Almost all women will experience PMS at some point in their lives. While the symptoms are mild and infrequent for many, PMS can be a veritable nightmare for others. This complex condition has multiple likely causes, with fluctuations in hormone levels and nutritional deficiencies playing key roles. Keep reading to learn more about PMS and find out which lifestyle and diet modifications and supplements can relieve its symptoms.
Common physical symptoms include:
- Breast tenderness
- Muscle aches
- Sleep problems
- Acne and skin blemishes
- Stomach pain
- Cravings for chocolate or sweets
So what is PMS exactly and why do symptoms vary so much between women?
Women’s bodies normally undergo cyclic changes to prepare for a potential pregnancy. Estrogens and progesterone, hormones produced in the ovaries, control these changes. These are, in turn, stimulated by the hormones LH (luteinizing hormone), FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone), and GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone), which are produced in the brain.
These cyclic changes are believed to play a key role in PMS symptoms. However, there’s more to PMS than hormonal changes and researchers are still unclear about what causes it.
While changes in hormone levels during a monthly cycle may play a role, there are also other factors involved. For example, although hormone fluctuations can cause swelling, breast tenderness and pain, and weight gain, they may not be a factor in the emotional symptoms women often experience [1, 3].
PMS symptoms may be related to how the brain interprets physical changes during menstruation. Women that have differently-wired brains may have a more difficult time coping with hormonal changes affecting their bodies [4, 3].
Up to 95% of women of reproductive age will experience some degree of PMS. While most will only experience a mild form, around 5% of women may experience a more severe form of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD. PMDD is considered a depressive disorder in which symptoms are severe enough to affect normal work, academic, or social activities .
Estradiol (E2) is the most active estrogen in the body. It’s important not just for reproductive function, but also for brain and thyroid function, bone health, and maintaining a healthy weight [9, 10].
If you have higher blood estradiol levels during the second half of your menstrual cycle, this can result in more severe PMS symptoms. Additionally, hormonal therapy with estradiol can also increase the severity of the symptoms [11, 12].
If your PMS is interfering with your life, it’s wise to check and monitor your hormone levels. You can do this with a simple blood test. The estradiol (17-beta-estradiol, E2) test is the most commonly used estrogen test, but you may also want to check your estrone (E1) levels.
Progesterone is another hormone that plays an important role in reproduction. This hormone helps regulate the menstrual cycle and prepare the body for pregnancy. Like estradiol, increased blood progesterone levels are linked to more severe PMS symptoms [13, 11].
In a study of 18 women, high progesterone levels throughout the menstrual cycle were associated with more severe PMS symptoms. Increases in progesterone levels preceded the symptoms by 5-7 days .
You can monitor progesterone levels by getting regular blood or urine tests.
Luteinizing hormone (LH) is produced in the brain and signals the ovaries to produce estradiol and progesterone. It also causes the ovaries to release an egg (ovulation), and supports the early stages of pregnancy .
High LH levels during the second half of menstruation are associated with bad mood and more severe PMS symptoms .
There are conflicting results regarding the association between PMS symptoms and other hormones, such as :
In a long-term study of over 3k women followed up for 10 years, eating an iron-rich diet was linked to a 31% lower incidence of premenstrual syndrome .
If you have a tendency towards anemia, you should monitor your iron and ferritin levels, in addition to your hemoglobin levels. If your PMS goes away or decreases when your iron levels improve, you’ve found the culprit for your symptoms.
Several studies showed that magnesium supplements can improve PMS symptoms. You can check if yours are low by doing a simple blood or a 24-hour urine test. Magnesium deficiency is easy to correct, but it may take some time for the effects to show (2 months) [6, 20, 21, 19].
In a small study of 10 women, low dietary manganese and calcium intake increased mood and pain symptoms during PMS .
You can check your manganese levels by doing a simple blood test.
The following lifestyle changes may help relieve PMS symptoms in most cases. Remember to talk to a doctor before implementing any major lifestyle or dietary changes and always follow their recommendations.
If you fail to manage them with these strategies or they interfere with your health and daily activities, seek medical attention. Depending on the type and severity of your symptoms, your doctor will prescribe medication such as antidepressants, painkillers, diuretics, and birth control pills.
Perceived stress was associated with an increased severity of PMS symptoms in a study on 98 Korean students. Avoiding stress triggers as much as possible and implementing strategies aimed at reducing anxiety may help prevent severe PMS symptoms .
Your PMS symptoms may improve if you quit smoking. Women who smoke reported more problematic PMS symptoms in a survey of 23 women .
A meta-analysis of 19 studies associated alcohol intake with increased chances of experiencing PMS. Drinking less alcohol may help reduce PMS symptoms 
In a study of 116,678 US nurses, eating an iron-rich diet was linked to a 31% lower risk of PMS .
Make sure your diet contains enough iron. These foods are rich in iron:
- Meat and poultry
- Green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli
- Beans and lentils, if properly soaked to remove phytates and other anti-nutrients that reduce iron absorption
- Nuts and seeds
- Dried fruits
To increase manganese in your diet, consume more:
- Whole grains
- Sweet potatoes
- Leafy vegetables, such as spinach
Women experiencing PMS often crave salty or sweet foods. But these foods may actually aggravate the symptoms. Eating less salt and carbs can prevent swelling in women who experience this symptom .
When women were exposed to the smell of saffron for as little as 20 minutes, it significantly reduced symptoms of PMS and improved their irregular periods in a clinical trial on 35 women. This effect occurred through a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol .
Additionally, in another trial on 50 women, saffron supplementation daily for two months reduced PMS symptoms .
In one trial on 128 women with PMS, those treated with chasteberry over 6 months experienced significantly reduced breast pain and tenderness, swelling, constipation, irritability, depression, and migraines .
Chasteberry may alleviate PMS symptoms by decreasing prolactin, which restores estrogen levels. Additionally, chasteberry reduces progesterone levels, normalizing the ratio of progesterone to estrogen. These hormonal adjustments may provide significant relief from symptoms during PMS .
Other supplements shown to help with PMS in clinical trials include: