How A Healthy Lifestyle Helped Alleviate My PMS

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I'm a sane, rational human being three weeks out of every month. But that one week--and boy, do those around me know when that one week is--each month, I morph into a beast. Incessant cravings, mood swings, fatigue and mild depression--it's no fun at all.

Though people think it's funny to blame emotional outbursts from a female* on PMS, it's no fun for any woman who deals with it each month.

According to Harvard Medical School, 75% of all menstruating women experience premenstrual discomfort in some form, though only about 3% to 8% of those women have symptoms that are severe enough to disrupt their lives. If you're in that symptom-free 25%, consider yourself lucky. I'm in that smaller subset.

Since adolescence, I've been plagued by mood swings, depression and cravings just before "that time of the month." My symptoms were worse in my early 20s, and I've found that the older I get, the more I am able to control my body. (I actually was diagnosed with PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a few years ago but seem to have outgrown the more severe symptoms.)

I eat vegetables like they're going out of style, won't touch white bread and limit my intake of sweets. However, I start raging for anything processed, sugary and salty at the same time each month. I'm strong and healthy enough now that I can usually resist them or make smart substitutes (a homemade vegetable pizza, portion-controlled squares of really dark chocolate and baked kettle chips). Still I do have my moments of weakness.

Just before I started my healthy living journey back in 2005, my symptoms were at their worst. I felt like a giant raw ball of emotions, cried for one week every month and snapped at even the smallest comments. I was miserable, and I wasn't a pleasure to be around.

I didn't know it at the time, but exercising regularly, eating right and practicing yoga--all steps I was taking to lose the 40 pounds I put on during and after college--were all helping alleviate my PMS symptoms as well.

Researchers say that lifestyle can heavily influence a woman's premenstrual symptoms. If you're healthier and happier in general, you'll likely feel better the week before your cycle begins, too.

According to Harvard researchers:

"Several theories have been proposed to explain why PMS occurs. The most popular explanation for PMS is that these symptoms are related to cyclic changes in female sex hormones, pituitary hormones, prostaglandins and certain brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Some researchers have suggested that PMS may be related to abnormally low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), abnormally low levels of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) or a diet low in B vitamins, calcium or magnesium. However, recent studies do not support these theories. Preliminary studies indicate that magnesium deficiency could play a role."

I'm not a doctor of course, just a health writer and a yoga teacher, so please consult with your health-care provider if you have concerns about PMS. These are just anecdotal observations of what has worked for me.

I stick with my "normal" diet all month long. I give myself one "cheat" night to give in to cravings. For me, that's usually a dinner that involves something cheesy and delicious (the aforementioned homemade pizza, lasagna or creamy pasta are frequent cravings), but I try to include an extra serving of vegetables to balance it out. I allow myself some dark chocolate coconut milk ice cream (I can't eat the real stuff) or a couple of squares of good dark chocolate. And if I want seconds on something, I let myself, even if I know I'm not actually hungry. I don't excessively overeat, but I definitely let myself eat more than I usually would.

The next day, it's back to life as usual.

In addition, I take a calcium and magnesium supplement daily, avoid caffeine (it induces panic attacks in me, even in small doses) and limit my alcohol intake. Though it's tempting to pour myself a second (or third) glass of red wine at dinner, I fight the urge. I know it will only make me feel worse and won't really help me get over my slump.

I try to get in a really good workout, even if I'm feeling blue. Though my mind tells me that I want to mope around the house and lie on the couch with my hand in a bag of potato chips, my mind knows better. A Spinning class, yoga session or even a quick run helps my body to snap out of my funk.

It hasn't been easy to keep myself one step ahead of the mood swings and crankiness, but I've done it. It's just one of my many motivations to eat right and stay in shape.

Here are some of SparkPeople Dietitian Becky Hand's tips for eating to beat PMS:

  1. Enjoy 4-6 smaller meals throughout the day to reduce bloating and feelings of fullness.

  2. Limit your consumption of salty foods and sodium to reduce fluid retention and bloating. Use your Nutrition Tracker to monitor sodium intake, aiming for 2,400 milligrams or less each day.

  3. Select foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, such as whole grains, brown rice, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and lentils. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, these foods may improve mood and reduce cravings.

  4. Limit your intake of highly refined and processed carbohydrates such as chips, crackers, and snack foods. These foods can trigger overeating and upset your digestive system.

  5. Limit the amount of sweets (candy, cake, cookies, breakfast pastries, pie, jams, jellies, and soda) in your diet. These can cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugar that contribute to moodiness and irritability.

  6. Choose calcium rich foods and get at least 1,000-1,200 milligrams daily. Calcium is a key nutrient for women anyway, but it has also been shown to ease depression, moodiness, water retention and PMS pain. For more ways to boost calcium intake check out these dairy-free sources.

  7. Avoid or limit caffeine consumption to decrease feelings of tension, anxiety, and irritability prevent breast tenderness.

  8. Avoid alcohol to help with feelings of depression and moodiness. One study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology also found that regular alcohol consumption increased length of and severity of cramps in women who experience cramps during PMS.

  9. Discuss with your doctor the benefits of taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement.

* Did you know? "Hysterical" and "hysteria" stem from the Greek and Latin words for "womb"? Though we now use the words to refer to unmanageable fear and emotional excess, the word was coined because the Greeks believed hysteria was unique to women and caused by the uterus.

Do you suffer from PMS? How do you cope with the symptoms? Do you have cravings during a certain time of the month? Do you fight them or give in with healthier options? (I just learned that there's a SparkTeam called PMS--Premenstrual Munchy Survivors. Maybe I should join that Team!

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LOSER05 6/27/2020
thanks Report
CECELW 1/7/2020
I am so glad I am not alone with this kind of struggle Report
ANHELIC 12/27/2019
Thank you Report
ANHELIC 12/27/2019
Thank you Report
Great info Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
I used to have severe abdominal cramps each time my period came, but ever since I started eating healthy and exercising regularly, I no longer have abdominal cramps. A healthy lifestyle does pay off well! Report
Since I started the Sparkpeople diet my cramps are gone... unfortunately I still experience the cravings and moodiness, but still the cramps being gone has helped a lot. This was a great blog! Report
I've found since I workout more and eat better my pms is not as severe and my actual TOM is a breeze. Report
oh my gosh this is the worst for me. I crave sugar (candy, cookies, chocolate, icecream) salty (chips, cheese doodles) pasta, cream sauce. anything and everything i can get my hands on. Not to mention no matter what i eat within an hour I am ravenously hungy again. coupled with being emotional, reallly tired and lazy. this time of the month makes me hate being a girl. Report
I crave carbs, but that's the only symptom I get. Luckily the only time I've ever had cramps was my very first two cycles and labor. If I get irritable or moody, I don't notice it and no one has ever said anything to me about it... I must be one of those 25% range. Report
Ouch! I can relate. But tough one on limiting salty foods because that's what I usually crave.
Really cool blog!
TX Report
I can relate to that one week a month where may family hunkers down to wait for the 3 weeks of calm! I have been back to more healthy habits now for just about a month and already notice an improvement. The worst part about the PMS for me is the migraine - without fail, it caps off days of irritability, mood swings, amotivation - just general blah followed by a pounding headache with visual disturbances. This month, it was milder and so I'm really hoping the improved diet and exercise may help keep those at bay. I appreciate the dietary suggestions particularly in this blog - thanks. Report
Thanks Stephanie, Great article!! I suffer from awful PMS and have learned a lot of coping techniques many of which you mentioned here. I do okay most months but then there are the ones that still surprise even me. Report
I'm lucky, I've never had PMS, but my daughter does. Report
I consider myself lucky for I don't suffer PMS, however, I crave salty snacks during my time. I give in to eat Ruffles! Chocolates used to rule my life, but I have cut down on sugary stuff. I get sugar free ice cream though so I eat it like there is no tomorrow during my time, too. I know that is not a good idea, but hey, let us suffer in our way and enjoy our treats in secret. ;-) Report
Every month, just before my period, I get insatiably hungry and start craving fatty foods, something I don't eat the rest of the month. I try to ignore it, but usually end up giving in and buy something deep fried or wrapped in pastry, or both. When the event arrives I only want to eat chocolate and fatty, salty snack foods. This lasts for 3-4 days and, while I do try to resist, my resolve weakens and I go off the deep end for a while.

I have tried all the tips and tricks that are recommended to avoid the cravings - eating wholegrains, leafy salads, etc. - but it doesn't seem to work for me. I console myself with the fact that it's a short-lived phenomenon and that I'll get back on track in a few days' time. Report
I definitely want to curl up in my chair with a bag of chips or something else terrible, those awful cravings are what lets me know what's coming! I'll have to keep this in mind, it might keep me exercising on a night when I don't "feel up for it" otherwise! Report
i definitely get symptoms!
its not that i get more hungry, but i just want food-constantly!!
i also get sad/upset easier & feel lonely more which is lame
as long as i remind myself i'm pms-ing and this is why, i can usually control the cravings & moods.. Report
I'm just now getting to the end of my menopausal period, but I'm certain that when i was swimming regularly, cramps and other physical symptoms were considerably less noticeable. The regular exercise really made a difference. Report
I still have the moodiness, and mild cravings, but my terrible stomach cramps have disappeared all together! The cramps used to be so bad that I couldn't get out of bed, I would call into work or skip school when I was younger atleast one day during my cycle. I like to attribute this to my healthy lifestyle, but my mother says I'm just growing out of it. Either way, good! cramps-be-gone! Report
I had REALLY bad periods but then I started to exercise and most of the pain and mood swings went away. I still cry but only at sentimental things. I also increased my calcium intake when I start.

The only main problem I have is one week before I start I NEED to eat all of the time! I'm starving even when I just ate lunch. What's even weirder is that I usually lose three pounds while I'm in eat mode but then gain one pound back when I start. Report
Exercise most definitely have helped with my cramps......barely have them now. Report
Mine too! Since I started the Flat Belly Diet, I didn't even know my period was coming! In fact, I panicked this last time, because it was 2 days late, and I wasn't having any cramps, so I thought...

...well, we all know what I thought! Report
Since I started losing weight, eating right and exercising, my PMS symptoms all but disappeared. I can't believe it. It changed my life! Report
Thank you for this article! I don't suffer from very severe symptoms, but lately I have started to get headaches along with my normal day of hating people in general. I am reluctantly coming to realize that my diet may have something to do with all of this, as most of the time I do without the sweets (except socially, which is where my downfall comes in!), but around this time I really give in, which I don't think helps much. Your article was very helpful. Kudos! Report
I get major cravings just before that time of the month. I am learning how to manage them, so this post was very helpful. I noticed also that when I was heavier, I was getting more frequent headaches around the time that I was expecting my period. Now that I've lost 22 pounds, this hasn't been an issue. Report
Thank you for these tips, I will put them in practice. I am 28 right now and I didn't have so many symptoms, but after 4 years of birth control, things has change very much for me, now I cried, I feel sad, depressed, hungry, lazy, and I don't know what else, but I really think its the birth control. So I will start doing better to feel better! Report
My PMS was completely alleviated when I started taking a women's daily vitamin and mineral supplement. My biggest complaints were breast tenderness and mild depression, both are now completely gone. I believe there is a correlation between healthy eating and PMS. My vitamins worked immediately and I haven't had a problem since. Report
Funny - I have always believed that all the solutions you mention (diet, exercise, yoga) are why I have never really struggled with PMS, but let me tell you, I am raging hormones now that I have started with perimenopause and I experience all the symptoms you mention about PMS.....I have come to the conclusion that the reason for all these symptoms is a hormonal imbalance....which can occur during PMS and definitely during menopause. I have just started a biodentical hormone therapy and am praying for relief...will post back in 3-6 weeks to let you know if it changes! Report
I tried everything for my PMS and horrendous cramps (which caused me to vomit the first day of my period for years and years) - exercise, vitamins, changing diet, etc. Nothing helped except BCP. Finally, after 27 years of suffering (and asking doctors if I had endometriosis) I finally found a woman dr who did laproscopic surgery and found major endometrial tissue deposits all over - so, for anyone who has MORE than mild PMS, check with your dr. REally. Mine was found too late for anything but a hysterectomy - but at least I can now live without being sick to my stomach one day per month. Report
Had a hysterectomy at age 37 (I'm 43 now). Did have mild PMS when I was menstruating, but nothing debilitating, though I never had a regular period in my life, and had to take The Pill to regulate it. My youngest sister has had horrible PMS (mostly cramps that were so bad, she'd throw up) over the years, and has had her period since she was 9 years old (she is 35 now)! Being on The Pill helped her a lot, though she still has some (more bearable) discomfort monthly.

For anyone interested, my hysterectomy was due to a year of massive bleeding 3 weeks out of 4 (uncontrolled even with many attempts on progestin as well as Metformin), that culminated in increasing daily pain and eventually hemmhoraging in the ER. Biopsy after the emergency hysterectomy showed a rare diagnosis of adenomyosis (see WebMd for details). Report
I never had PMS until I lost 85 pounds!! I always counted myself lucky that I wasn't effected by it. Now I suffered for just 24 hours before my period starts - mostly a crash in energy and mood with a dose of snappy bitchiness thrown in for good measure. Luckily - no food cravings and only a wee peak in weight.

This new PMS could be due to the fact that I'm a woman of a certain age (rather that my weight loss) but it is irritating that I finally have this great healthy body and pay for it with PMS. Report
I also am diagnosised with PMDD -- and the medication I am on helps... I guess I'm going to start working on exercise/eating better so that I've got that going for me too! Report
When I was a teenager in the '60's NONE of us ever talked about having our periods. I just laugh today as girls go on and on and us their periods for a excuse for EVERYTHING. No wonder MEN think women are incapable! I kept that part PRIVATE and never mentioned to anyone, especially MEN when I was having my period. Report
I never had problems with PMS until I became vegan. When I adopted a healthier lifestyle, then the symptoms hit. The summer I spent working summer stock in college, I pretty much lived on soda and chocolate bars from the vending machine and my period would always creep up on me without my knowledge. When I switched to a plant-based diet, incorporating more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, I started getting cramps the likes of which I had never known before - the kind where four Advil might help, or might not, you know?

I'm not going to give up on the healthy living - I love being vegan. Love it. But I think this is just more proof that I'm put together wrong. Report
Wonderful post! I luckily fall into the 25%, but I have found that as I get older, the emotional component becomes harder to control. Becky's tips are a great reminder of how we should eat ALWAYS and a solid poke to be especially careful to do so during "that time." Report
I can relate, but my worst PMS was either caused by a pill or controlled by a pill, depending on how you look at it. A few years ago, I was taking a brand name birth control pill and going along quite well - no problems at all. No one could even tell when I was about to be on my period. Then it went generic and the insurance company quit paying for the brand version, so I started taking the generic. Within the first month, my cup size increased by at least 2 cup sizes during that week (hurting like crazy) and I started getting really cranky for at least a week. My hubby knew every month when I was about to have my period. After almost a year, my hubby half-jokingly said, "Get the birth control changed or call a lawyer to start divorce proceedings." I called my OB/GYN that day and got switched. I've been taking it ever since and I'm having no PMS symptoms at all - the hubby doesn't have a clue when I'm due for my period and I'm a much calmer human being. Needless to say, when it went generic, I started paying extra to keep the brand name. Generally, I still believe that most generic drugs are fine, but there are some things that you just can't mess with and hormones are that for me. Report
Insightful. I struggle with this terrible every month. It seems pretty logical, but sometimes it takes someone spelling it out for you for it to click. Hopefully I'll be a little more aware when it rears it's ugly head next month!! Report
PMS ~ I would need to crawl into bed for 3 days before I felt good enough to be around anyone. Thank goodness, THOSE days are behind me now..... Report
I have been eating better and working out regularly for quite some time now. My pms symptoms are out of control, and now mixed in w/ menopausal symptoms. I have no private health insurance , and the clinic based on my income will not help with this. 2 weeks out of the month I turn into someone else. It helps to know I am not alone! Report
Eating right and exercising do help my PMS. I had read an article (cant remember, some womens mag) to help alleviate symptoms and one thing they mentioned was to make sure you get 18mg of iron in your multi-vitamin, daily. I checked my vit label, it had the right amount but I wasnt taking it everyday. Once I started taking it everyday, I noticed my cramps and flow werent quite as bad, so I think it did help. Report
dark chocolate helps me.... it works well. I can eat just a bit of it and it relieves my crankiness, discomfort, etc. Report
Personally, exercise makes me feel infinitely better around that time of the month. Of course, it's a lot harder to get going when you're whiny and crampy, but once I do it makes the rest of the day go so much more smoothly. Report
Thank for this article Stepfanie! This is really helpful information for a lot of us ladies.

Since you are a yoga teacher, I was wondering - is there a short sequence you could share to help with cramps/back pain or other symptoms? Report
If there's one thing I did try to teach my 3 daughters, it's not to take themselves too seriously when that time of the month rolls around. Everything can seem so disproportionate to its true importance. It's good to know there are some dietary things that can be tried to see if they help. Report
Any articles or blogs along this topic are appreciated. I think many people have no idea how hard life can be when dealing with the physical and emotional symptoms of PMS. To me, they are a ticking time bomb that I can sometimes disarm before they cause damage to my life, but unfortunately, other times the emotional symptoms sneak up on me and I explode.

I have been working hard to find dietary solutions to these issue after being required to cease taking Yaz due to elevated ALT levels (liver enzymes). I have tried to increase my calcium intake, but haven’t seen much relief. Now I’m going to see about increasing the magnesium in my diet. Thank you for the information. Report
I never had a big problem with PMS. (everyday was a bad eating day!) Report
I definitely had it when I was younger and now I see my teenage daughter struggle with it a few days a month. It's helps to understand her "moods" as I experienced the same thing. GREAT article...thank you! Report