Food Choices Control for PMS

Do you experience uncomfortable symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)? Women describe as many as two hundred symptoms: physical, such as acne, backaches, bloating, tender breasts, and headaches; food cravings; and psychological, such as anxiety, irritability, and insomnia.

PMS—a condition, not a disease—starts as many as fourteen days before a woman's period, then stops when menstrual flow starts. Shifts in hormone levels are the likely cause. Because body water fluctuates during the menstrual cycle, your body may retain fluids prior to your period. Fluid retention usually disappears soon after it's over.

PMS gets plenty of attention in women's media, yet there's little consensus on its causes or treatment, and little conclusive research on links between nutrition and its symptoms. Despite claims, no evidence links PMS and nutritional deficiencies. Here's what's known—and unknown—about PMS "headlines."

  • Calcium may help reduce fluid retention and regulate mood-related brain chemicals, but research isn't conclusive. Regardless, there's good reason to boost your calcium intake. Calcium is essential for lifelong bone health, yet most women don't get enough!
  • Phytoestrogens are weak, naturally occurring plant estrogens that may help relieve some PMS symptoms. Science hasn't yet determined how much is adequate, or the interaction between phytoestrogens and other hormones. Still, foods with phytoestrogens such as tofu, tempeh, soy beverage, and many other soy foods are worth enjoying for their potential health benefits.
  • Salt. If you retain a lot of water (five pounds or more) before your period, try cutting down on salt for a week to ten days before your period, or ask your doctor about a diuretic. Research suggests that higher progesterone levels before your period cause your body to excrete sodium naturally. Limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day; for most women there's no need for further limits. Do not limit fluids!
  • What about dietary supplements? Despite anecdotal claims, no conclusive research indicates that vitamin B6, vitamin E, or magnesium alleviate PMS symptoms—and megadoses of vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage. Except for the psychological effect, large doses of other vitamins, herbals, or botanicals such as evening primrose oil don't alleviate the symptoms either, and they may be harmful. For more about supplements, see chapter 23.

Until more is known, general guidelines for good health may help you cope with PMS, if it's a problem. Eat an overall healthful diet. Live an active lifestyle. Relax, learn to alleviate stress, and cope with mood swings. And get plenty of rest.

Physical activity may offer benefits! First, a good workout stimulates the release of brain endorphins, which can help relieve PMS moodiness. Just before your period, endorphin levels are low. Second, if you tend to eat more before your period, exercise can help you keep your weight stable. And third, sweating may help reduce bloating if you retain less fluid.

Consult your doctor if PMS symptoms incapacitate you. Before you attribute ongoing symptoms to PMS, talk to your healthcare provider. Diabetes, pelvic infections, depression, and other health problems may be misdiagnosed as PMS.

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