PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and PMT (premenstrual tension) are one and the same thing. As the name implies, PMS is a term used to describe a group of symptoms that many women usually experience 1-2 weeks before their period starts. The symptoms, which tend to cease as the period starts, are many but the most frequent are mood swings, weight gain, irritability, bloating, constipation, fatigue, breast tenderness, food cravings (particularly sugar) and breast tenderness.
While PMS can be exacerbated by poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, stress and so on, generally its occurrence is a result of underlying hormone imbalances. Dr Marion Gluck (mariongluckclinic.com), an expert in this field, puts it down to an imbalance of oestrogen and progesterone; usually progesterone levels are too low and oestrogen too high. The high levels of oestrogen cause fluid retention, which contributes to breast pain, bloating, headaches and fatigue. Progesterone is a natural diuretic that stops fluid retention as well as being a calming hormone, which helps with mood swings and anxiety. When both hormones are well balanced a woman will experience a normal cycle with no premenstrual symptoms.
The aim of the game is to balance your hormones. You may argue that this is easier said than done but Henrietta Bailey, a nutritional therapist (Puresportsmed.com), advocates that this can be relatively easily achieved via a good intake of specific foods. Her shopping list? Organic foods, seasonal fruit and vegetables plus complex carbohydrates (wholegrains like brown rice, oats and wholemeal bread). Add to this oily foods, including fish, nuts and seeds, as well as phytoestrogens, such as lentils and chickpeas. Aim for a good serving of lean protein at each meal and when you snack.
Bailey's other top tips are to drink plenty of fluids in the form of water and herbal teas, and to try to slowly increase your intake of fibre. As always, avoid additives, preservatives and chemicals eg artificial sweeteners, and limit your intake of caffeine – although a little dark (85%) chocolate is permissible. Do also try to limit your alcohol and sugar consumption.
Bailey recommends you "always be prepared" with a stock of healthy snacks such as nuts and seeds, which aid cramps and also help you to win the battle against those sugar cravings. Ensuring you balance your blood sugar should be an ongoing priority but is especially important in the week prior to and during menstruation.
There are also a wide variety of supplements on the market that aid hormone balance. Victoria Health's Shabir Daya, a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, has narrowed the hefty list of potentials down to four must-have supplements:
1. Swanson ChasteBerry Fruit (£15, victoriahealth.com), works by virtue of it prompting the body to manufacture its own progesterone, allowing it to achieve hormonal balance in around eight weeks.
2. A magnesium supplement such as Nature’s Plus DynoMins Magnesium (£14.95, victoriahealth.com) is recommended as research clearly indicates that magnesium deficiency is a causal factor in many cases of PMS.
3. When there is female hormonal imbalance, the adrenals over-produce cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is responsible for numerous concerns including sleep disturbances, weight gain, stress, anxiety, fatigue and even gastrointestinal distress. Swanson Magnolia Phellodendron Complex (£23.50, victoriahealth.com), contains magnolia extract to relax muscles and nerves as well as helping to reduce cortisol levels in the body.
4. Futurebiotics GlucoActive Cinnamon Extract (£22.50, victoriahealth.com) helps to maintain healthy sugar levels.
But note! If your symptoms fail to subside it's best to consult a doctor, who may prescribe progesterone in the second part of the cycle (days 14-28) or send you for further testing.