Meds and just feeling ‘okay’ aren’t your only options when fluctuating hormones bring on unpleasant symptoms associated with PMS and perimenopause. Here’s how a few healthy habits and a touch of Mother Nature can help out…
Our hormones naturally ebb and flow during the day and night, and even hour and minute, but as all women will be more than well aware, there are certain times of the month, and key stages of life, when it can feel like your hormones are going haywire. Whether it’s spiking oestrogen levels pre-period that bring on bloating, bouts of low mood and sore breasts, or oscillating hormone levels during the perimenopausal phase (oh hi there nightly insomnia and hot flushes), hormonal imbalances can induce all sorts of misery, but popping a paracetamol or relying solely on HRT aren’t your only options for feeling better.
While how we experience hormonal highs and lows differs according to our unique genetics, everything from what we eat to lifestyle habits can influence the severity of symptoms and how we cope both emotionally and physically. A few healthy switches can take the edge off of hormonal horror, or even turn it on its head completely, for the short and long-term, and while few of us sail through periods of hormonal upheaval unscathed, it’s comforting to know that we can plan for hormone hassle and take a bit of power back. Here are some expert health and lifestyle ideas for a holistic boost, from a libido enhancing supplement to eating more anti-inflammatory foods.
Choose ‘smart’ carbs
We wouldn’t recommend eliminating carbs from your diet at any point, but peak periods of PMS or the menopause are certainly no time for starch slashing. Just choose complex carbs over the refined kind, as the blood sugar rollercoaster brought on by the likes of biscuits, pizza and sugary snacks will only exacerbate the hormonal turbulence you’re already experiencing. Blood sugar dips and peaks can be a direct cause of symptoms such as hot flushes, as well as contributing to fatigue, low mood and weight gain. If you regularly inhale a croissant at your desk or depend on a Hobnob for a lift, then start by swapping your usual refined options for a few wholegrain alternatives. For example, switch pastries for oatcakes with nut butter, and that packet of sweets for an apple with a small handful of nuts. Sugary drinks and even fruit juices cause the same problems, so gradually switch to healthier alternatives such as fruit-infused water. These changes will help keep your blood sugar stable.
Step away from the coffee machine
Those double shots might not be doing your hormonal balance any favours according to medical herbalist Katie Pande:
"Most of us have plenty of stress in our lives. When we feel tired or drained – often as a result of the stress itself – we reach for coffee to give ourselves an energy boost. But high doses of caffeine and other stimulating substances found in coffee can actually cause our body to make more stress hormones worsening issues such as PMS and further increasing the stress response. That’s one of the reasons we can feel jittery and ‘on edge’ after a strong coffee. It’s sadly a vicious cycle!”
Nutritionist Cassandra Barns has some ideas for breaking said cycle:
“If you are in need of a caffeine boost to get you through the day, green tea does contain some caffeine, but less than coffee. The primary reason that tea is a better choice when we’re stressed is thanks to its L-theanine content, which is virtually unique to the tea plant. L-theanine has been found to have a relaxing effect on the mind, reduce anxiety, and help with focus and concentration. It’s thought to do this by increasing alpha waves in the brain, which are associated with being ‘calm but alert’ – i.e. increasing relaxation without causing drowsiness. Matcha green tea in particular is said to have a high percentage of relaxing theanine. As such, swapping your coffee for a matcha tea or matcha latte in the morning means that you should feel more alert without getting the jitters."
Don’t forgo fats
Sex hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone are made from fats, so make sure you have enough of the healthy kinds for optimal hormonal health. Think olive oil, avocados, oily fish and unsalted nuts and seeds. Omega 3 essential fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines also help to keep inflammation at bay- inflammation can trigger joint aches and pains and can be a factor in painful periods, low mood and weight gain too. Try to eat a serving of oily fish at least three times a week and include some of the other healthy fats daily.
See the (green) light
If there’s one A* nutrient when it comes to women’s health, it’s magnesium. It aids hormone balance, is vital for energy, supports sleep, helps us to cope with stress and aids in maintaining strong bones. Dark green veg such as kale, spinach, watercress, broccoli and cavolo nero are good sources of magnesium, so aim to get two servings a day. You’ll also benefit from a side-order of gut-healthy fibre and bone-protective vitamin K that leafy greens contain. Kale may be a bit of cliché, but you can’t argue with its health credentials.
Fill your plate with phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are natural plant compounds that have a weak oestrogen-like effect in the body. They’re found in most plant foods including vegetables, but the best sources are beans, lentils, chickpeas and flaxseeds. Phytoestrogens can help to readdress hormonal balance when natural oestrogen levels decline and may be quite the balm for alleviating hot flushes, both during PMS and the menopause. Experiment with lentils, beans and chickpeas in warming stews, soups and homemade curries. As for flaxseeds, buy them ground (or grind your own if you’re feeling conscientious) to get the most benefits – add a tablespoon to porridge, muesli or natural yoghurt.
Wean yourself off wine
Or at least cut back on the quaffing. As much as a glass of Pinot or a G&T at the end of the day can feel like manna from heaven, alcohol can wreak all sorts of havoc on hormones. It upsets blood sugar balance, and can trigger or worsen hot flushes and night sweats. It can also deplete nutrients from the body, including hormone-regulating and energy boosting B vitamins. Obviously alcohol negatively affects our liver, which has to be in top form to keep us well across the board, from fighting infection to releasing bile to break down fat. Our bodies all cope differently with alcohol, but a good guideline is to stick to no more than one glass a day, and have two or three alcohol-free days every week.
Say hello to organic herbs and seek out shatavari
Say what? This one might seem a bit leftfield, but if you’re never encountered the Ayurvedic herb shatavari now’s the time to get it on your radar. If it helps to pique your interest, its name translates as ‘the woman who has 100 husbands’, roughly thanks to the fact that it traditionally acts as a ‘tonic’ to rev up libido, although it’s got a lot more going for it than sex drive enhancement and alleviating the vaginal dryness associated with a hormonal imbalance. An adaptogenic root (meaning that it helps the body ‘adapt’ to external stressors), shatavari has been used by women in India for centuries to restore hormone balance throughout the menstrual cycle, during pregnancy and during and after the menopause. Pukka’s new Womankind range is based on the shatavari herb, with a unique natural chemical-free extraction process to preserve the natural active compounds, making it both highly bio-available, free from any fillers, binders, suitable for vegans and certified organic by the Soil Association.
Medical herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner and co-founder of Pukka Sebastian Pole formulated the Womankind collection to support women’s health and hormonal fluctuations throughout every stage of life. Wholistic™ Shatavari , £16.96, is suitable for women of all ages, while Womankind , £16.96, is particularly helpful when you’re enduring a PMS rough patch or heavy periods, thanks to its energising and hormone regulating B vitamins, anti-inflammatory turmeric root and of course the hero herb shatavari. In an online intervention survey of 90 women taking two Womankind supplement capsules per day, 40 per cent reported an improvement in PMS symptoms over three months, which while anecdotal, is encouraging for anyone plagued by heavy cramps, foggy heads and all of the other delightful menstrual cycle side effects
For women 45+, Womankind Menopause , £16.96 comes into its own to reduce fatigue (cheers B vits), with added sage and aloe vera to cool and calm and vitamin D for healthy bones (plummeting oestrogen can make bones more brittle). Pomegranate acts as a phytoestrogen, while ashwagandha chips in with extra adaptogenic prowess.
If you’re trying for a baby or expecting you can also benefit from a balancing shatavari blend, Motherkind Pregnancy , £19.95, which supports conception and fertility by way of shatavari with folate, essential for foetal health, vitamin B6 and D and key mineral zinc.
To wind up the supplement stash, Womankind Cranberry Cool , £15.95, is a soothing supplement to have in the cupboard should cystitis strike. Combining antiseptic cranberry with 48 per cent of your RDA of vitamin C for immune defence, plus anti-inflammatory aloe vera and antimicrobial fennel, it’ll help to support your body through infection.
Drinking enough water (1.5-2 litres a day) will help you to feel as energetic as possible while also minimising headaches. Spice your daily intake up with fruit, or try herbal teas for caffeine-free vitality. Pukka’s women’s tea range brings shatavari to life in a different way, and there’s a blend for pregnant and new mothers as well as the cranberry, vanilla and rose infused Womankind , £1.99, which is light, sweet and suitable for all. When you are drinking plain old tap water, consider investing in a reverse osmosis water filter to remove potentially disruptive hormones.
Cassandra also advocates avoiding drinking water (and eating food for that matter) from plastic bottles and containers, as bisphenol-A (BPA), found in many plastics and cling film can mimic oestrogen in the body, making oestrogen dominance and hormonal imbalance all the more likely. Go for reusable stainless steelm or glass where you can, or even a sustainable bamboo cup if you're feeling exotic. In the case of plastic bottles in particular, you’ll be doing your bit for the environment too. Told you this was a holistic hormonal approach...
Shop the Pukka Womankind range here
This feature was written in partnership with Pukka