Premenstrual Syndrome or PMS is the name given to a range of symptoms that women may experience in the 2 weeks before their monthly period. Most women have some symptoms but for up to 20% of the population these can be very severe. Symptoms vary from person to person and can be physical such as abdominal pain, bloating and headaches or emotional such as feeling more angry, anxious or irritable than usual. We don’t fully understand what causes PMS but several factors are involved and a good diet can help improve symptoms. So here are my diet tips to help premenstrual syndrome.
Food and Mood
During your menstrual cycle, levels of hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone rise and fall. These fluctuations may affect the levels of certain chemicals in your brain including serotonin. Serotonin is known to help regulate mood and make you feel happier. Serotonin is made with the amino acid tryptophan, which comes from dietary protein. Poultry, eggs, soya, nuts and seeds are good sources.
We know that more tryptophan seems to get into the brain when carbohydrate-rich foods are eaten and some people think this might explain ‘carbohydrate craving.’ However, there is not enough research to prove this and research seems to show that it would be hard to get enough tryptophan from food even with the help of carbohydrates to have an impact on symptoms. Some women with PMS take tryptophan as a supplement in the form of l-tryptophan others take 5-hydroxytryptophan or 5-HTP which is a chemical made in the body when dietary tryptophan is eaten.
Tryptophan supplements have been linked to a serious condition known as eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which results in extreme muscle tenderness and blood abnormalities. It first occurred in 1989 when more than 1,500 people who had been taking l-tryptophan were affected and over 30 people died. A contaminate was found in the tryptophan supplements and it is thought that this may have been the cause but we still do not know for sure. 5-HTP has also been associated with side effects and the official advice is that people with Down’s syndrome or liver disease, and women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not take 5-HTP supplements. In one study, 15% of people with Down’s syndrome experienced seizures after taking 5-HTP supplements over a long period. It is also advised that if you are taking any type of medication you should first consult your GP before taking tryptophan or 5-HTP. Tryptophan is sometimes prescribed by doctors in the UK but only for depression that is resistant to other treatments.
In terms of food and mood it is far safer to focus on eating regularly and avoiding foods that will produce big peaks and troughs in terms of your blood sugar. Eat plenty of high fibre foods such as wholegrain breakfast cereals, brown rice and pasta, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and have protein from lean meat/poultry, fish or beans/lentils at each meal. This will help you feel fuller for longer and should help steady your mood and stop you craving those less healthy treats. Stay away from added free sugars. You can use the “change of life” app to find out how much free sugar is hidden in the foods you eat.
Keep your weight in check
Research has shown you’re more likely to have PMS if you are overweight particularly if you have a body mass index of more than 30 and if you do little exercise. Losing weight healthily will reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes as well as potentially helping your PMS symptoms. There is plenty of advice and tips on the blog to help you with this. Start with my no-nonsense guide here.
We know that exercise helps with PMS symptoms but it’s also great for getting your metabolic rate up. One way to do this is to use resistance training to build muscle. This helps because muscle is more metabolically active than fat so the more muscle you have the higher your metabolic rate will be. You could ask for advice from a personal trainer at the gym or check out the videos and advice at the NHS Fitness Studio link below.
Diet wise make sure you have good quality protein from meat, fish, eggs, dairy or soya to help you build muscle.
Another way to raise your metabolic rate is through interval training. You can try popular programmes such as “HIIT” at your gym or you may just prefer to do some circuits designed by a personal trainer. However you don’t have to spend lots of money or join a gym. Try running in intervals. Run as fast as you can for 1-2 minutes then walk at your normal pace to recover. Then run as fast as you can again and repeat this about 6-7 times. The actual programme that’s right for you will vary, so listen to your body and do what works for you. If you already have a medical condition it’s essential that you consult your doctor before you start an interval training programme.
Vitamins Minerals and Supplements
There is good scientific evidence that adequate intakes of both calcium and vitamin D from the diet are associated with a lower incidence of PMS. Milk and dairy products or calcium enriched diary substitutes are the best sources. If you can’t get enough dietary vitamin D from oily fish, eggs, fortified fat spreads and fortified breakfast cereals then taking a daily 10μg supplement may help with PMS symptoms.
Studies have shown that a diet rich in foods containing thiamine and riboflavin (vitamin B1 and B2) may reduce the incidence of PMS by 35% but taking supplements did not have the same effect. So eat plenty of wholegrain cereals, some meat, milk, and beans.
A low intake of iron and zinc may be associated with increased rates of PMS so ask your dietitian to assess your intake. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs are good sources.
Fish oil supplements, in particular Krill oil, may help with period pain possibly due to an anti-inflammatory effect.
Things to avoid
High intakes of salt, alcohol and caffeine are also associated with PMS symptoms. Stick to a maximum of 14 units of alcohol/week. Remember a unit is a small glass of wine or single measure of spirits. Don’t add salt at the table and use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavour to food when cooking. Cut back on processed foods and check labels to make sure any processed foods you do have are low in salt. Keep your caffeine intake down by choosing caffeine free drinks like herbal tea and Roiboss or decaffeinated products. Avoid caffeine containing fizzy drinks like cola and sports/energy drinks. Keep coffee to two mugs/day and have it in the morning for a better chance of a good night’s sleep.
Your period comes round every month so it you suffer from PMS it can have a big impact on your quality of life. Try these tips but don’t suffer in silence. If your symptoms are severe, see your GP.