Periods don't have to suck *that* bad.

By Rachael Schultz and Kylie Gilbert
Updated July 02, 2020
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Between the bloated belly, crippling cramps, and tears surfacing as if you were a rejected Bachelor contestant, PMS often feels like Mother Nature is hitting you with everything in her arsenal. But your uterus isn't entirely at fault for your worst PMS woes—inflammation and hormone fluctuations can be causing your physical and emotional symptoms, too, according to new research.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis looked at data from a national survey of over 3,000 women and found those who had higher levels of an inflammatory marker known as C-reactive protein (CRP) were 26 to 41 percent more likely to suffer from the most common premenstrual symptoms, including mood changes, abdominal cramps, back pain, food cravings, weight gain, bloating, and breast pain. In fact, the only PMS symptom not associated with inflammation was headaches. While this study can't prove which comes first, the inflammation or the symptoms, these findings are still a good thing: They mean that tackling a single offender can potentially help alleviate most of your period pains. (Psst...Here are 10 Foods That Cause Inflammation.)

If you're pain-free but turn into a grouch while Aunt Flo visits, you might be able to blame your mood symptoms on hormonal fluctuations that let certain neurons in our brains talk to one another more easily, according to a study in the journal Trends in Neurosciences. Better communication sounds like a good thing, but it leads to a heightened reaction to stress and negative emotions, the researchers say.

Luckily, science has also discovered new ways to even out your hormone levels and reduce inflammation, which in turn calm your brain, mellow your mood, and hopefully reduce your miserable pain. Here's how to say goodbye to PMS once and for all.

Load up on omega-3s.

Omega-3s boost the number of proteins that alleviate inflammation and simultaneously reduce the proteins that promote inflammation, says Keri Peterson, M.D., a New York-based internist and consultant for digital health platform Zocdoc. Fill your plate with salmon, tuna, walnuts, flaxseed, and olive oil or pop a fish-oil supplement.

Avoid processed foods.

Trans fats, sugar, refined carbs, and gluten-containing foods have been strongly linked to total-body inflammation. And since these and other additives can be difficult to distinguish, your best bet is to opt for as much fresh, unprocessed food as possible. Dr. Peterson recommends focusing on lean proteins, such as fish, as well as fruits and vegetables, which contain protective, inflammation-stopping phytonutrients.

Say om.

Exercise is a great way to counteract stress, thereby decreasing levels of inflammation, says Dr. Peterson. But workouts that focus on deep breathing in particular, such as yoga and Pilates, take the stress-relieving benefits to the next level. (More here: 7 Workouts That Relieve Stress)

Go to bed early.

Getting a solid night's rest—about seven to nine hours—gives your body time to restore from the day's activities and demands. Don't undervalue the downtime; when your body misses out on the daily sleep it needs, you're more susceptible to inflammation, says Dr. Peterson. (See: Why Sleep Is the Most Important Thing for Your Health)

Try acupuncture.

Acupuncture can ease the severity of PMS symptoms, a recent review in Cochrane Library shows. The therapy may reduce inflammation and increase the body's production of its own painkillers, both of which can help ease premenstrual irritability and anxiety , says Mike Armour, Ph.D., one of the study authors. Not a fan of needles? Acupressure works too, he says.

Hit the gym.

Working out releases endorphins, which make you feel happier and less stressed. "That may help counteract the negative effects of PMS," says Jennifer Ashton, M.D., an ob-gyn and the author of The Self-Care Solution.

Women who work out regularly may be less likely to experience PMS, says Karen Duncan, M.D., a professor of obstetrics-gynecology at NYU Langone Health in New York. That's because exercise may help keep hormone levels balanced, research shows. Most studies have looked at aerobic workouts, but Dr. Ashton says yoga and weight training may also have a similar effect. (You get even more mental health benefits from working out.)

Watch your carb intake.

Experiment with cutting back on carbs, especially refined carbs like white bread, pasta, and rice about a week before your period. "Carbohydrates cause sugar spikes that for some women can worsen mood and bloating, two of the most common PMS symptoms," Dr. Ashton says. (This is what you need to know about healthy carbs.)

She suggests eating healthy fats and lean protein instead. Or have some fruit. In one study of young women, those who ate a lot of fruit were 66 percent less likely to develop PMS symptoms compared with those who ate a little, the journal Nutrients reports. Berries, melons, and citrus are high in fiber, antioxidants, and other compounds that may protect against PMS. (More here: How Many Carbs Do You Need to Eat Per Day?)

Try a new treatment.

If your symptoms are intense, consider asking your doctor about hormonal contraceptives, which can keep hormone levels lower overall and more steady all month, Dr. Duncan says. Another option is antidepressant meds, she says. They may keep your neurotransmitters balanced and your mood steady.

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