Premenstrual syndrome (PMS), also known as premenstrual tension (PMT), refers to the vast range of symptoms that can occur within the last two weeks of a woman’s menstrual cycle (where day one is the first day of menstruation). These symptoms can be physical, behavioural or psychological (NHS, 2015a). It is now thought there may be 150 different symptoms associated with PMS, and nine out of ten women who menstruate experience more than one symptom per month (Glenville, 2010). Symptoms can vary between individuals, and can differ for an individual on a monthly basis.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- feeling bloated,
- tender, swollen or sore breasts,
- muscle or joint pain,
- mood swings,
- feeling upset or emotional,
- food cravings and appetite changes,
- abdominal cramps.
Not all symptoms associated with PMS are negative, some women feel an increase in clarity or productivity prior to their period.
If your PMS symptoms stop you from being able to undertake your usual daily activities you should consult your GP as you may be experiencing premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Typical symptoms include a sense of hopelessness, depression, extreme tension or irritability and very low self-esteem (NHS, 2015b).
What causes PMS?
There is thought to be a combination of factors that lead to PMS being more problematic for some women than others. Poor diet, lack of exercise and high levels of stress are the main contributors. There also appears to be a genetic element (Glenville, 2010). PMS can affect menstruating women of any age, although statistically, those in their late twenties and early forties appear to experience an increase in symptoms (NHS, 2015a). Women who have recently given birth or have had a miscarriage or termination may also be more likely to suffer with PMS (Glenville, 2010).
A woman’s hormone levels change throughout her menstrual cycle. After ovulation, which occurs approximately 14-16 days prior to the start of the next period, the ‘luteal phase’ is entered. The corpus luteum (egg-sac) produces progesterone, causing the uterus lining to thicken so it is prepared for a fertilised egg to implant. If an egg is not fertilised then oestrogen and progesterone levels drop and you begin a new cycle. PMS is thought to be associated with hormonal imbalances of oestrogen and progesterone (Bartram, 1998).
If you have a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, a low intake of salt, alcohol and caffeine; exercise regularly and take measures to try to reduce your stress levels and yet still experience PMS, you may wish to consider the use of herbs to support your general well-being and try to alleviate your symptoms.
Herbs to alleviate PMS
There are may herbs associated with alleviating the symptoms of PMS. I have selected five to consider here:
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Typically taken in tea form, chamomile is a relaxant that soothes irritability and reduces anxiety. Its painkilling properties can help to relieve headaches, and bloating can be reduced due to its diuretic effect. It can regulate the digestive tract to alleviate both diarrhoea and constipation (McIntyre, 2006). It can be used in conjunction with dandelion root if constipation is an issue. Click here for more information about dandelions. Chamomile can also relieve muscle pain (Balch, 2012).
Vervain (Verbena officinalis)
Typically taken as a tincture or a tea, vervain has relaxing and up-lifting properties. It is a bitter herb that stimulates the liver and digestive system, which can assist in hormone regulation (McIntyre, 2006).
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
Typically taken as capsules or in a tincture form, black cohosh contains phytoestrogens which can offset the decline of oestrogen should this be problematic. Black cohosh can relieve depression and muscle pain (Balch, 2012). It calms the nervous system and can balance hormones. It may reduce anxiety and premenstrual headaches (Glenville, 2010). NOT to be taken if you have a chronic disease or liver problems.
Rose flowers (Rosa Gallica L. Rosa Damascena Mill. Rosa centifolia)
Typically taken in tincture or tea form, rose is traditionally used to ‘lift the spirits’. It is a mild sedative, liver protector and menstrual regulator (Bartram, 1998). It can induce a restful sleep. Rose water applied to the skin can help combat acne (McIntyre, 2006).
Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus L.)
Typically taken as a tea, raspberry leaves contain tannins and flavonoids that can relieve premenstrual cramps (Balch, 2012). It is widely recognised that raspberry leaves tone the muscles supporting the uterus, and they are traditionally used to ease childbirth and relieve menstrual pains (Bartram, 1998).
- If you are unsure whether you are experiencing symptoms of PMS please consult a doctor. There can be many causes for abdominal pain, breast pain and headaches etc that may need addressing further. Do not self-diagnose any medical condition.
- You should talk to a qualified herbalist and medical professional before beginning any herbal regimes. Although herbs are generally considered safe, they can have contra-indications and react with other medications that you are taking. If you have any side effects discontinue use and contact a medical professional immediately.
- Some herbs alter your hormone levels and may reduce the effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives or replacement therapies (e.g. contraceptive pill).
- If you are currently trying to conceive, herbal remedies should not be taken unless under the guidance of a qualified herbalist.
- Although widely used, I have NOT suggested the use of agnus castus (Vitex agnus castus), which may also be sold as chasteberries, for alleviating PMS. It can cause the release of several eggs from the ovaries, resulting in multiple births and should be avoided unless being used under direction of a qualified herbalist addressing fertility issues.