Cramping, cravings, and exhaustion tend to be expected by women before Aunt Flo’s visit, but more and more experts agree that these symptoms aren’t normal. In fact, some think that what passes for PMS may be a hint that something’s off in your body.
"We often joke about it," says women's health specialist Alisa Vitti, author of WomanCode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Life, and Become a Power Source. "We chalk it up as part of 'being a woman,’ but the reality is that PMS is really a sign of an imbalance between your levels of progesterone and estrogen."
Your Monthly Cycle, Explained
Your menstrual cycle is divided into phases: The first is your actual menstruation. On the first day of your period, your estrogen and progesterone start at rock-bottom levels and rise steadily, which can boost your brain's production of serotonin. Surprisingly, you may find yourself feeling more upbeat, productive, and social than you do any other time of the month.
Week two continues in a similar way (FYI, if you're feeling frisky, go for it—research says sex will never feel better than it does that second week!). It's the third week in your cycle that your hormones take a nosedive and start bouncing all over the place.
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"This is when your estrogren levels are going crazy," says nutrition and fitness expert Mayling Kajiya, C.S.C.S., creator of the all-natural supplement Girl Uninterrupted. "As estrogen decreases, your progesterone levels increase." By the fourth week, your progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone (yes, women have testosterone) all slingshot downward. That's when you start feeling truly crappy—fatigued, cranky, weepy, bloated, and hungry for anything in sight.
What's Normal—and What's Not
Many women experience bloating, headaches, breast tenderness, a decreased sex drive, or acne during "that time of the month," but about 2 to 10 percent of women suffer from severe pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (a severe form of PMS), and about seven percent of women have polycystic ovary system (PCOS), symptoms of which can include very heavy and frequent bleeding, weight gain or trouble losing weight, severe acne, excessive facial hair, thinning hair from the scalp, insulin resistance, and even miscarriages or difficulty becoming pregnant.
The bad news is that some of what you experience is genetic, Kajiya says, so if Mom suffered from severe PMS, you may not be able to ever completely alleviate your symptoms. But both she and Vitti agree that there are a few easy steps you can take to restore the balance among your hormones and improve the overall quality of your health and life.
Get Back in Balance
"PMS is often a sign of unhealthy habits," Kajiya says. "It's not one thing in particular. Everything from your diet to your stress level matters."
Vitti recommends starting by increasing your intake of healthy fats. "Remember that saying, 'like dissolves like?'" she says. "Hormones are stabilized in a fat molecule ring, so increasing your intake of foods with healthy fats like avocados or wild salmon can help alleviate your symptoms."
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Both Vitti and Kajiya say to stay away from soy and dairy products because they contain estrogenic properties, which can worsen PMS. "Keep soy to an extreme minimum," Vitti says. "No more than three servings per week, and ideally, it should be organic or fermented."
Alcohol, processed foods, sugar, and high-glycemic foods can also wreak havoc on your hormones, so make those an occasional treat instead of a daily occurrence. Plus, since PMS technically starts even before your period does, it's important to maintain a healthy, balanced diet all month long (but you already knew that!).
It's also important to try and stress less. We know, we know—easier said than done. But stress and sleep play a big role in regulating your hormones, so if you're up all night worrying about your job or your bills, not only could you have trouble losing weight, but your mood, hormones, and energy level will be thrown out of whack, worsening your PMS.
"The important thing to remember is that feeling crappy for one full week out of the month is not okay," Kajiya says. "You don't have to suffer. You can do something about it, and if you plan ahead, it doesn't have to be such a nightmare."