In the first part of this series, I discussed the changes I’ve made to my eating habits over the last year to make PMS easier to deal with. In this installment, I’ll discuss supplements that can help with PMS.
And this is where it gets tricky – because supplements can be like drugs, and I’m not a doctor. So again I’ll say, do your own research and talk to your own doctor about any supplements you want to take.
I’ll also tell you up front that I don’t use a lot of supplements. They tend to be expensive here, and it can be hard to find the specific supplement you want. A lot of friends who use supplements need to buy in bulk and bring them from their passport country – or have friends bring them on visits.
Additionally, the more I researched the specific vitamins and minerals I needed for my main symptoms, the more I realized that the healthier food I was eating was already providing most of what I needed. I do, however, take a few supplements.
1. Magnesium for Headaches and Anxiety
Everywhere I looked, magnesium seemed to be a highly recommended supplement. Magnesium is a mineral (as opposed to a vitamin) that’s supposed to help with anxiety and sleep. Interestingly, when I looked for natural remedies for migraine headaches back when I was pregnant and nursing, magnesium was a recommended supplement for treating headaches.
Some nutritionists believe that most people are deficient in magnesium. Whether that’s true or not, I felt like my symptoms (anxiety and headaches) did point to a magnesium deficiency, and I was able to find some magnesium here in country. It’s not the “most bioavailable” form that all those nutrition experts claim you need, but it seems to alleviate my symptoms. I try to take one pill a day for most of the month. If I can feel anxiety rising in the post-ovulation period, I’ll take an extra one each day.
I also take extra magnesium when I have a headache. That’s usually on the day before my period starts or the day it starts. It can also happen if I stay up too late watching a movie with my husband. I carry extra magnesium pills with me in my purse. (I’ve learned helpful stretches for both headaches and cramps that I will share in a later section.)
Another tactic I use for dealing with headaches is peppermint oil. Please note that essential oils need to be used topically and that they need to be diluted. We’re talking a couple drops here, diluted in water or some other carrier oil like coconut or jojoba. I dilute peppermint oil with water and rub it into the base of my neck, where my migraine headaches originate. You can also rub a bit into your temples if you get tension headaches. (And yes, I realize that essential oils are controversial, but topically applied peppermint oil really helps with my headaches.)
Another way I treat my headaches is with green tea. I know I said I gave up caffeine, so let me explain the back story here. I had menstrual cramps as a teenager, and even then I had difficulty finding an over-the-counter medication to help. Sometimes Aleve (naproxen sodium) helped miraculously, but sometimes it didn’t help at all. Tylenol (acetaminophen or paracetomol) rarely helped either headaches or cramps.
I landed on Advil (ibuprofen) as my cramp and migraine drug of choice. The only thing was, I kept needing to use more. 400 mg was no longer cutting it; I needed 600. I was a little nervous I would eventually need 800 mg per dose. And I needed to take it more often. I didn’t just take it in the morning; I needed more in the afternoon too.
But the thing was, the ibuprofen was tearing up my stomach. If I wasn’t careful to eat a lot of food with it, I had terrible stomach pain. Ibuprofen use is linked to a lot of stomach issues, and I knew I needed to stop using it. So the first thing I did was try to switch back to Tylenol and see if it would work. Turns out, it does, though over the last year I’ve been able to wean myself mostly off the Tylenol too.
I didn’t only take increasing doses of ibuprofen for the cramps and headaches; I was also washing down that ibuprofen with a cup of strong coffee. Caffeine can treat headaches; it’s a component of some over-the-counter headache medications. But as I drank more and more coffee throughout my days, that meant that when I needed to treat a headache, I would swallow 3 ibuprofen pills and wash them down with an extra cup of strong coffee. Ouch!
Now that I’ve eliminated the coffee, I’m sensitive to caffeine again. The small amounts of caffeine in green tea are enough to help with the headaches when they happen a couple times a month. Or I might drink some green tea after I’ve had a particularly bad night’s sleep. I don’t need to use the caffeine in green tea very often, but it’s nice to know it’s available should I need it.
2. Probiotics for Anxiety and Gut Health
Some research suggests that the “good” bacteria in our digestive tracts manufacture some of our feel-good hormones. It also suggests that the “bad” bacteria makes us crave sugar, and that when we eat sugar, we contribute to the overgrowth of bad bacteria or yeasts. We always have some of both, but they’re supposed to be in balance.
So if we don’t have enough of the good bacteria, either because we took antibiotics and killed them off, or because we eat a diet too high in sugar and not high enough in healthy fiber, the bacteria in our guts can get out of balance, and we can tend toward anxiety, sugar cravings, and even weight gain.
I was guilty on both counts. There are way too many opportunities to need antibiotics in a developing country, and as discussed before, I consumed way too many hidden sugars.
Research has shown that something as simple as eating more live-cultured yogurt (regardless of whether it’s sweetened of unsweetened) can reduce anxiety in women. I know this gut-brain connection sounds kind of weird, and it’s a newer area of research. But I definitely needed help with the anxiety, and probiotics are also good for keeping all kinds of female infections away (this has been shown in other studies).
So not only do I consume probiotics in yogurt and kefir, but I also try to purchase probiotic supplements. I can’t just hop over to a health food store like I could in America. But when people have come to visit, I’ve sent them probiotics to bring me, and I know a couple people in country who sell probiotics, too. I’ve been able to get some from them. I don’t know if the pills are as effective as food, but they seem like a good idea for my symptoms, and I take them faithfully.
3. Vitamins A, B, C, D, E
Basically all the vitamins, right?! Different sources cited all these vitamins as potential helps for PMS. However, I have chosen not to supplement with extra vitamins. As I explained in the beginning, the more I looked into the vitamins and minerals my body needed, the more I realized that my new eating plan should be providing most of these necessary vitamins.
I’m not opposed to taking vitamins, but at this point I’ve seen enough improvement through diet alone that, with the exception of magnesium and probiotics, I don’t feel the need to spend the extra money.
If you are going to take extra vitamins, I would recommend discussing with a doctor. He or she can administer blood tests and give you recommendations, because you don’t want to overdose on vitamins. The exception to this rule might be a regular multivitamin, which should be formulated to have safe levels of vitamins and minerals if that’s the only supplement you are taking.
4. Herbs, Amino Acids, and Essential Fatty Acids
There are a lot of other herbs and supplements sold for various PMS symptoms. So far I’ve chosen not to use them. However, I do feel comfortable with the small amount of herbs in herbal teas. Teas that are supposedly good for anxiety are peppermint, chamomile, lavender, and red/rooibos. I drink all these teas and like them all, though rooibos and peppermint are my favorites.
But I have a lot of friends who’ve found great success with various supplements. So if you want to look into other herbs, amino acids, or essential fatty acids, I would recommend doing your own research and talking to your own doctor. And if you find one that helps, by all means, use it!
5. Prescription Medications
Here is what my OB-GYN had to say about medications when diet and lifestyle changes are not enough:
“Low dose OCPs (oral contraceptive pills) suppress the surges of hormone (that get more drastic peaks and troughs as we get closer to menopause) and replace them with steady state hormones, which is why they are effective for PMS depressive mood/anxiety disorder.
“SSRIs can also help, and can be taken cyclically rather than every day. Hormones and/or SSRIs are a reasonable short-medium term option if the severity of effects are driving you nuts.”
So if hormonal issues are affecting your relationships and your daily life, and your other lifestyle changes don’t seem to be helping enough, definitely talk to your doctor about prescription options.
6. Perfumes and Fragrances
This doesn’t exactly fit into the supplement category, but it doesn’t fit into food, exercise, or cycle tracking either, so I thought here would be the best place to discuss it. I think it’s too important to leave out. The more I looked into ways to naturally balance your hormones, the more recommendations I found to reduce or eliminate exposure to artificial fragrances and perfumes.
Maybe these things don’t affect you, but they have always affected me. I have never done well with perfumes. They have always given me headaches. I would wear them, trying to convince my body to get used to them and stop reacting. But I never stopped having headaches with them.
I sometimes react to the scents in makeup or hair care products, and I always know when the neighbors are doing their laundry, because the fabric softener wafts up through my windows and hurts my eyes and gives me a headache. Even sitting behind someone wearing perfume in church can give me a headache, and I can barely walk by the detergent and cleaning supplies aisle in a store (in Asia or America), the smells are so strong.
(What is up with our obsession with scented cleaning products?? As a friend of mine likes to say, “Clean smells like . . . nothing!”)
There are a lot of reasons to suspect that fragrances and perfumes interfere with our hormones, too. They may smell nice, but they are not natural. Those good smells come from a concoction of artificial chemicals, and most of the time they are also skin irritants (eczema, acne, etc).
If we’re doing all this hard work to eat and drink better and to take helpful vitamins and supplements, then why would we deliberately put something on our bodies that could be irritating our skin or interfering with our hormones?
Fragrances are also hiding in our menstrual products and personal lubricants. It’s frustrating that in this day and age, companies are still putting fragrances and irritants in our personal care products, because the skin in that area is super sensitive and deserves to be treated with care.
Scented menstrual products are a big trigger for my skin issues, and that’s been really frustrating in Cambodia. I can’t tell you how many products I’ve purchased over the years, only to bring them home, open them up, and realize they were scented. Finally in the past year I’ve been able to find a brand that seems as unscented and non-irritating as I’m going to find here.
It’s can be hard to find fragrance-free soap, makeup, and laundry detergent, but I stock up when I can, or I use the least fragranced products that I can find. I just know I feel better when I use as few fragranced products as possible, and this step might help you too.
What I’m saying here again is, do what you can to avoid irritants and other chemicals that trigger headaches and skin rashes or that potentially destabilize your hormones, but if there’s something you can’t change, try not to stress about it. You don’t need the extra stress in your life that this kind of worry will bring.
Part 4: Cycle and Emotion Tracking (link coming soon)