Nutrition for less PMS
“Everything’s doomed... I need space... It’s too much... This is never going away… I just want to huddle up in front of Netflix and eat my snacks.”
Mood swings are just one of many possible PMS symptoms. During perimenopause, symptoms can get worse. Before covering some of the ways you can use the right nutrition to make life just a little bit easier during PMS, let's brush up on some PMS facts.
What is PMS? If you know - you know
PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is a combination of emotional, physical, and physiological symptoms women experience around five to eleven days before menstruation. PMS affects most women. According to Mayo Clinic, as many as 3 of every 4 menstruating women have experienced it in some form. Some get more physical symptoms, others get more emotional ones. Or it’s a combination of both. Either way, you probably have some PMS stories to share that other woman can relate to.
PMS & Perimenopause
For those approaching menopause, it may be hard to tell whether what you are going through is just PMS or perimenopause. The symptoms can be very similar. The main difference is that menopausal symptoms can happen at any time during the month. PMS symptoms are cyclical and more predictable in nature, usually starting two weeks before your period. Unlike perimenopause where symptoms may arise at any time, PMS symptoms usually stop when your period comes.
During perimenopause, your estrogen and progesterone levels are in flux as your body is transitioning to menopause. This may cause your periods to become irregular. You may get abnormally heavy bleeding, have spotting in between periods, and have shorter cycles. When you skip one or more periods, this may cause an especially heavy period the next month. Because of these irregularities, PMS symptoms can get worse during this time, especially for those who are more sensitive to hormonal changes and have experienced strong PMS before.
What causes PMS? A rollercoaster of hormones
The exact cause of PMS is unknown, but researchers believe PMS starts in the days following ovulation, which happens at about day 14 of a 28-day cycle, due to hormonal changes in your body. If your egg hasn’t been fertilized, estrogen and progesterone levels begin declining after ovulation. In women with PMS, serotonin levels drop as estrogen and progesterone drops. Since this brain chemical acts as a mood stabilizer, the drop is one possible explanation for mood swings or other emotional symptoms during PMS. Serotonin is lowest two weeks before the period.
Here are some of the most common physical and emotional PMS symptoms:
Tender, sore or swollen breasts
Fluid retention (swollen hands and feet)
Feeling tired or dizzy
Skin problems, like getting acne or pimples
Mood swings and crying spells
Feeling sad, depressed, anxious, or tense
Feeling irritable or angry
Not feeling as social
Becoming more forgetful
Having trouble concentrating
Changes in libido
Nutrition tips to ease your PMS Symptoms
Researchers believe a deficiency in certain micronutrients can be a contributing factor to PMS. It has been shown that more women have PMS in populations that have low levels of vitamin B, vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium. Studies also show PMS is lower among women with diets rich in these vitamins or minerals. They are essential for neurotransmitter synthesis and hormonal balance, which are thought to be involved in what causes PMS.
Here’s a list of the essentials that can help ease PMS symptoms and which foods you can eat to get what you need. Although you can take them as supplements, the best way for your body to absorb these nutrients is through a healthy and well-balanced diet. Supplements are not supposed to replace food. Natural and healthy whole foods contain a variety of micronutrients that work together synergistically for your health in a way that supplements don’t. They also contain essential fibers and antioxidants.
1. Eat complex carbs
Helps with: food cravings, mood swings
Yes, you can feast on carbs during PMS to satisfy your cravings. The right carbs. Foods that have complex carbs have more nutrients and keep your blood sugar levels more leveled than simple carbs. Simple carbs contain only one or two sugar molecules, complex carbs have three or more. This means that complex carbs take longer to break down, which is good because they keep your energy levels going for longer. There are many different complex carbs you can eat that are delicious, nutritious and help with PMS.
Complex carbs (polysaccharides)
Whole grains (brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, whole-grain barley)
Buckwheat (a grass)
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn
Beans and legumes (lentils, green peas, kidney beans, blackbeans, chickpeas)
2. Take care of your gut
Helps with: mood swings, depression, anxiety, and other emotional symptoms
The gut, or gastrointestinal tract, has around 100 trillion bacteria, both good and bad. Your gut microbiome handles digestion, helps your body metabolize nutrients, makes vitamins, and makes your gut’s cell wall strong so that it doesn’t start to leak and cause problems. The gut consists of 70% of your immune system. The gut microbiome keeps your immune system healthy.
The health of your gut affects many aspects of your overall health including weight gain and mental health. Your gut is directly connected to your brain in what is called the “gut-brain” axis. There is a two-way communication between the central nervous system and the gut, or the enteric nervous system.
The gut is sensitive to emotions, and the brain can react to disturbances in the gut. This means anxiety, stress and depression can be both the cause and product of your intestinal or stomach distress. An imbalanced gut microbiome can show up as brain fog, anxiety and/or depression.
A healthy gut contains a diversity of good bacteria. Taking probiotics can help to keep your gut microbiome healthy and your digestive system functioning properly because you are feeding your gut with good bacteria. Probiotics can be found in certain foods or can be taken as a supplement.
Fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread)
Cheeses that have been aged but not heated afterward (swiss, provolone, gouda, cheddar, edam, gruyère, cottage cheese)
Prebiotics are also important for gut health. They are plant carbs/fibers that act as food for the bacteria to thrive in your gut. Your body cannot digest them so they go directly to your lower digestive tract.
Garlic, onions, leeks
Barley and oats
Bananas and apples
Chia and flax seeds
Helps with: many symptoms such as bloating, depression, anxiety, insomnia, fluid retention, cravings, breast tenderness
Magnesium is a mineral that is essential for many bodily functions, such as maintaining a healthy brain, heart and keeping your bones strong. Several studies have shown magnesium supplementation to alleviate PMS symptoms in women.
In an Iranian study from 2011, three test groups of women with PMS symptoms were given magnesium, a combination of magnesium and vitamin B6, and a placebo. Magnesium also helped, but the combination of magnesium with vitamin B6 had the greatest effect in alleviating both physical and emotional PMS symptoms such as food cravings, depression, insomnia, fluid retention, anxiety. Magnesium can also help with premenstrual migraines.
Food rich in magnesium:
Nuts and seeds (such as almonds, cashews, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds)
Beans (such as black beans, edamame, lima beans)
Vegetables (spinach, kale, and other leafy greens)
Fruits (bananas, dried figs, avocado, kiwi, papaya)
Berries (blackberries and raspberries)
How much magnesium do you usually need?
A woman between the ages of 19-64 needs 270g a day.
6. Vitamin B6
Helpful for: depression, moodiness, irritability, forgetfulness, bloating and anxiety
Vitamin B6 is an essential vitamin that has many important jobs to keep your body and mind healthy. It helps produce neurotransmitters. It helps regulate hormones. There is a lot of research that backs Vitamin B6 as a great way to alleviate PMS symptoms. Researchers think this is because it helps make neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which can boost your mood during PMS especially if your natural serotonin levels are falling.
Foods rich in vitamin B6:
Tofu and other soy products
How much vitamin B6 do you need?
Adults between the ages of 19-50 are recommended to take 1.3 mg, women over the age of 51 are recommended to take 1.5mg.
Helpful for: bloating, fatigue, low mood, anxiety, water retention, food cravings, pain in the luteal phase
Calcium is a mineral that helps your body build and maintain healthy and strong bones. That’s what most people already know. Maybe you didn’t know that your body also needs calcium for muscle movement, to help blood clotting, maintain normal heart rhythm, and for your nervous system to carry messages from your brain to the rest of your body.
Although it is possible to meet your calcium needs from the diet, it has been shown that it is not uncommon for women with PMS to have a calcium deficiency. A clinical trial from 2017 has shown that supplementing with calcium helped reduce PMS symptoms, and was especially effective in reducing mood disorders.
Your body doesn’t produce calcium by itself, so you can make sure to get enough calcium through your diet.
These foods are good sources of calcium:
Dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt)
Dark green vegetables (kale, broccoli, okra)
Beans and lentils
Sardines and canned salmon
Note: although spinach does contain calcium, a natural compound found in spinach called oxalate may prevent your body from absorbing it
How much calcium do you usually need?
The recommended daily intake of calcium ranges from 1,000mg - 1,300mg per day if you’re an adult over 19. The exact intake depends on your age and sex. Too much calcium, over 1,500mg per day, can lead to stomach pain and diarrhea
8. Vitamin D
Helpful for: absorbing calcium
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that helps to regulate calcium and phosphorus levels in your body. Vitamin D is needed for your body to absorb calcium properly. So it won’t be enough to take just calcium if you are low on Vitamin D.
Sunshine is a natural source of vitamin D, so make sure to get enough exposure. During the winter, especially in countries with less sunlight, it may be a good idea to eat more vitamin-rich foods or take vitamin D supplements. If you are lactose intolerant, vegan or don’t spend much time in such you may be at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency. Too much vitamin D is not beneficial. It’s important to make sure you get the right amount.
Some foods that have Vitamin D include:
Oily fish (salmon, herring, sardines)
Fortified foods (micronutrients such as vitamin D have been added)
Fish live oil supplements are a good source of vitamin D if you don’t eat fish.
How much vitamin D do you usually need?
The amount depends on aspects like age, ethnicity, season, and sun exposure. But on average, the recommended intake is 400-800 IU per day which amounts to 10-20 micrograms. This may be higher if you have a deficiency.
Helpful for: tiredness, breast tenderness, bloating, depression and anxiety
Iron is a mineral that is essential for your body’s growth and development. Iron helps make red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body and also to make certain hormones, for example, serotonin. Making sure you get the right amount of iron is good for boosting your energy and focus, your immune system, gastrointestinal processes, and the regulation of your body temperature.
An American study has shown that upping iron intake can reduce the risk of severe PMS. The study followed around 3,000 women over the course of ten years and showed that a diet with a daily intake of 22mg iron was linked to a 33 percent lower risk of developing PMS during that time compared to women who ate 10mg a day.
Researchers believe the positive effects on PMS have to do with how the mineral affects the production of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin.
Seafood (such as shellfish, mussels, oysters)
Fish (such as tuna, mackerel, and sardines)
Organ meats (liver, kidneys, brain and heart)
Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas, and soybeans)
There are many other lifestyle actions you can take to alleviate your PMS symptoms, such as getting proper sleep and exercise. You can read more about that here.