Premenstrual syndrome (or PMS) is a condition many of us are intimately familiar with. In fact, 90 percent of women report experiencing symptoms of PMS, including bloating, headaches, and mood swings, in the days leading up to their period.
But while you may know what PMS is, you may not realize why it occurs. You can blame your hormones for this one. After ovulation, there's a shift in certain hormone levels — this can result in a wide range of symptoms, from breast tenderness to cravings. For some, these hormonal changes are linked to decreases in serotonin, a brain chemical that improves mood — which explains why you might suddenly feel teary or irritable.
Considering the fact that so many people experience PMS, a treatment for this condition would be welcomed by those who menstruate — but although numerous treatment strategies are available, few have been adequately evaluated in randomized, controlled trials. So, what can you do to manage symptoms of PMS? Your dietary choices may play a role.
The Link Between Certain Nutrients and PMS Symptoms
While you may want to down that bag of extra-salty kettle-cooked chips a few days before your period, that indulgence may not be the best choice. "When the body is low in valuable nutrients that impact hormonal, pain, and mood regulation like vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B1, vitamin B6, or magnesium, it may become more likely to experience noticeable downside effects stemming from PMS," Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, a registered dietitian and author of The Better Period Food Solution, told POPSUGAR. "Vitamins and minerals have shown solid evidence in helping to mitigate pain, stabilize mood, or even squash cramps."
Beckerman shared that there are situations in which food choices can play a positive role in PMS symptom management. "For example, women who ate more foods rich in calcium and vitamin D are less likely to experience negative side effects from periods, such as intense food cravings, headaches, and moodiness. Plus, eating more vitamin B1-rich foods like oats and nuts and more vitamin B2-rich foods like eggs and spinach may help stave off PMS before it even begins," Beckerman explained.
So, Can Menstrual Support Supplements Help Manage PMS?
We're starting to see an uptick in PMS "cures" in supplement form. One quick Google search will provide you with a variety of pills, gummies, and bars that promise PMS relief and a better period. While these solutions sound promising, dietitians are skeptical.
"There are a lot of 'hormone balancing' supplements on the market that promise to offer PMS symptom relief, but I am not a fan of these combination products," Melissa Groves Azzaro, a registered dietitian and author of A Balanced Approach to PCOS, told POPSUGAR. "First, you shouldn't try to treat a hormone imbalance without first knowing which of your hormones are actually imbalanced. It's easy to jump to a conclusion of say, 'estrogen dominance,' but is it because your estrogen is high? Your progesterone is low? Or you're metabolizing estrogen down a potentially harmful pathway? We don't know unless we test."
Azzaro explained that many of these period-solution products contain ingredients that may not be helpful and may actually be harmful for some. "Examples of ingredients I never ever recommend without thorough hormone testing are DIM, vitex or chasteberry, calcium D-glucarate, and DHEA," Azzaro said. She added that many of these products contain these ingredients in subtherapeutic doses. "While there may be studies on the ingredients individually, they were done on much higher doses than what tends to be found in these 'proprietary blends' of herbs," she explained.
Whitney Gingrich, MA, a registered dietitian and owner of thefertilitynut.com, shared similar concerns, adding that "many of the products marketed to improve PMS symptoms use cheap, poorly absorbed forms of active ingredients. Then they package it in a cute pink gummy candy to make it more palatable. In reality, you're paying for their marketing and actually investing in added sugars, which can actually do more harm to your hormonal health."
Not to say that supplements should be avoided. Popular remedies like chasteberry have shown positive results when used in certain doses and with certain populations. But since this herb works by reducing some hormone levels and increasing others, it should not be used as a one-size-fits-all approach. It may also interact with oral contraceptives and certain medications.
As a first step for PMS relief, Azzaro recommends instead focusing on increasing fiber and anti-inflammatory foods, such as fruits, cruciferous vegetables, calcium-rich foods, and omega-3-containing seafood like salmon. She also suggests eating foods that contain magnesium and zinc, like seeds and nuts. (Psst, dark chocolate contains both magnesium and zinc!) And she cautions not to underestimate the power of good quality sleep and moderate exercise for PMS relief as well.
If your PMS symptoms are severe, you should absolutely let your healthcare provider know. There may be a bigger issue at play, and your doctor can help you find the safest, most effective solution.