S.O.S. for PMS

By: Alison Dunn Jul 26, 2010
  Article

Suffering from premenstrual syndrome? These practical tips can stop PMS from ruling your life

Premenstrual syndrome isn't in your head.

That's exactly what Mary Byers, a professional speaker and author, needed to hear several years ago, when she was suffering from serious PMS. "I would feel so depressed and overwhelmed right before my menstrual cycle," Byers says. "Everything was awful. Life was awful, my marriage was awful, and my job was awful… I'm normally a very optimistic, friendly person, but I really was Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde."

With two small children in the home, Byers realized she needed help. Ultimately, she not only ended up improving her own PMS symptoms, she eventually wrote a book called The S.O.S. for PMS: Practical Help and Relief for Moms to try and raise awareness of PMS, which she says is far more common than most women think.

"The truth is that 85 per cent of women have PMS," she says. "Of those, 40 per cent have it severely."

Think you might be one of them? Don't despair, Byers says. "It takes a strong, courageous woman to say, 'I've got a problem and I'm going to do something about it,'" she says. Here's what you need to know.

The period before your period

Part of the problem with diagnosing PMS is that few people know how to define it. While many women use it as a catch-all phrase for the cramps they experience during menstruation, premenstrual syndrome is actually just that: the symptoms a woman has in the days before menstruating. For most women, true PMS occurs in the days leading up to their periods, and the symptoms lessen either as soon as they start menstruating or shortly thereafter.

The other problem with diagnosing PMS is that there are actually more than 150 symptoms that make up PMS. And not every woman will suffer the same symptoms, Byers adds. "How it affects me and how it affects someone else is most likely going to be different," she says.

Individually, most of the symptoms are quite manageable, Byers says. However, when combined, they can be debilitating. Some of the most common symptoms include:

Physical symptoms:

  • Breast swelling and tenderness
  • Bloating, water retention, weight gain
  • Swelling of hands and/or feet
  • Nausea
  • Vaginal irritation
  • Rashes
  • Changes in bowel habits (such as constipation or diarrhea)
  • Acne
  • Nipple discharge
  • Food cravings, especially for sweet or salty foods
  • Sleep pattern changes and/or insomnia
  • Fatigue, lack of energy
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Pain (headaches or migraines, aching muscles and joints, or cramps and low back pain)
  • Dizziness
  • Leg cramps
  • Sweating
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Bruising
  • Shakiness

Behavioural and emotional symptoms:

  • Anger, irritability
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Loss of control
  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression, sadness, hopelessness
  • Panic attacks
  • Paranoia      
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased alertness, inability to concentrate
  • Unexplained crying
  • Nightmares
  • Suicidal thoughts     
  • Indecision

Think you might suffer from PMS? There's no simple way to diagnose PMS, so Byers recommends you keep a calendar charting both your symptoms and your menstrual cycle. After about three months or so, if you see a pattern starting to emerge where you suffer from these symptoms right before you menstruate, you may have PMS.

Easing the pain

If you do suspect you have PMS, there are plenty of ways to ease the symptoms, Byers says. Try these tips from Byers to see if they work for you.

Eat well. Proper nutrition is essential to staying on top of symptoms, she says. Try to reduce the amount of sugar and salt in your diet and focus on eating lean meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. While that can be tough (because women with PMS tend to crave sugary or salty foods), she recommends starting to improve your diet in the few weeks before your symptoms start to help you stay on track.

Work out. Exercise is also critical, although women who suffer from PMS often don't feel up to exercise. Byers says even getting out for a walk around the block will help ease symptoms, so don't give up. Just try and fit in some physical activity and you'll start to see a difference.

Get some shut-eye. Adequate sleep is extremely important, Byers says. PMS can often interrupt your sleep cycle, and being overtired and irritable will worsen your symptoms. Try to get to bed early in a quiet, darkened room to combat any sleep issues.

Be realistic. Byers says there are certain activities she's learned to avoid before her period, like driving the carpool with a bunch of noisy kids. Or, if you know you're not going to be 100 per cent, give yourself a break and head out for dinner one night instead of trying to cook (just watch your sugar and salt intake!).

Finally, if you find your symptoms don't improve, Byers recommends you see your doctor. You may need mild anti-depressants for a few weeks of your cycle to truly improve the symptoms of PMS.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.