What is PMS?
A Wholesome Story Blog Series on Women’s Health & Fertility Issues
(Another “X” in Our Series on Female Medical Mysteries)
PMS…every woman’s three favorite letters. Ah, that time of month when you feel hangry, bloated, crampy, and emotional. It’s a magical part of womanhood that’s culturally legendary for making rational, healthy women into emotional monsters plagued with pain and food cravings.
In this post, we’ll learn about what PMS is, why it happens, what’s normal and what’s not, and ways to alleviate your PMS symptoms.
So, strap on your sanitary belt and get ready for a ride through one of womanhood’s most reviled experiences. Today, we’re talking about PMS.
As promised, here is your set of definitions for this post:
- Hangry - Hungry + Angry = Hangry. A person is hangry when they’re grumpy and hungry, and can only be soothed with food…usually comfort food.
- Libido - A person’s sex-drive, or the amount of sexual energy/appetite a person has.
- Menopause - The time of life when a woman’s menstrual cycle stops permanently; usually due to age, but can be caused by disease or surgery.
- PMS - Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) is a collection of symptoms related to hormonal changes that occur about a week before your period and that subside within a few days of starting your period. 1
- PMDD - Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) is a medical condition wherein a woman experiences severe depression, anxiety, and/or irritability shortly before and/or during the first days of her period. PMDD is much more severe than PMS. 2
- Postpartum - This term refers to the days, weeks, and months after a woman gives birth.
What is PMS?
If you have periods, chances are you also have experienced at least some degree of PMS, since it affects an estimated 75-90% of the menstruating population. 1, 3
As you read above in the definitions, PMS is just a collection of symptoms that occur toward the end of a woman’s luteal phase and into the beginning of her menstrual phase.
PMS is not a disease or disorder, it’s just the female body coping with changing hormone levels, though we admit it sure feels disease-like at times.
If you’re having a bad PMS day and just need to feel some feelings about how people make you feel about your body’s feelings, then check out this beautiful, feminist, PMS rant on Healthline. We promise you’ll feel validated and maybe even a little vindicated.
What Are the Symptoms?
The degree to which a person is affected by PMS varies widely, and symptoms can include one to all of the following: 1, 3
- Mood swings/irritability/anger
- Sleep problems (insomnia or hypersomnia)
- Social withdrawal
- Inability to concentrate/poor memory
- Change in libido (usually lower)
- Change in appetite (more or less hungry than usual)
- Food cravings (especially for carbs)
- Depression/sadness/crying spells
- Joint/muscle pain
- Bloating/fluid retention/gassiness
- Acne flare-ups
- Poor alcohol tolerance
- Swollen/tender breasts
No wonder people hate it so much! Look at that list again and just take a moment to appreciate that any of these symptoms can occur every month in a healthy person. Oh. Joy.
Who Does it Affect?
PMS symptoms tend to affect the following groups of women more often than others: 1
- Those who have high stress levels
- Those with a family history of depression
- Those with a personal or family history of postpartum depression
PMS can change with age and worsen over time, so women in middle age tend to have it worse.1, 4
- Women in their 30s and 40s may experience more pronounced symptoms than younger women, and women nearing menopause may be even more affected.
- Good news though! PMS stops after menopause, since it’s inherently tied to ovulation/menstruation. 1, 4 Women gain more than wisdom as they age, they gain freedom from PMS! They’re called “Golden Years” for a reason right?
If you have a medical condition such as depression, IBS, etc., your symptoms may worsen when you get PMS. 1
- Want some extra bloating and cramps to go with that Crohn's disease?
- How about a side of irritability to go with that anxiety?
- You get the idea.
Some women experience only mild symptoms, while others have more severe experience and may have difficulty carrying on with their regular schedule.
- If you get severe PMS symptoms, you may actually have something called PMDD, which is a diagnosable health condition. We’ll address this condition in a later blog post.
- PMDD affects about five percent of women (which is a lot of people), and we want to make sure to give it proper attention which is why we aren’t addressing it here in this post. 1
How is PMS Diagnosed?
There is no official way to get diagnosed with PMS, but you can talk with your doctor to get their input and help in determining if your bothersome symptoms are caused by PMS. 1, 3
Usually diagnosis goes something like this:
Doctor: “So you think you might have PMS. Why do you think that?”
Patient: I get really tired, bloated, and emotional before my period. I just want to eat everything and ignore everyone!”
Doctor: “Do you feel this way a lot?
Patient: “No, just usually right before my period and during the first part of my period.”
Doctor: “Yeah, it sounds like you’re dealing with some PMS symptoms.”
Of course, this is a very shortened version of a hypothetical conversation, and most doctors are careful to also ask basic health and safety questions like family medical history, gynecological history, depression symptoms, etc.
And…that’s it. No testing or big medical drama necessary for a PMS diagnosis.
Remember though, if you experience debilitating symptoms every month, it could be PMDD. Be sure to be honest and straightforward with your healthcare provider about your symptoms so that they can provide appropriate care, which could include a PMDD diagnosis. 1, 3
What Causes PMS?
The exact cause of PMS is not known, since it’s likely caused by a variety of factors. Here are a few possible causes that researchers have highlighted as being likely culprits for many women: 3
- Hormonal Changes - As a woman moves through her monthly cycle, her hormones change and fluctuate constantly, which affects brain chemistry, and in turn can lead to both physical and emotional symptoms.
- Reduced Serotonin Levels - The end of the luteal phase and beginning of the menstrual phase, when PMS happens, is when serotonin is naturally at its lowest. Some researchers believe that these low serotonin levels are to blame, at least partially, for PMS symptoms.
- Depression - Many people suffer from depression, and many of them are undiagnosed. Since the brain’s chemical state is at its least cheerful during this time of the month, some healthcare professionals believe it can antagonize existing depression symptoms. 3
PMS symptoms generally start to go away a few days into menstruation when a woman’s estrogen levels start rising again. 1 Remember, if it’s not temporary and predictable based on your cycle, then it’s not PMS.
How is PMS Treated?
If your symptoms are minor, your healthcare provider may advise you to take some tylenol or ibuprofen and to avoid salty foods to ease the bloating. 1
If your symptoms are interfering with your life, your doctor may provide prescription medications such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, pain killers, diuretics, or anti-inflammatories to help you cope. 1
Need a laugh break? This calls for some PMS memes. We’re laughing so hard we’re crying…yeah, the tears are from laughing…hehe.
Are There Natural Treatments for PMS?
Most treatments for PMS are natural, yay!
Here are a few tips for ways to reduce PMS naturally:
- Get regular exercise throughout the month to help with depression, concentration and fatigue. 1 Gentle exercise like going for a walk or gentle stretching can be especially helpful during PMS. 4
- Eat a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans, and low in salt, sugar and caffeine. Do this for at least two weeks leading up to your period to help reduce PMS symptoms. 1, 4
- Get plenty of sleep by aiming for about 8 hours per night. 1, 4 Some people need a bit more than this, and others a bit less, but it’s a good place to start. Lack of sleep can exacerbate depression and anxiety symptoms and worsen moodiness overall. 1
- Address your stress with healthy coping techniques such as journaling or venting to a friend. Once you’ve got it out, leave it be and try not to dwell on it. Alternatively you could opt for physical stress relievers such as exercise, massage, or meditation. 1, 4
- Put out the cigarette. One study showed that PMS symptoms are worse among women who smoke, which makes sense when you think about how stressful smoking is for your body. 1
Many women report that dietary supplements are helpful to them in reducing symptoms, and research backs this up, at least partly.
- Calcium and Vitamin B6 supplements have both been found to help with PMS symptoms including cramps, bloating, food cravings, irritability, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. 1, 5
- There is some evidence that Magnesium and Omega-3 supplements could be helpful as well. 1
- Some women report that they successfully treat their PMS symptoms with herbal supplements including Black Cohosh, Vitex, and Evening Primrose Oil. 1
- Wholesome Story carries several products that our customers say are helpful with various PMS symptoms, including Vitex, Zinc, and Spearmint.
When to Get Help
Mild PMS symptoms are normal, but if you find that your PMS is interfering with your life, you should talk with your doctor about ways to improve your experience with your monthly cycle. 4
If you are having PMS symptoms that are interfering with your wellbeing, it’s a good idea to track your symptoms so you can take the information in to show your doctor. This will help them to find the best treatment options for you individually. 4
The Bottom Line
PMS is normal…unless it’s not. If you are experiencing PMS symptoms that make it hard for you to live your normal life, then it’s probably time to get some help. There are many ways you can support your body to reduce your symptoms, including exercise, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and even medication and/or supplements.
Did you learn something new about PMS? Did our post make you feel validated in any way? Find us on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok!
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such as a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
- OASH Staff. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) | Office on Women's Health. https://www.womenshealth.gov/menstrual-cycle/premenstrual-syndrome. Published 2021. Accessed March 2, 2023.
- OASH Staff. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) | Office on Women's Health. https://www.womenshealth.gov/menstrual-cycle/premenstrual-syndrome/premenstrual-dysphoric-disorder-pmdd. Published 2021. Accessed March 2, 2023.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/premenstrual-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20376780. Published February 25, 2022. Accessed March 2, 2023.
- NHS Staff. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS). NHS inform. https://www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/womens-health/girls-and-young-women-puberty-to-around-25/periods-and-menstrual-health/premenstrual-syndrome-pms#:~:text=Although%20PMS%20symptoms%20are%20normal,Cognitive%20Behavioural%20Therapy. Published February 2023. Accessed March 2, 2023.
- New England Women's Healthcare Staff. Myths and facts about PMS. Myths and Facts About PMS: New England Women's Healthcare: OBGYNs. https://www.newh-obgyn.com/blog/myths-and-facts-about-pms. Accessed March 2, 2023.
- All gifs obtained from Gify.com; links for each gif are posted below the respective image.