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PMS. It’s the three-letter abbreviation that’s known to spark discomfort when it’s that time of the month. Although some of us may not experience symptoms as drastically as others, it’s important to remember that PMS can actually have very debilitating effects on those of us that suffer from it the worst, and it can even serve as a tell-tale sign of looming reproductive health. Two experts share their insight on premenstrual syndrome, their tips for alleviating its symptoms such as regulating diet and exercise, when one should consider reaching out to a doctor or specialist, and more.
Necole Kane, Founder and CEO of My Happy Flo
What is PMS?
PMS is technically referred to as premenstrual syndrome, but in short it’s the symptoms that you experience right before your period begins. A lot of women experience bloating, mood swings, cravings, and low energy. And it happens during what is called the luteal phase of your cycle – because technically we have four stages of the menstrual cycle. And the phase right before your period is called the luteal phase.
So, it indeed is something that happens before one’s period – it’s not something that can take place during or occur afterward?
It normally happens before your period. I think periods and PMS get such a bad reputation because when you’re growing up, and if you had an attitude or something like that, the guys would say stuff like “you must be PMS-ing.” So because of that, I think there has been some confusion about if it happens right before your period or if it’s something that happens during your period. But it’s only happening in the weeks right before your period starts – leading up to it.
How can one manage the many symptoms of PMS? And to what extent does diet play a role in its intensity?
Diet plays a huge role. To be quite honest, PMS is not supposed to be a normal part of your period – it’s common – but a lot of symptoms associated with PMS are signs that you may actually have a hormonal imbalance. And most of the time, the hormonal imbalance is that you’re carrying elevated levels of estrogen in your body. They call that estrogen dominance.
And that’s almost a clear sign – when you have those different symptoms of mood swings, depression, and anxiety that are associated around your period time, it’s normally a sign that you have those hormonal imbalances. And so, nutrition plays a huge role in managing and alleviating that. There are things in our diet that cause more intense period symptoms, like caffeine – something that a lot of us entrepreneurs live off of on a daily basis. Red meat and dairy because of the hormones in them. And a lot of processed foods, sugars, and food with high sodium. Those are all things that are not good for your body during your period, they cause inflammation and more intense PMS symptoms.
Are there foods that we can actually switch these things out for? Are there other alternatives to coffee that we should be looking for? Do we need to be eating more fruits and vegetables?
Absolutely! When switching out coffee, you can try matcha. There are different teas that you can try as well – raspberry leaf tea is awesome while you’re on your period. Root tea is great as well. I like to tell people to add more things to their diet because a lot of people simply aren’t getting enough green veggies, and most green vegetables contain a compound called DIM which helps balance your estrogen levels. It’s an ingredient that we have in My Happy Flo’s Plant-Based Period Relief Vitamin, and eighty-six percent of our customers have said that they’ve experienced less cramping over the first cycle that they’ve used the product.
So yes, more green vegetables, more fruits – more of the things that have the nutrients that our bodies need. Because a lot of PMS symptoms are not just due to hormonal imbalances, they’re also due to nutrient deficiencies that cause more intense period pain. So if you’re deficient in Vitamin D, you’re going to experience more symptoms of depression. If you’re deficient in B6, you’re going to experience more mood swings.
Ultimately, a lot of the nutrients that our bodies need, we’re not getting in our everyday diets and that’s what’s manifesting in periods with such heavy pain and intense PMS.
How can we tell if our periods and PMS are drastically affecting our mood and hormones?
I really recommend that women track their periods – and there are different tracking apps that you can use on your phone, or you can be old school and track it in a journal or calendar. But don’t just track the day or the months that it comes, also track your symptoms.
Right after your period is the follicular stage and that’s when you feel like you can conquer the world because your energy is back up. But if we look back on the week before we got our period, we would notice that our energy was lower and we were feeling more fatigued leading up to it. So tracking your period and when you’re experiencing those symptoms can be really helpful in determining which foods to reach for, or stay away from, at different times of the month.
Berrion L. Berry, IHP and Creator of Optimize Your Flo Board
Something that many women are privy to which helps them stay in tune with their menstrual cycle and ultimately alleviate the intensity of PMS is a practice called cycle syncing. Can you explain more about what that is and how it can play an impactful role in managing the symptoms of PMS?
Cycle-synching is aligning all aspects of your life with your menstrual cycle. It’s actually a very ancient practice that has been done for thousands of years and essentially what it does is use one’s menstrual cycle as a guide for what the body needs, and when.
Since there are four phases of your menstrual cycle, your body is actually going to need different things throughout each phase. And when you’re trying to manage PMS or pain of any kind, it’s super important to align your behaviors – whether it’s your nutrition or your workouts – with these different phases because it supports the body rather than overworking the body.
Can you provide more insight into exercise? How can we practice exercise throughout our menstrual cycle without exacerbating the symptoms of PMS?
When it comes to exercise around your menstrual cycle, there are two things that you want to remember: there are going to be two weeks where your body has high energy and two weeks where your body has low energy. So your workouts should really mirror that.
The first phase of the cycle is menstruation and during this time your energy is low because your hormones are in a somewhat of an off position. So when it comes to working out, you’ll want to focus on low intensity and active recovery-related things. As opposed to doing spin classes or HIIT classes. You want to do something that’s going to relax your body, as your hormones are also relaxed.
The second phase of your cycle is the follicular phase, which occurs right after your period but pre-ovulation is where you’ll want to turn up the intensity of your workouts. You’ll want to transition into more power-strength and resistance-related training because your estrogen levels are on the rise and so is your testosterone levels, so you’re going to want to maximize that.
In the third phase of your cycle, which is ovulation, you’ll really want to focus on doing a lot of high-intensity related exercises. During this time there’s a surge in your estrogen levels, as well as your testosterone and another hormone called the luteinizing hormone. If you’re someone who trains at a high level, this is going to be the best time to turn up the intensity. This is when you really weren’t to push the limits because your hormone levels are high enough to support that push.
And then once you’re done with ovulation and you’re in the next phase, the early luteal phase, you’re going to still maintain the exercises that you were doing while you were in the ovulation phase. But once you notice that your PMS symptoms are beginning to start, you’re going to want to turn down the intensity of your workouts and return to the low intensity and active recovery exercises – things like pilates, yoga, etc.
Tracking the days of our menstrual cycle, without using an app, can be a bit confusing. What would you recommend is the easiest way for a woman to start, if she doesn’t have access to an app or would just like to keep things old-fashioned?
The best way to start is to look at some biomarkers. Biomarkers are essentially just biological feedback from the body about where you’re at in your cycle. Specifically, you’re going to use your finger to check your cervix placement, and your cervical mucus, and you’re going to be monitoring your basal body temperature.
To start off, you’re going to check your cervix placement and to do this you’re going to do a knuckle test. When you’re closer to ovulation, your finger will be able to go all the way into your vaginal canal and you’ll be able to feel your cervix, and it’s going to feel like your cupid’s bow. The further you are away from ovulation, you’re going to be able to get your finger in less and less.
Secondly, when you’re currently on your period, that is how you know that you’re in the first phase of your cycle. But let’s say that you just finished your cycle and you’re not too sure about where you’re at now – you can also check your underwear for cervical mucus. To tell when you’re the closest to ovulation, you’re going to want to look for mucus that looks like raw egg whites. It will also be very wet and very stretchy. The further away you are from ovulation, the drier or stickier your discharge will be, or there may not be any at all. Ovulation is almost the main event of the menstrual cycle, so that’s really the phase that you want to look out for.
Lastly, you’ll want to pay attention to your basal body temperature. You’ll notice that after ovulation, your body temperature will increase anywhere from half to one full degree or even two degrees. So there’s a spike post ovulation which confirms that you’ve indeed ovulated.
So let’s say a woman has tracked her menstruation cycle, has been more conscious of her PMS symptoms, has altered her diet, has practiced a healthy exercise routine, but just can’t seem to find relief in her PMS symptoms. When should she consider going to see a doctor or specialist?
She should consider going to see a doctor or specialist the moment that she realizes that she doesn’t feel safe in her body. As an Integrative Health Practitioner, that’s the first thing that I ask my clients. The moment that a woman realizes that she doesn’t feel safe, is the same moment that she needs to seek additional support. I always like to lean towards natural alternatives, but I encourage clients to be cautious with all types of support that they choose to receive.
Many people avoid the fact that trauma is kept in the body, and you could very well be doing all of the right things like eating right, exercising, and cycle synching, but you could be forgetting about dealing with internalized trauma. So I definitely recommend seeking support from a medical authority.
Secondly, if your symptoms are at the point where they are just unbearable – I don’t care what anyone says, periods are normal but your pain should not be. We’re conditioned to believe that we should be in pain but we shouldn’t. That pain is an indication that something is off. If you’re bleeding through your underwear or throwing up because of your cramps and you can’t even think straight because the pain is so intense, then that is a clear sign that you need to speak with a doctor or see an OB/GYN, because that can also be a precursor to fibroids or endometriosis.