The “Other” Time of the Month
Does your life come to a screeching halt once a month? You get mad for no reason, cry easily, and eat way too much junk food in front of the TV every night. Your family and friends tend to go the other way if they see you before you see them. You’ve caught them in the act! But you can’t really blame them.
That’s not all. You’re in pain. You’re crampy. You’ve got that headache that just won’t go away. You’re bloated. You have intense breast pain.
It’s that other time of the month – the week or so before your period arrives. You’re irritable, crampy, and bloated. Maybe you get headaches every month. You’re definitely not alone. Up to 75% of women of childbearing age have experienced symptoms of PMS.
Many women just pop some ibuprofen and try to deal with the rest. That’s a risky choice and doesn’t bring real relief. But there is hope, and it’s the subject of this Terry Talks Nutrition®. Natural remedies, especially chasteberry, can help alleviate PMS symptoms, including those crying spells; so you feel more like yourself.
Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle
In the first half of your cycle (the start of your period marks day 1), levels of estrogen rise. Estrogen drives the menstrual cycle, signaling to other hormones. Estrogen is essential to egg production and helps prepare your uterus for a pregnancy. At about the midway point in your cycle, hormone levels increase, signaling your ovaries to release an egg. If the egg is not fertilized, hormone levels drop, and menstruation will begin within about two weeks. Then the whole cycle begins again.
Are you PMSing?
PMS triggers a wide range of psychological and physical symptoms that can change you from a mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll into a raging Ms. Hyde.
Symptoms generally occur in a predictable pattern, typically beginning one to two weeks before your period begins and diminishing within a day or two after the start of menstruation. The list of PMS symptoms is long, but most women only suffer from a few of them, and can have different levels of severity on different months.
Chasteberry – Real Tested Relief
Chasteberry (Vitex agnus castus), from the chaste tree native to the Mediterranean region, has a long history of use as a natural remedy and is referred to in texts dating back to ancient Greece. Although researchers are still learning about the medicinal properties of chasteberry, its use as a traditional treatment for PMS – and perimenopause symptoms – has been documented for centuries.
Now scientific research has finally begun to validate the effectiveness of chasteberry in relieving PMS symptoms. The key compounds in chasteberry include flavonoids, essential oils, diterpenes, and glycosides. Chasteberry is not a phytoestrogen, but investigations into its physiological effects suggest it works by balancing hormones released by the pituitary gland. Scientific studies indicate that chasteberry may affect dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in regulating emotional responses, and suppress prolactin release. Breast tenderness during PMS has been linked to prolactin production. It has been found that most women with PMS have decreased progesterone production in the two weeks prior to menstruation, and chasteberry is very effective in promoting healthy levels of progesterone in women.
Doctors in Germany widely prescribe chasteberry, and the German Commission E, which regulates supplements in Germany, approves it for irregularities of the menstrual cycle, cyclical breast discomfort, and PMS. It’s no wonder. Results from clinical studies have been impressive, showing it to be effective for most PMS complaints, such as mood swings, irritability, headaches, cramping, and bloating.
In one randomized, placebo-controlled study, 170 women were evaluated for the effectiveness of chasteberry on the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. The women were divided into treatment and placebo groups and were given 20 mg of standardized chasteberry extract or placebo over three consecutive menstrual cycles.
Compared to the placebo group, those in the chasteberry group found significant relief for their symptoms of irritability, mood alteration, anger, headache, and breast fullness.
The authors noted that over half of the women in the chasteberry group had a 50% or greater improvement in their PMS symptoms. That’s great news for women who’ve tried over-the-counter remedies without success.
A Belgium observation study looked at chasteberry specifically for relieving migraines that occur or worsen during PMS. One hundred women took 40 mg of chasteberry daily for three months. Sixty-six women reported a dramatic difference in PMS symptoms and 92 percent of women reported at least a mild reduction in symptoms. For migraine symptoms specifically, 57 percent reported at least a 50 percent reduction in monthly days with headache. Likewise, the frequency of monthly attacks was significantly reduced in 42 percent of patients.
Chasteberry has been shown to be particularly effective for breast tenderness, a common complaint during PMS. A double-blind, randomized clinical trial of 97 women looked at the effects of chasteberry on cyclical mastalgia. Intensity of pain was recorded once per cycle for three consecutive cycles. The study concluded that chasteberry significantly reduced pain in 54% of the women taking chasteberry.
It’s important to note that when using chasteberry for the treatment of PMS, more doesn’t necessarily mean better. In one 2012 study, participants who were given 30 mg of chasteberry extract did not show greater improvement in symptoms from those in the 20 mg group. A 2014 study examined over 20 different chasteberry products and found wide variation in the key components of chasteberry, such as casticin. Some were so low as to not be clinically effective. Others were so high that the researchers suspected they were adulterated with other chasteberry species. The researchers were also concerned that the high levels could cause troublesome side effects. You’ll find chasteberry products with dosages of hundreds of milligrams. I recommend a 20 mg 6:1 extract – 6:1 means that it takes 120 mg of the dried herb to make 20 mg of extract. Science has shown there isn’t a need for more than that – it won’t work better and it may be harmful.
The longevity of chasteberry as a traditional remedy for PMS underscores its safety, and clinical studies confirm it. In the studies I’ve mentioned here, chasteberry was well-tolerated.
Other PMS Heroes
Other natural helpers for PMS include fatty acids, calcium, and B vitamins. Recent clinical trials have found that fatty acids, like those found in salmon, reduce both physical and psychological symptoms of PMS. Calcium has been shown to reduce symptoms of PMS – in some cases, lowering the severity by 48% overall. For the aches and pains associated with PMS, the individuals using calcium reported a 54% decrease in symptoms compared to a 15% increase for those using a placebo. I recommend calcium lactate for its beneficial effects on muscle.
B vitamins, particularly B6 in the form of pyridoxal-5-phosphate, or P5P, are also helpful. Vitamin B6 helps the liver process hormones more efficiently and balance sodium levels, leading to a reduction in symptoms like bloating. In one study, supplemental vitamin B6 helped reduce the breast tenderness, headaches and weight gain associated with water retention in 215 women.
Diet and lifestyle changes can also make a difference in easing PMS symptoms. That chocolate cake you normally resist is like a blinking beacon when you’re PMSing. The trouble is that sugar and simple carbohydrates can wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels and make PMS worse. So aim for healthy proteins and fats, complex carbohydrates, and lots of fruits and vegetables. You may want to avoid excessive salt during that time of the month as well. Too much sodium can lead to bloating.
Beware of chemicals that adversely affect hormone levels. Americans use tens of thousands of chemicals that may have toxic effects on our health and environment. Endocrine disruptors, like dioxins, phthalates, and bisphenol A (BPA), are especially concerning because they mimic or block your body’s natural hormones. They can alter hormone levels or change the way hormones work in the body. So kick the canned vegetables (BPA is a common ingredient in can linings), reduce your use of household chemicals, and choose organic foods when possible.
Finally, even moderate exercise can help improve mood and release tension. Exercise also stimulates endorphin activity, which relieves pain. Some studies have shown that exercise can reduce fatigue as well.
PMS is no joke – for some women the symptoms can be debilitating. But they don’t have to be. Simple things, like using a chasteberry supplement, mean natural PMS relief is possible!