War. Plague. A critical shortage of chocolate and potato chips. It’s hard to think of any major crisis that can’t be blamed on those pesky female hormones and how crazy they make us. For the estimated 40 percent of women in this country who suffer symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), taming our hormones — mostly progesterone and estrogen — has become a monthly sport.
But hormonal shifts may not be the only thing making you want to hide out with your cat and a good trashy novel once a month.
Researchers at institutes such as the University of Pennsylvania are exploring the role of crucial brain chemicals such as serotonin, endorphins and epinephrine. It’s thought that these neurotransmitters help control mood, appetite and sleep patterns.
Normal shifts in estrogen or progesterone seven to 14 days before you menstruate may affect how the brain chemicals work, causing those symptoms you love to hate. Serotonin, in particular, affects anxiety, pain tolerance, sleep and mood, and low levels of it are linked to depression.
This research has led to new PMS treatments that target those brain chemicals. Drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs (which work to help the brain retain serotonin), treat symptoms of PMS. They also help treat the stronger symptoms of perimenopause, which Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, writes can feel like “the mother of all PMS.”
Ongoing studies — one is currently going on at the National Institutes of Health — are exploring new treatment options, including black cohosh and red ginseng.
You don’t have to wait to find relief. Here are a few lifestyle choices you can try that may help — in consultation with your doc, of course!
Kathryn Russell Selk lives in Seattle, works a “day” job, writes and tries to avoid eating her body weight in chocolate and potato chips. Her articles have also appeared in Sacramento Parent and History magazines.
8 ways to relieve symptoms of PMS and perimenopause
1. Be complex. Studies indicate that eating complex carbs can increase serotonin. And complex carbs will stick with you longer than most high-fat or sweet foods. Whole grains and fruits such as apricots, orange, plums and pears are just a few foods with complex carbs, with the bonus of fiber to make you feel full.
2. Get a massage. There is no evidence that stress causes PMS, but a study reported in the Journal of Women’s Health found that stress can make PMS symptoms such as low back pain, cramps, headache, depression and sadness much worse. So meditate, get a massage, have a pillow fight, do a breathing exercise — anything to calm those frazzled nerves.
3. Be a (downward facing) dog. A 2011 study found that women who did yoga at least three times a week experienced reduced PMS irritability, mood swings, cramping, depression and pain. Even though you may not feel like aiming your tush toward the sky, that downward dog or child’s pose might just make you feel better.
4. Say goodbye to joe. Unfortunately for those of us who can’t live without it, that triple latte may make you feel worse. Studies from the American Journal of Public Health report that caffeine can increase insomnia, cramping, headaches and breast soreness. Quantity matters, too — symptoms increase in severity and frequency with higher levels of caffeine. The National Institutes of Health recommends reducing or eliminating caffeine as a way of minimizing your symptoms. If you can’t go cold turkey, try cutting back.
5. Shake your booty. When you feel cramped and bloated, moving around may not be your first inclination. But exercise can cause levels of beta-endorphins to rise, helping relieve feelings such as anger and depression. And think how virtuous you will feel after even 10 minutes off the couch.
6. Eat your vitamins. Many studies have found that taking calcium and vitamin D can be effective in reducing the strength and frequency of PMS symptoms. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also finds that women who eat diets high in vitamin B6 experience symptoms about 25 percent less often. For B6, it appears only food-based sources, not supplements, make a difference.
7. Fat can be a friend. No, we’re not talking about the fat in cheese puffs. A 2011 study from Brazil showed that women who took a blend of several essential fatty acids (EFAs) felt significant relief from their PMS symptoms. The benefits increase over time. You can increase your EFAs by eating eggs, nuts, vegetable oils and fish.
8. Water, water everywhere. It may seem strange, but one good way to combat that PMS water bloat is to drink more water — it actually helps release the water you are retaining. And since salt makes your body hold on to water, cutting back on salty foods will help make your pants easier to zip.