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Condition - Coping naturally with premenstrual syndrome

By Alison Belcourt BA(Hons) DipION MBANT MAR NTCC

There are women who seem to sail through life constantly smiling, perpetually jolly, never complaining and always able to cope, and then there are those that can only do this for two weeks out of four. This is because, for the second half of each month their lives are blighted with a variety of complaints commonly termed premenstrual syndrome or PMS for short. PMS can be anything from mildly inconvenient to positively debilitating.

PMS traits can be emotional, behavioural or physical. Emotions including feelings of anger, irritability, tearfulness and general mood swings are common. Behaviours such as craving sugar, forgetfulness and irrationality are also typical, along with physical complaints such as breast tenderness, abdominal pain, bloating, digestive discomfort, headaches, water retention and low libido.

Typically, the characteristics of PMS will appear two weeks into the menstrual cycle and will notably disappear as soon as the menstrual period arrives. It is thought to effect up to 70% of women of child-bearing age, although the exact number is difficult to estimate, as many women just accept PMS as unavoidable or do not even recognise that there is a link with their hormonal cycle. However, once the hormonal link is recognised, there are a number of steps that can be taken to maintain hormone balance and assist those experiencing PMS.

PMS can be characterised by hormone imbalances, where there is either too much oestrogen or a deficiency of progesterone. These imbalances can also be helped by eating phytoestrogens from soya, lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans. Phytoestrogens are far more available to the body when fermented, and are less prone to cause oestrogen dominance problems. They can also aid the removal of excess oestrogens and help to block strong oestrogens from being used by the body.

A study at the University of Edinburgh has suggested that mood disorders are linked to oestrogen levels. The study found that low mood in women around the time of the menopause occurred as the levels of oestrogen dropped precipitously. This was also noted when women went on anti-oestrogen medication or had their ovaries removed and appeared to be reversed when oestrogen therapy was given. Oestrogen levels were found to increase or decrease the density and activity of serotonin transporter sites in the brain, playing a key role in serotonin levels in the body. Low levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter involved with mood and emotion, are now thought to be an underlying factor in PMS, as hormone levels fluctuate during the monthly menstrual cycle.

Interestingly, when we look at nutrients that are useful in supporting optimum hormone balance and those that also help maintain serotonin levels, we find the same three nutrients appear in both lists. These are vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium. These and other nutrients enable the body to produce progesterone, oestrogen and other hormones from the starting material of cholesterol, a vital process that depends on good, balanced nutrition.

Vitamin B6 cannot be synthesised in the body so it needs to be obtained from food or taken as a supplement. It is found in plentiful quantities in bananas, chickpeas or pinto beans, sunflower seeds, lentils, spinach, peppers, brown rice and peanuts. Vitamin B6 is important for glucose metabolism and the synthesis of key neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. The amino acid tryptophan is needed to produce serotonin. It is a large protein molecule that can be found in chicken, turkey and pork.

As vitamin B6 is also involved in the production of insulin, giving in to sugar cravings can start a cycle of fluctuating blood sugar levels and increased insulin production through the day, that will only create more demand for insulin and, therefore, vitamin B6. Starting the day with a bowl of porridge oats with extra milled flax seeds or an oat-based muesli, rich in nuts and extra seeds that release glucose slowly, may help to prevent the start of this blood sugar roller coaster. Chromium is a mineral that can also help you to maintain a more stable blood sugar level at this time.

Drinking too much alcohol can impair the metabolism of B6 as well as reduce levels of available zinc. Zinc is required for the production of hormones and the enzyme that converts vitamin B6 into its more active form. It is also required in the synthesis of serotonin. Shellfish, fish and meat are rich sources of zinc. Nuts and legumes, like peanuts and peas, are relatively good plant sources of zinc. Zinc bioavailability is lower in whole grain foods, due to their relatively high content of phytic acid, a compound that inhibits zinc absorption. Bread and pasta are typically high in phytates. Make sure you are not eating too much wheat, by only including it in one meal a day. Wheat is likely to add to digestive discomfort and bloating at this time of the month, by hindering nutrient absorption.

Magnesium deficiency has long been associated with depression, headaches, migraines, cramps and tension, all of which are more likely to occur the week before menstruation. Magnesium is a mineral that helps us to maintain a calm and tension-free body. It is easily lost when we drink caffeine found in coffee, tea and fizzy drinks. Replacing these caffeinated drinks with water and teas such as cat’s claw, peppermint and chamomile may help to preserve magnesium levels and also help to relax the body. Better still, topping up your magnesium levels is recommended. Magnesium is plentiful in any green vegetable, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Siberian ginseng, passion flower and theanine are also useful  compounds that may help you to maintain your inner calm, prior to the menstrual period.

Some women also find using GLA (gamma linolenic acid) supplements from starflower oil or another source help them to manage their premenstrual situation, by assisting the maintenance of normal digestion, non-tender breasts and an even temperament prior to menstruation. Combining this with vitamin C, vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium may also help the body to produce prostaglandins that are important for hormone balance.

Premenstrual syndrome is not, therefore, an inevitable part of being a woman. There are ways of helping your body to maintain its hormonal and emotional equilibrium naturally, throughout the month, so you too can be one of those perpetually jolly women. 

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