeal and quinoa.

  • Reduce or eliminate refined sugars and artificial sweeteners. They cause dramatic increases in insulin production, causing sodium and water retention. This can lead to bloating, headaches, swelling, and other PMS symptoms.

  • Lower intake of arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid can interfere with proper prostaglandin synthesis, leading to unwanted PMS symptoms. Foods high in animal fats (conventionally raised beef and poultry) contain lots of arachidonic acid.

  • Consume foods that reduce inflammation: fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, grass-fed beef, nuts, seeds, curry powder, garlic, and onions.

  • Reduce sodium intake to prevent water retention and support healthy insulin response.

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol. This will help eliminate fluid retention, prevent reactive hypoglycemia, and reverse other symptoms related to PMS.

  • Vitamin B6: Supplementing with B6 can help with a variety of PMS symptoms. It increases synthesis of several neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, taurine and histamine.

  • Vitamin D: Research has shown that increasing vitamin D levels can help reduce menstrual migraines and other PMS symptoms.

  • Essential Fatty Acids: Essential fatty acids help increase beneficial prostaglandin production and decrease headaches, bloating, depression, irritability and breast tenderness. Sources of EFAs include fish oil, seafood, flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil, and nuts and seeds.

  • Magnesium: Magnesium can become depleted during a regular menstrual cycle, which can lead to fluid retention and other symptoms of PMS. Supplementing with magnesium helps balance hormones and reduce symptoms.

  • Exercise regularly to alleviate stress, increase mood, improve concentration, and support a healthy menstrual cycle.