Most women that I see in my Ottawa practice who are in their reproductive years suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) to some extent. Actually, about 75% of women in this demographic experience PMS (Medline Plus, 2016). Does that make it normal? While a low level of discomfort can be expected (after all, there are huge hormonal changes occurring all at once within the week before your period), in many cases, more severe symptoms are pointing to underlying hormone imbalances or deficiencies that should be addressed.
What Is PMS?
PMS is generally defined as a group of symptoms that comes and goes cyclically based on where a woman is in her menstrual cycle. They usually will start in the second half of the cycle (at least 14 days after the start of a period in a woman with a textbook 28 day cycle), and will go away 1-2 days after menstruation starts (Medline Plus, 2016).
Typical PMS symptoms can include one or more of the following:
-Bloating and/or increased gas
-Changes in bowel movements, such as constipation or diarrhea
-Mood changes, such as heightened emotions, irritability, anxiety, or depression
-Skin changes, such as cyclical acne
Paying attention to these sometimes subtle changes can give you a clue about what imbalances you may have.
The 4 Main Types Of PMS
PMS is classified into 4 main types. If you fit primarily into one of these 4 main types, your naturopathic doctor will be able to gain valuable insight just from your symptoms!
1) PMS-A (Anxiety): This type of PMS is characterized by symptoms of increased anxiety, irritability, and emotional lability.
What it means: PMS-A is usually associated with a high estrogen to progesterone ratio. Think of progesterone as the calming hormone between the two. If you don’t have enough of the calming hormone, estrogen will trigger the release of the more stimulating hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which will make you feel more on edge. As well, if you’re on or have taken birth control pills in the past, you may have excess estrogen in your system, which can worsen these symptoms.
Treatment options: Using natural strategies to increase progesterone (such as the herb Chaste Tree), get rid of excess estrogen, and decrease stress is very helpful for PMS-A sufferers. Increasing magnesium intake can also be helpful. If you have severe PMS-A symptoms, and especially if you are peri-menopausal, you may benefit from cyclical use (post ovulation) of bio-identical progesterone cream (which I can prescribe).
2) PMS-C (Cravings): If you experience strong cravings the week before your period, especially carbohydrate cravings, then you are probably suffering from PMS-C. You may also crave stimulants and chocolate, get heart palpitations, and you may get headaches and energy highs and lows from fluctuating blood sugar levels.
What it means: These symptoms are thought to be due to changes in the way insulin binds. As a response to blood sugar in your bloodstream, your body produces insulin as a signal to bring the sugar into the cells. However, in the days leading up to a period, a woman’s cells become less sensitive to this insulin signal, leading to imbalances in blood sugar regulation. Giving in to sugar cravings can actually make PMS-C symptoms worse, since the body can’t deal with this influx of sugar properly.
Treatment options: Stabilizing blood sugar with a high protein diet low in refined carbohydrates is really important if you suffer from PMS-C. These blood sugar imbalances can also show up as acne in the skin, since high sugar in the blood can lead to more breakouts. Eat small and frequent meals, and avoid alcohol.
3) PMS-D (Depression): If you feel really down before your period, you don’t feel like participating in your regular social activities, you feel grumpy, angry, or have crying spells before your period, you may suffer from PMS-D. If you have pre-existing depression, you might feel like your symptoms are worse leading up to your period. Another feature of this type of PMS is that it may be associated with premenstrual acne.
What it means: The etiology of this type of PMS is like the reverse of PMS-A, with elevated progesterone levels, and low estrogen levels. While progesterone decreases anxiety, too much progesterone relative to estrogen can depress the nervous system, leading to symptoms of depression. As well, the happy neurotransmitter serotonin is decreased when estrogen levels are low, worsening feelings of depression. There also may be elevated testosterone levels, which can lead to increased acne.
Treatment options: Some foods and herbs with phytoestrogenic activity can be used to balance estrogen levels. As well, if you have elevated androgens (hormones such as testosterone and DHT), these can be balanced using natural therapies. Including foods high in tryptophan (the precursor to the feel good hormone, serotonin) can help with mood: sour cherries, turkey, cottage cheese, and oats are all high in tryptophan (Pope, 2016).
4) PMS-H (Hyperhydration): If you routinely gain a few pounds before your period, your abdomen feels swollen, or your breasts get more swollen and tender, you are likely suffering from PMS-H. Rings on your hands may feel tighter if it also affects your extremities.
What it means: The increased extracellular fluid which leads to symptoms of fluid retention is due to higher aldosterone levels. Aldosterone is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that helps the body retain fluid. This can be compounded with lower dopamine levels typical in the days leading up to the period.
Treatment options: Eating foods high in salt makes the body retain more water, so decreasing your salt intake and processed foods can help decrease the fluid retention. Increasing magnesium intake can also help reduce aldosterone levels and improve symptoms.
What’s A Girl To Do?
If you are tired of dealing monthly with your PMS symptoms, there is a better way than just pushing through it. Prominent PMS symptoms are signs for you to pay attention to the subtle imbalances in your body. The above treatment options will work for some but must be adapted to your particular case. Naturopathic doctors can help you balance your hormones with tools such as liver supporting and hormone balancing herbs, nutritional supplements, dietary changes, and acupuncture. In more complicated cases, we may need to run hormonal testing (blood or salivary) to find out exactly what we’re dealing with.
If you want to get to the bottom of your PMS, I’d love to help. You can get in touch here.
Image from: http://www.123rf.com/profile_rodimovpavel'>rodimovpavel / 123RF Stock Photo
Kaslow JE (2016). Premenstrual Syndromes. Jeremy E. Kaslow, MD. Retrieved from http://www.drkaslow.com/html/premenstrual_syndromes.html.
Pope N (2016). Naturopathic Infertility Treatments Timed With Cycle Charting. Webinar May 15, 2016.
White CD (2016). Premenstrual Syndrome. Medline Plus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001505.htm.
Dr. Tamar Ferreira is a Naturopathic Doctor in Brampton, Ontario. Her areas of focus include digestive health, hormone balance, and skin conditions.