Treat Premenstrual Symptoms Naturally With Food Swaps
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a very common condition that affects up to 85% of women in North America.1 Over 150 different symptoms have been attributed to PMS, but the most common include mood swings, anxiety, irritability, breast tenderness, bloating, headaches and food cravings. From a few extra pimples to crying over a litre of ice cream, many people consider PMS to be a "normal" part of being a woman. This couldn’t be further from the truth! You don't need to suffer with uncomfortable menstrual symptoms, changing moods, and pain. Just think for a second – say you experience PMS symptoms for the 7 days leading up to your period; this means spending a whopping 25% of your (menstruating) life with PMS. No thanks!
As a naturopathic doctor, I always try to look for the root cause of your symptoms. For PMS, that could mean investigating hormone levels, nutrient deficiencies, liver health, inflammation, or neurotransmitter balance. No matter what we determine to be the root cause(s) of your PMS, dietary changes can be a powerful tool to help the body return to health. Fortunately, more clinical studies are now connecting the dots between nutrition, diet and PMS symptoms.2 The following food swaps can dramatically improve the severity of your PMS and bring quick relief, even for long standing symptoms.
Ditch dairy products for magnesium-rich foods
Dairy can be one of the biggest offenders for PMS and painful periods. These products can increase inflammation in the body and can contribute to hormone imbalances. For those of you with known dairy sensitivities, this can be an even bigger problem. Limiting your dairy intake to just a few servings per week – especially in the two weeks leading up to your period – can reduce several of the symptoms associated with PMS, including anxiety and irritability.3 Many women find that their premenstrual pimples or acne also improves with the reduction of dairy products.
Instead of indulging in ice cream, opt for magnesium-rich foods! Most women have low magnesium levels and this can lead to a worsening of PMS symptoms such as mood swings, cramping, bloating, breast pain, anxiety and others.3 Foods high in magnesium include dark leafy greens, nuts (such as almonds), seeds (chia, hemp, or flax), beans, and avocados. Some studies report that the magnesium content in our soil is largely depleted and that we no longer get adequate magnesium through our foods. In this case, a good quality magnesium supplement may be the way to go for some. As always, it’s important to check with your health professional before adding any new supplements to your regime.
Switch sugar and refined carbs for fibre
Sugar and refined carbohydrates (think white breads, donuts, muffins, cookies, etc.) are common cravings during the PMS window. Unfortunately, these items can create a vicious cycle where our cravings are actually causing more symptoms! These foods are not only inflammatory, but will spike your blood sugar resulting in mood swings and more food cravings. They can also lead to water retention, bloating and breast tenderness.
Introducing more fibre into your diet, on the other hand, is a great way to help balance hormones and prevent PMS. Fibre binds to excess hormones in the body and helps excrete them by encouraging regular bowel movements. My favourite way to increase fibre in the diet is by adding 1-2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds into smoothies, salads, or cereals. Flax seeds contain additional anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, which have other beneficial effects beyond PMS such as heart health and brain function. Fibre also helps to increase satiety (feeling full) and balances blood sugar, which can help combat food cravings and mood swings. Other great sources of fibre are fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains.
Trade alcohol and coffee for liver-loving veggies
Caffeine and alcohol can worsen PMS symptoms like anxiety, irritability, breast tenderness, and fluid retention. Alcohol use contributes to blood sugar fluctuations, which can worsen mood swings, energy levels, and food cravings. Alcohol can also affect the health of our livers, our primary detox organ responsible for hormone metabolism and balancing. Studies have shown that as little as two alcoholic drinks can cause an increase in estrogen levels, further promoting hormonal imbalances and symptoms of PMS.4 Caffeine also affects our blood sugar, stress hormones, and liver health, and can cause a worsening of symptoms like water retention, bloating, headaches, increased stress and poor sleep. Many women also find that reducing their caffeine intake dramatically improves premenstrual breast tenderness and swelling.
To support your liver instead of straining it, focus on getting loads of leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, and others. These vegetables are fabulous in helping balance hormone levels and supporting liver function. They contain a compound called indole-3-carbinol (I3C) that helps to metabolize estrogen and balance hormones. I3C has been studied for its beneficial effects in other hormonal conditions such as fibroids, endometriosis, and breast cancer.5 These veggies also contain high amounts of vitamin Bs, which are essential for hormone balancing and mood support in addition to liver health.
One important fact to remember is that if you have a hypothyroid condition, large amounts of raw brassica vegetables may further impair thyroid function, so make sure you lightly steam or cook them.
Five diet steps to help PMS
- Reduce dairy, refined sugar, alcohol and caffeine (especially in the 2 weeks leading up to your period).
- Include quality sources of fibre in your diet, such as ground flax seeds, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Increase your fresh vegetable intake with special attention to the cruciferous family.
- Include magnesium-rich foods in your diet or supplement with magnesium if appropriate.
- Last but not least, don’t lie down and just take PMS symptoms! If these dietary changes don’t bring you results, find a qualified health professional in your area that can help.
*Originally published June 16, 2016
1. Dickerson LM, Mazyck PJ, Hunter MH. Premenstrual Syndrome. Am Fam Physician. 2003 Apr 15;67(8):1743-1752.
2. Cheng SH, Shih CC, Yang YK, Chen KT, Chang YH, Yang YC. Factors associated with premenstrual syndrome - a survey of new female university students. Kaohsiung J Med Sci. 2013 Feb;29(2):100-5. doi: 10.1016/j.kjms.2012.08.017. Epub 2013 Jan 3.
3. Hudson T. 1999. Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Contemporary Publishing Group Inc. Lincolnwood Illinois.
4. Saeedian Kia A, Amani R, Cheraghian B. The Association between the Risk of Premenstrual Syndrome and Vitamin D, Calcium, and Magnesium Status among University Students: A Case Control Study. Health Promot Perspect. 2015 Oct 25;5(3):225-30. doi: 10.15171/hpp.2015.027.
5. Frydenberg H, Flote VG, Larsson IM, Barrett ES, Furberg AS, Ursin G, Wilsgaard T , Ellison PT, McTiernan A, Hjartåker A, Jasienska G. Alcohol consumption, endogenous estrogen and mammographic density among premenopausal women. Breast Cancer Res. 2015 Aug 7;17:103. doi: 10.1186/s13058-015-0620-1.