Your Menstrual Cycle & Embracing Your Femininity
Our female hormones, mainly oestrogen and progesterone, define us as women. They give us our female characteristics: softer skin, rounder, gentler facial features, breasts, ability to have children and so on. Yet, these very same beautiful feminine hormones can make us irritable, depressed, angry, impatient, and bloated - affecting our physical and mental well being, as well as the people around us.
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) is not a single or simple pattern of symptoms. The symptoms we experience are a result of disruption to our emotional and physical well being that occurs during the luteal phase (just after ovulation) of our menstrual cycle. This disruption is caused by fluctuations in oestrogen and progesterone, which is a very delicate orchestral balance and when some notes are off the cascade effect on our wellbeing can be significant, depending on how many notes go out of tune!
PMS symptoms are unique to the individual and so will vary from person to person (we are all unique amazing beings), but can include anxiety, depression, unexplained sadness, fatigue, sleep issues, gut issues, hot flushes, cravings, water retention, headaches, and muscle cramps.
Some PMS symptoms, such as irritability, are linked to high oestrogen and lower then normal levels of progesterone, and some to low oestrogen such as depression.
This pattern of high oestrogen - low progesterone is usually referred to as ‘oestrogen dominance’.
Our genes can also affect how our bodies handle those hormone, making some individuals more prone to experiencing PMS symptoms, or even developing hormonal conditions, such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis.
Often psychological symptoms occur as a result of hormonal changes that impact our production of neurotransmitters (brain chemical) responsible for helping us feel good, as well as being a result of other metabolic changes such as insulin resistance, low cortisol, disruption to the circadian rhythm (affecting serotonin and melatonin levels), changes in electrolyte balance, and more.
So you see, the health and balance of our sex hormones can significantly impact our psychological and physical wellbeing, and the good news is there is so much we can do to support our hormones through nutrition and lifestyle habits.
Some common underlying causes of worsening of PMS symptoms are:
This has been shown to be increased in women who experience PMS and it can be driven by factors such as excess weight, excessive dairy intake, alcohol, sugar, and processed food, a low consumption of omega 3 fats, disrupted sleep or insomnia, and pre-existing inflammatory conditions such as autoimmunity and allergies.
This is particularly associated with PCOS and insulin resistance, and is often linked to the angry/irritable type of PMS symptoms!
High exposure to ‘xenoestrogens’.
These are chemicals found in the environment that can ‘mimic’ oestrogen in the body, disturbing our natural hormonal balance. They are released into our food, tap water, and environment from medications such as the oral contraceptive pill and hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Other sources include bisphenol-A (BPA) from plastic, mercury from dental amalgams/fillings, topical synthetic products that contain parabens and other synthetic substances and chemicals (e.g. skin creams, shower gels, etc.), and household cleaning products.
Low intake of nutrients needed for hormone metabolism, namely magnesium, folate, B12, and zinc.
Chronic stress and high intake of stimulants like caffeine can increase the production of more potent types of oestrogen, and also decrease our ability to detoxify them effectively.
So how can you start to naturally support yourself?
Track your menstrual cycle!
I use an app called The Flow but there are lots of them out there. Tracking your cycle can help you identify whether your symptoms are worse during the follicular or luteal phase, so you can prepare for them and also start to build your work, social life, and exercise around them making life so much more enjoyable and effective!
Support oestrogen metabolism with magnesium, zinc, methylfolate, B6, and methylcobalamin (B12).
Increase your intake of green leafy vegetables (including broccoli and cauliflower), nuts and seeds, good fats and oily fish. Magnesium supplementation (at least 200mg/day) and vitamin B6 (up to 100mg a day) can be effective for improving PMS. Just ensure you use quality products and don’t waste your money on the cheap stuff ;)
Include sulforous vegetables daily as these contain active chemicals such as sulforaphane and indole-3 carbinol (found in broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower) can promote oestrogen breakdown and can have anti-inflammatory properties.
Taking a good multivitamin with good levels (and the most active forms of) of the above nutrients may be an easy and effective way to increase your nutrient status and support your hormones and metabolism.
Manage your cravings. Rather than reaching for chocolate bars or biscuits, try a healthy and nutritious alternative. Some good examples include oatcakes with almond butter and a slice of banana on each, chocolate avocado mousse, some dark chocolate and a handful of nuts. Don’t completely deprive yourself! As you’ll only make the cravings worse, but you can make smarter choices and avoid bingeing if you plan some healthier sweet alternatives. Protein is key for preventing/reducing cravings. If you feel more hungry than usual, increase your intake of slow-release carbohydrate, e.g. sweet potatoes and other root vegetables, quinoa, wild rice during those days versus going without and soon enough caving into a big bag of crisps or whole loaf of bread!
Boost your mood by boosting your serotonin and dopamine levels with gentle exercise, going for a walk, engaging in your favourite hobby and socialising. Increase your intake of tryptophan and B6 rich foods (e.g. turkey, spirulina, legumes).
Go organic (as much as is possible for YOU) not only with your food but also cosmetics and make-up to reduce your exposure to harmful, oestrogen-like chemicals
PMS and other hormonal problems are very common and often debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Some simple nutrition and lifestyle changes can make the biggest of differences.
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