Debunking PMS myths and other need-to-know truths about women’s hormones.
You’re happy and feeling in control for two to three weeks and then something shifts. You feel moody, hungry, puffy and tired. Your period is coming and although you’ve been dreading the symptoms, you’re also looking forward to it because soon you’ll be back to your true self again—back in control. A couple of more weeks go by and those dreaded symptoms return. Rinse. Repeat.
If this sounds exhaustingly familiar, you’re not alone; 75% of women report symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS). What many don’t know is that it’s not the menstrual cycle per se controlling their lives—it’s the hormones that guide the menstrual cycle. There are simple steps that can help reduce symptoms by keeping hormones in balance. You can start today.
The first step in playing an active role in hormonal health is to understand the basics.
A normal menstrual cycle is 24 to 35 days long and has two phases: follicular and luteal. In the first phase, estrogen levels rise as the body prepares to release an egg, also known as ovulation. Ovulation marks the start of the second phase, in which progesterone levels rise. When the egg is not fertilized by sperm (and no pregnancy occurs) progesterone and estrogen levels decline—you get your period and the whole cycle starts over.
The intricate rise and fall of estrogen and progesterone, along with a few other key hormones sent from the brain to stimulate ovulation, make each woman’s cycle unique. This careful hormone balance is also the difference between a happy period and an unhappy one. If estrogen levels are too high or too low in phase one, progesterone levels are affected in phase two and vice versa. These slight hormone shifts can have a huge impact in our bodies, causing symptoms that include premenstrual headaches, mood fluctuations, heavy periods, unwanted hair growth, digestive upset and difficulty getting pregnant.
The explanation for such a harsh cause and effect in the body is complex and still under investigation, but here’s what is known:
Estrogen has been shown to boost serotonin, a brain chemical that plays an important role in how we sleep, eat, think and feel. It also stimulates a response to that anti-anxiety brain chemical. So the drop in estrogen that occurs in the second half of the menstrual cycle can help explain some “typical” PMS symptoms like mood changes.
But both estrogen and progesterone help cells respond to insulin, so changes in these hormone levels can trigger fluctuations in blood sugar and lead to cravings, weight gain and fluid retention too! Falling progesterone towards the end of the menstrual cycle has also been linked to these increased symptoms of PMS.
On top of all this is testosterone, a hormone often under-represented in the female health picture, surges around the time of ovulation and before menses. If testosterone levels are too high, a female can experience irregular or absent periods, excessive hair growth, acne and difficulty getting pregnant.
By now you should be thoroughly confused, asking: “If hormone shifts are a natural, necessary part of the cycle, why do they cause all these other problems?”
Well, that’s where you come in. Hormone changes are also a result of disrupting factors like emotional and physical stress, nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar imbalances or environmental factors. It is time to empower yourself.
I treat women with hormonal imbalances in my practice on a daily basis and I am continually amazed by how responsive the body can be to minor changes we introduce through natural treatment methods. Sometimes just one change can correct an imbalance, but usually a combination of diet, lifestyle and supplements is required to support, regulate and truly take control of your system and cycle.
But where to start? Basic blood, urine or salivary testing can tell you what your hormones are doing, but no matter where you land on the hormonal cascade, there’s no reason you can’t start building balance in your body today.
Follow these five simple steps. Then be on the lookout—you should start to feel a difference within a few weeks.
Step 1: Clean up your diet: A healthy daily dose of dark leafy greens and vegetables from the cruciferous family helps eliminate excess hormones in the gut. Think broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale. Cruciferous veggies also contain Indole-3-Carbinol (I3C), an ingredient shown to support the liver’s job of cycling estrogen.
Take it one step further by adding 2 Tbsp of freshly ground flax to your daily diet and limiting sugar, dairy, salt and refined carbs as you eat more healthy proteins and good fats. Think legumes, fish or grass-fed beef and olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. These foods help regulate blood sugar and decrease symptoms of PMS. If you experience breast tenderness, consider cutting back on your caffeine.
Step 2: Take a chill pill: Not actually. Just reduce your stress. Stress can singlehandedly derail your menstrual cycle. The major player in the body’s stress response is cortisol, which spikes when we’re stressing or skimping on sleep. Cortisol can “steal” from progesterone, pushing down those levels and moving the whole cycle out of balance. Estrogen then dominates in the menstrual cycle and contributes to heightened symptoms of PMS due to the more pronounced highs and lows in its levels. Making sleep a priority, doing things that make you laugh, and focusing on deep breathing when it just gets too hectic are simple actions you can take to manage stress.
Step 3: Get moving, keep moving: Exercise regulates blood sugar, decreases inflammation, boosts serotonin levels and supports healthy sleep. Women who do 30 minutes of cardio three times per week improve all PMS parameters. If your testosterone is elevated, exercise can get to the root of the problem by regulating blood sugar and decreasing insulin resistance.
Step 4: Think twice about that familiar can of beans: Try reducing your use of plastic containers and choose fresh instead of canned foods, as most are lined with BPA. Plastics have been shown to contain hormone-altering chemicals like BPA, which can mimic estrogen in the body, as well as phthalates, which are linked to changes in testosterone levels. Medical literature links BPA to everything from breast cancer to reproductive problems.
Step 5: Supplement: Vitamin and mineral supplements support healthy hormone production. B6 plays an integral role in estrogen and progesterone metabolism and helps the brain make serotonin and dopamine. Studies show that magnesium helps regulate cortisol levels, lower blood sugar and aid in sleep. Magnesium is also involved in the production of progesterone, estrogen and testosterone.
Like so much of naturopathic medicine, balanced hormones and a menstrual cycle that you control—not one that controls you—comes down to three elements: One part science, one part common sense and one part self-control. If you are empowered with the right information and the right motivation, you can hold the reins of your menstrual cycle.
Maggie Pattillo, ND is a licensed naturopathic doctor and co-owner of Halifax Naturopathic Health Centre. Her clinical practice is focused on digestive disturbances, women’s health concerns and integrative cancer care.