You’re feeling so bloated. You can’t stop thinking about eating chocolate and pretty much everything in sight. You are crying over the fact that Starbucks made your low-fat soy milk latte wrong. You just want to be left alone…. What is going on?

Food cravings, irritability, fatigue… These symptoms are considered “typical” or common occurrences prior to a women’s period, and are in fact known as PMS, or Premenstrual syndrome. PMS is not a well-defined term, but essentially refers to a wide range of symptoms that occur 1-2 weeks before menstruation, and diminish 1-2 days after the period starts.

The most common symptoms include (1):

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Food cravings
  • Increased appetite
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Poor judgement
  • Poor self-image
  • Feelings of doubt or increased fears
  • Breast tenderness
  • Fluid retention

Do any of these sound familiar? If you can resonate with this list, you aren’t alone! More than 1 in 3 women will experience at least one of these symptoms during their menstrual cycle, and approximately 1 in 20 will suffer severe symptoms that disrupt their daily routine and quality of life (2).

The criteria for diagnosis of PMS includes experiencing moderate to severe symptoms for more than 2 consecutive menstrual cycles. It is thought that women with clinically significant PMS are hypersensitive to the normal hormonal changes that occur during the menstrual cycle (3,4).

Unfortunately, the causes of PMS are not well known. Likewise, there is no clear cure. But there is hope! Are you aware that your nutrition and diet choices can help to reduce the severity of symptoms prior to your period?

Although it is unlikely to be free of any symptoms as your hormone levels fluctuate in preparation for your menstrual phase (aka period), making some changes may help to make this time of the month much more tolerable.

Make Sure You Are Getting These Key Nutrients

Iron

Iron may play a role in PMS, particularly the mood-related symptoms (5). Prior to menstruation, shifting levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease the amount of serotonin, or happy hormone, in the brain. This can affect your mood and trigger depression, anxiety or irritability. Iron is involved in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, so having adequate levels may help to lessen this effects and help keep mood stable and elevated.

Iron-rich foods: beef, oysters, turkey, chicken, legumes, cashews, dark green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals and breads, pumpkin seeds, tofu, dark chocolate

B-Vitamins

B-vitamins (thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, folate, B12, B6), all play a role in the development of various neurotransmitters that affect our mood (6). Evidence suggests that low-intake of B-vitamins may contribute to mood-related symptoms of PMS such as irritability, anxiety, depression (6). Ensuring adequate intake of these nutrients may help reduce PMS symptoms.

Vitamin B-6: meat, fish, whole grains, avocados, bananas, peanuts, soybeans

Vitamin B-12: meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nutritional yeast

Riboflavin: fortified cereals, almonds, whole grains, mushrooms, eggs, dark green vegetables, dairy products

Niacin: turkey, chicken, peanuts, tuna, oatmeal, cheese, organ meats, fish (tuna, salmon, trout), tempeh, beans, pumpkin seeds

Thiamine: fortified breakfast cereals, enriched breads and pasta, green peas, lima beams, soy milk, mussels, pickerel, salmon, tuna, beans, lentils, nuts & seeds

Calcium & Vitamin D

Some studies suggest that low intake of calcium and vitamin D can lead to increased severity of PMS symptoms such as mood changes and fluid retention (7, 12). The relationship is not exactly clear, but it may be due to the role that these nutrients play in accordance with estrogen and bone health (6). Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium, so making sure you are getting enough from food or sunshine daily is critical. If you spend much of your time indoors, you may want to consider a Vitamin D supplement.

Calcium rich-foods: seeds (poppy, sesame, chia), sardines and canned salmon, almonds, whey protein, collards, kale, tofu, amaranth

Vitamin-D sources: fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, trout), fortified milk products, eggs, fortified orange juice

Magnesium

Studies of magnesium supplements have shown that they may help with reducing the symptoms associated with fluid retention in the body such as bloating and puffiness (11). In addition, reduced magnesium levels have been linked with depression (8,9), as well as headaches and migraines (10). However, before you reach for a supplement, focus on intake from food first.

Magnesium-rich foods: spinach, swiss chard, tempeh, beans, quinoa, nuts & seeds, salmon, mackerel

Water Intake

Like many of these tips, hydration should be your focus at all times of the month, not just before your cycle starts. Proper hydration has many benefits including better digestion, reduced headaches, skin health, and may even help with fluid retention. Aim for 1L per 50 pounds of body weight, and add an extra 500 mL for every hour that you are active in the day.

Fluid includes water, milk, juice and decaffeinated coffee & tea. Try to limit juices as they are high in sugars, and focus on water and herbal teas for hydration.

Watch the Salt

Dropping levels of progesterone prior to your menses may increase your cravings for higher calorie and high fat foods, but instead of reaching for that hamburger and fries, consider choosing healthier options lower in sodium.

Sodium restriction, or limiting high sodium foods (like deli meats, soy sauce, condiments, packaged foods) can help to reduce the fluid restriction that commonly occurs in the 1-2 weeks before a woman’s period. This can help reduce bloating, breast tenderness and swelling.

Caffeine

Caffeine intake has been shown to worsen symptoms of PMS such as anxiety, poor sleep and irritability, as it can increase the body’s level of cortisol, a stress hormone. Caution the amount of caffeine you consume, avoid energy drinks, and try to stick to 1-2 cups per day of coffee or caffeinated tea, at least 6 hours before bedtime.

Caution Sugar

We often crave carbs (sugary foods, bread, pasta) before our period starts – but why? Prior to our periods, our body experiences a dip in serotonin due to fluctuating hormone levels. To boost our levels of serotonin, we crave carbohydrates because they provide tryptophan, an amino acid that is the precursor to this happy hormone.

However, choosing white, refined carbs and sugary foods like white bread, pasta, and desserts can lead to blood sugars spiking and dropping, causing a surge of insulin which leads to increased fluid retention as well as disrupted mood (6). Instead, reach for whole grains and high fiber foods, and try to limit or avoid refined carbohydrates. 

Exercise

Although symptoms like cramping, bloating, digestive issues may make us feel like working out is the last thing we want to do, it is important to keep moving! Exercise helps to improve our mood by releasing endorphins, and lowering our cortisol (stress) levels, and can help improve digestion as well. The benefits of exercise are endless.

Need help getting started with your workout routine? We are happy to help! Set a free consultation with Build My Body Beautiful’s team of experienced certified personal trainers in our downtown Toronto fitness studio.

Bottom Line

There is evidence to show that certain nutrient deficiencies, inadequate fluid intake, and less than optimal food choices may contribute to experiencing one or many of the symptoms of PMS. Although not a definite cure, making lifestyle and diet changes is definitely the first-line of treatment for PMS.

Taking into action some or a few of these recommendations may help you enjoy, rather than dread your monthly cycle. After all, we should celebrate being women and all the wonders that come along with it!

If you have any concerns about nutrients discussed in this article and are considering supplementation, speak to your primary physician or book an appointment with our Sports Dietitian in Toronto to find out if a supplement is necessary for you.