A decade ago, I visited my doctor to find out how to deal with PMS. I was in my early 30s, and my hormones had suddenly made life unbearable.
I’d always been someone who had struggled with my menstrual cycle. As a teenager, my period pain was so extreme I often had to be collected by my dad from my school’s sickbay as I lay on the cold bathroom tiles in agony. My mood swings often were the cause of some very uncomfortable/embarrassing blow-ups at work and home in my twenties.
Yet, as I entered my third decade, my PMS switched into a whole other gear. What had once lasted for a couple of awful days before my period suddenly became two weeks of hell. As my cycle lasted for 28 days, this meant I spent half my life in extreme emotional turmoil, and I had no idea why.
So, I went to the doctor’s and practically begged her to help me. There was no way what I was experiencing was normal. Surely there must be some form of PMS treatment available on the NHS? After a brief consultation, my doctor looked at me sympathetically and told me nothing could help me, aside from going on the contraceptive pill.
My doctor’s response shocked me. Taking the pill didn’t feel like I was dealing with the problem, only trying to mask it. I wanted to understand what causes PMS and how I could try and manage it for myself, rather than messing with my hormones further.
So, here’s everything I’ve learnt over the past ten years and wish I’d understood sooner. I don’t have all the answers, and I still struggle with severe PMS from time to time. However, I feel more informed about my hormones than ever. Though I’ll never be in control of them, at least I feel like I’m working in partnership with them (most of the time).
If you’re finding life hard because of your PMS, I want you to know that you aren’t alone. Life shouldn’t feel this miserable or disempowering. Below, you’ll find a bunch of different approaches I take to help manage my PMS. If these aren’t for you, please talk to your doctor as you may suffer from PMDD.
Disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist or health practitioner. I’m sharing my experience about gentle changes to my diet and lifestyle that worked for me. Everyone’s dietary needs and restrictions are unique to the individual. If you have any health concerns or are planning to make a significant change to your diet, you should speak to a professional, licensed nutritionist or doctor first.
What causes PMS?
PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome, which refers to the physical and emotional symptoms that people who menstruate may experience in the days or weeks before their period starts. These symptoms usually disappear when this new menstrual cycle begins.
From everything I’ve read, there’s no clear medical understanding of precisely what causes PMS. However, we know that estrogen and progesterone levels increase at different times in your cycle, and then both these hormone levels drop simultaneously in the days before your period arrives. In some people who menstruate, their serotonin levels also drop as their estrogen drops too. So, we’re looking at a significant hormonal and chemical shift in the body all at once.
Deficiency in specific vitamins and minerals and consumption of certain food and drinks are also known to contribute to PMS symptoms. These factors are mainly what this blog is about because while we can’t control our hormones or brain chemicals without prescribed drugs, we make everyday choices that could cause severe PMS.
Using supplements is a great place to start if you’re trying to work out how to deal with your PMS.
I appreciate that supplements can be expensive – there were times in the past when I considered the cost and wondered were they worth buying. Now that I take supplements every day, I genuinely see the value as I feel so much better. However, if you’re on a budget, I’ve included links to some low-cost options below.
So, which supplements do I take? I use the following ones as they cover all the different vitamins and minerals listed below, plus a bunch of others:
Years ago, I read about taking magnesium and various other supplements for PMS. Yet, I looked up the combined price and decided not to bother. I wish I could go back in time and change my mind as magnesium works wonders. I only recently started taking it every day, but I already feel much more balanced.
Magnesium is consumed naturally from certain nuts and green leafy vegetables but is often depleted by stress. According to a 2007 study, magnesium’s effectiveness in easing PMS symptoms is due to its ability to ‘normalise’ the effect of various hormones (especially progesterone) on the central nervous system.
Try to take at least 250mg a day (I take 375 mg) and combine it with a supplement that contains vitamin B6 to boost its effectiveness. I use these magnesium tablets from Boots, which cost £4 a month.
Calcium and vitamin D
We all know that vitamin D is essential for lifting our mood and calcium is vital for building strong bones, but did you know that these nutrients work hand-in-hand? Vitamin D plays a crucial role in calcium metabolism, so you should always take them together.
I love taking vitamin D because I can genuinely feel it boosting my mental health in those long winter months. After moving to London from sunny Australia, my PMS was always worse in the first three months of the year. I didn’t realise that my lack of exposure to sunshine could be causing my symptoms to intensify. I’m also mindful of my calcium intake because of osteoporosis, so I’m very up for taking a high dose of it as well if it helps ease my PMS.
According to a 2019 review of clinical trials and cross-sectional studies, “low serum levels of calcium and vitamin D during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle were found to cause or exacerbate the symptoms of PMS.” So, scientifically it’s worth trying a supplement that combines these two nutrients if you struggle to deal with your PMS.
The £4 magnesium supplement I mentioned above is an excellent option as it also contains 800 mg of calcium and 10 µg of vitamin D3. However, if you want an even cheaper option, Boots do a 99p Calcium + Vitamin D supplement, which is enough for 15 days. With both of these, I urge you to take the recommended dose of two tablets a day, as it will be much more effective in soothing your PMS symptoms.
Evening primrose oil
This seed extract is probably the most commonly known PMS supplement. I didn’t take it for years as I figured it was hippy nonsense. How can the oil from a specific flower somehow stop my breasts from hurting? Who knows, but as it turns out, it works exceptionally well.
I’ve been taking evening primrose oil for a few years now and rarely experience any breast tenderness. When I ran out a few weeks ago, there were a couple of days where I didn’t take it, and instantly my breasts became sore again (making hugging people became a painful ordeal). So, at least I know it’s still necessary for me to take it.
I take 1000mg of evening primrose oil every day (link above), which costs £4.50 a month. If you’re looking for a cheaper option, Boots do 500mg capsules which costs £1.29 a month.
PMS good practices
Trying to deal with PMS isn’t simply about the food you eat and the supplements you take. Of course, having a healthy diet has a significant impact on your hormonal balance. Yet, simple things like regularly getting a good nights sleep can help you be physically and mentally prepared for PMS too. Here are some other good practices that I find helpful.
Before I started doing yoga about a decade ago, it was just another thing I figured was hippy nonsense. How could doing a bunch of stretches help me feel mentally balanced and less premenstrual?
It turns out, pretty much any form of regular exercise will help with PMS. The endorphin rush you feel from light cardio can potentially help to reduce the amount of pain and swelling that occurs before or during your period.
Yoga is slightly different, as it rarely pushes your heart rate up to that cardio zone. Instead, these sequences of poses can help to reduce stress – both the type that you feel in your daily life and the tension that causes an imbalance with your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
A 2017 review of studies published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicinefound that there was “reduced symptoms of menstrual distress following a yoga intervention.” The key with all of these studies was a regular yoga practice. Doing one class a month isn’t going to help much with your PMS, unfortunately. Instead, make time for a short daily workout or do classes a couple of times a week.
I used to have a great yoga teacher when I first started who helped me to understand what many of the different poses required. These days, I do 20-30 minutes every morning at home, which takes no time at all. I use the ever-popular Yoga with Adriene most days, but I also like Sarah Beth Yoga’s videos for PMS, cramps and during your period too.
I’m coming up to my first meditation anniversary, and all I can say is WOW. It’s a simple but incredibly effective tool for helping me make space for my feelings and listen to my inner wisdom. I’m lucky that I lived with the amazing Diz Explains the Universe during 2020, who helped to normalise a regular meditation practice for me.
You may wonder how mediation helps you deal with PMS, especially if you associate being premenstrual with experiencing many feelings. I spent years seeing myself as very emotionally ‘unhinged’ every time my menstrual tornado tore through my life. I felt that I couldn’t trust my emotions during this time and would become one big confused weepy mess for a few days.
By learning to listen to my feelings, I’ve been able to differentiate between my ‘Permanent Mega Truths’ and the unhelpful thoughts/messages that my hormones will sometimes cause my brain to send me when I’m premenstrual.
What is a Permanent Mega Truth? I see it as those thoughts and feelings about your life that your hormones turn up the volume on when you’re experiencing PMS. Instead of pushing my feelings down, meditation has helped me value and communicate them, so I’m less likely to be hit by a wave of emotions I’ve tried to suppress each month.
Meditation has also helped me understand when I’m having thoughts that don’t reflect how I feel. At times, my hormones can send my brain negative messages, especially when I’m premenstrual. Learning to listen to me through meditation has taught me to observe these negative thoughts rather than take them as my truth.
If you’re new to meditation and don’t know how to get started, I recommend downloading the Insight Timer app. It has a vast range of guided meditations, serene sounds, and so much more. All you need to do is at least 10 minutes of meditation every day to help you deal with your PMS.
Foods that may contribute towards PMS
If you’ve made it this far in this blog, then you must be having a terrible time with your PMS. If all of the above doesn’t work, then I recommend looking at your diet.
When it comes to your hormones and food, the ‘big three’ that everyone suggests you avoid are sugar, caffeine and alcohol. I do a trade-off my body: if I can give up two, I can keep one. So I’ve cut out most refined sugar and caffeine and kept alcohol because life has to hold some pleasures, right?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably struggle to stay away from sugar when your period is due. Chocolate is my biggest weakness, and I swear it has medicinal benefits for my PMS.
So, I was pretty surprised when I managed to give up refined sugar last year. Luckily for you, I’ve written a lengthy guide for quitting sugar, how it affects your PMS and great alternatives to try. I recommend giving it a read.
Cutting coffee out of my life was a much harder habit to kick. I tried a couple of times over the years, with little success. As a writer, I need my brain to be perky in the morning, so I can focus on what I’m doing. I would also experience headaches as my body went into caffeine withdrawal, which made it even harder to justify.
In the end, I managed to cut it out of my life when I moved house earlier this year. Waking up stressed about all the things I needed to do meant that I didn’t need my morning cup of coffee as I was already pumped full of adrenaline. So, I stopped, took painkillers for the headaches, and felt normal without it after two weeks.
According to Clue, some studies show a link between people who experience PMS and those who consume caffeine, while other studies suggest no correlation. So, it’s up to you to see if giving up caffeine helps ease your symptoms. As with all of these options, if you’re struggling, then it’s always worth giving it a try.
I left this one till last as it’s a little controversial. I’m not one of those people who think gluten is the devil – billions of people eat it every day without issue. So, I was pretty resistant to the idea of cutting gluten out of my diet because I didn’t want to be one of ‘those people’. However, as I mentioned at the start, I was miserable a decade ago.
The only reason I even considered going gluten-free was because of my younger sister. She had been diagnosed as gluten-intolerant many years ago. When she witnessed the digestive issues I was struggling with (clutching my stomach in agony after eating a burger), she suggested I try giving it up as well.
What I didn’t anticipate was the effect it would have on my PMS. Those two weeks of hell I’d been struggling with suddenly became a couple of days again. I started to feel more like myself again, happier, more energetic. The digestive pains stopped, and I instantly shed a bunch of weight I’d gained.
So, if you’ve tried everything I’ve suggested above, spoken with your doctor and still find yourself struggling with severe PMS, then I would recommend giving this a try. You need to cut all gluten out for at least a whole month to see if it has any impact. If it doesn’t change anything, then clearly, this isn’t your issue. However, if you immediately feel a lot better, listen to your body and work with it to deal with your PMS.
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