By Inga Hansen
Your hair’s gone limp, your face is breaking out and your pants just aren’t fitting the way they’re supposed to. Last week you were on top of the world but today all you want to do is crawl under the covers and hide. For most women, these days mean one thing–your period is on its way.
Three hormones drive our monthly cycles—estrogen, progesterone and Luteinizing hormone. In the first two weeks following our periods, we’re at our best. Estrogen levels rise, our skin clears, our hair shines and we feel pretty darn good. But all that changes mid-cycle at the time of ovulation.
“For a regular 28 day cycle, the Luteinizing hormone spikes on day 14, which causes the egg to rupture through the wall of the ovary,” says Iris Prager, Ph.D., educational manager of P&G and an expert on premenstrual changes and puberty.
The time of ovulation marks the beginning of the premenstrual phase. If an egg isn’t fertilized, progesterone and estrogen levels fall as the lining of the uterus weakens and is shed. “This spike and then drop in progesterone combined with low levels of estrogen can cause changes in appearance. You may start to see blemishes and your hair seems more oily,” says Prager. “You may also feel bloated, experience sore breasts and a variety of mood problems, including depression, anxiety and/or irritability.”
We may not be able to stop the cycle that defines our gender, but there are some steps we can take to minimize the ups and downs that accompany these changes in our hormone levels.
Move Your Body
Getting regular exercise can help counter not only the physical changes your body experiences as part of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), but the emotional changes as well. “Ovulation and the hormonal changes that occur following ovulation trigger a cascade of events, involving our neurohormonal systems and neurotransmitters,” says Andrea Rapkin, MD, researcher and professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynecology. “Recent studies show that aerobic exercise is effective in reducing the physical symptoms of PMS; other studies have shown improvement in mood problems as well. This is likely due to the connections between aerobic exercise and the endorphin pathways.”
The relaxation and stress-reducing benefits of low impact exercise like yoga and tai chi may also reduce premenstrual discomfort. In 1996, a study of 40 women by Girman, et al, showed “significantly less menstrual distress for women in the yoga-trained group compared with the control group.”
Adjust Your Diet
Foods high in calcium, including dairy products, spinach and beans, are among the dietary prescriptives being touted as an effective treatment for PMS symptoms. “There are two studies suggesting efficacy,” says Rapkin. “But it’s still unclear how calcium works. One theory is that many women have a calcium and vitamin D deficiency that is magnified by the premenstrual phase.”
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) is a co-factor in the synthesis of serotonin, for this reason it’s a popular choice to treat premenstrual symptoms including depression and anxiety. Cutting out the caffeine can also reduce premenstrual afflictions, particularly for women who experience the temporary lumps (known as fibrocystic lumps) and soreness of the breasts. “Caffeine is contraindicated for women with fibrocystic breasts,” says Prager. “It’s also believed to increase the severity of PMS symptoms.”
Three herbs, long touted as naturopathic cures for PMS, now boast well-documented, scientific track records in reducing symptoms as well. Black Cohosh, a mild relaxant that was first used medicinally by Native Americans, can help reduce cramps, sleep disturbances and depressive moods.
Known for its memory-improving capabilities, ongoing research and research reviews have pointed to Ginkgo Biloba as an effective tool to combat breast pain associated with PMS.
St. John’s Wort is widely used as a natural alternative to serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Its effect on mood, specifically mild depression, has made it a popular choice for treating depressive episodes relating to PMS.
Change your mind
PMS will come every month, and it will go. Reminding yourself that these mood and body changes are temporary can help you feel physically and emotionally better. In fact, women who undergo cognitive-behavioral therapies or group therapies that help them recognize and cope with physical and emotional changes of PMS have reported a decrease in the severity of their symptoms.
Inga Hansen is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.