You know those days -- when you feel more like Eeyore than Tigger, when your abdomen feels like a gargantuan balloon that you wish would just drift away. Premenstrual syndrome is not an illness, but a natural condition characterized by at least one of 150 potential symptoms in most menstruating women, according to "Women's Health" magazine.
For the majority of women who face PMS, symptoms are tolerable but bothersome. Bothersome enough, in fact, that a web search of the phrase "PMS and diet" results in more than 5 billion websites, many touting natural remedies, dos and don'ts, and supposedly sure-fire ways to completely conquer your symptoms. While "completely conquering" your symptoms through dietary changes may not always be possible, certain foods and dietary habits can help minimize your symptoms, which is always a welcome prospect.
Our hormones change, and there is a loss of blood. That's why there's an increase in appetite. Some metabolisms may increase up to 15 percent.
Robyn L. Goldberg, registered dietitian
Not Quite Magic
If particular foods or supplements could cure PMS, they'd likely become best-sellers, dietary staples among the more than 85 percent of menstruating women who experience at least one bothersome symptom every month.
"There are no evidence-based guidelines for PMS," said Katherine Isacks, a registered and consulting dietitian and writer of MyNetDiary.com. But improving your overall dietary habits and emphasizing particular foods before your period may provide benefits.
For example, many women fail to meet their daily recommended amount of 1,000 mg of calcium per day. In addition to lowering your risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures later in life, raising your calcium intake could lead to fewer premenstrual symptoms. In a study published in 2008 in the "Taiwanese Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology," female college students consumed 500 mg of calcium carbonate or a placebo twice daily for three months. Compared to the women who took the placebo, women who consumed the calcium supplements reported significant improvements in fatigue, appetite changes and depression.
Calcium and magnesium are also "fantastic for breast tenderness," according to registered dietitian Robyn L. Goldberg. She recommends eating foods rich in calcium and magnesium, and there are many with an overlap of these nutrients. Valuable sources of calcium and magnesium include collard greens, spinach, low-fat yogurt, artichokes, sweet potatoes, halibut and cashews.
Omega-3 fatty acids, an essential nutrient many Americans lack, may help reduce inflammation and pain. Furthermore, while results of studies are mixed, an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency could contribute to depression. Top sources of the nutrient include flaxseed, walnuts and cold-water fish, such as halibut, herring, salmon and flounder.
It's best to meet your nutrient needs through dietary means instead of supplements. Eating healthy foods can provide the same benefits as supplements but without the potential side effects. Calcium supplements, for example, can sometimes cause bloating, constipation and gas.
Beat the Bloat
Water retention, or bloating, causes abdominal and emotional discomfort to many women during PMS.
"Women who gain a lot of water weight during their luteal phase -- the two-week period starting right after ovulation and up to the first day of their periods -- might benefit from limiting their sodium intake to recommended guidelines," said Isacks.
If you are 51 or older, or are African-American or have high blood pressure, kidney disease or diabetes, limit your sodium to 1,500 mg per day. Otherwise, aim for a maximum of 2,300 mg per day.
Because half a teaspoon of salt provides 1,200 mg of sodium, and natural foods typically provide sufficient amounts, limit processed foods, particularly during the two weeks preceding menstruation, earns an article on the American Heart Association website. Foods especially high in sodium include potato chips, pretzels, canned soups and vegetables, frozen meals, tomato sauce, and processed meats and cheeses.
Consuming plenty of water and hydrating foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and breaking a sweat through exercise can also help prevent or alleviate bloating. Little evidence supports the effectiveness of herbal diuretics, or water pills, and some herbal pills pose risks.
Herbal teas can provide relief for some women, Isacks says. But speak with your pharmacist or health care provider before drinking an herbal tea to avoid interactions with any medications you may be taking.
Cope With Cravings
"When we crave more food or specific foods, [it's because] our hormones change, and there is a loss of blood. That's why there's an increase in appetite," Goldberg explained. "Some metabolisms may increase up to 15 percent."
In other words, a woman who requires approximately 1,800 daily calories may need an extra 270 per day before or during her period.
If you resist your cravings, they're likely to intensify, adding to your emotional distress and potentially leading to overeating and weight gain.
When cravings set in, Goldberg suggests not panicking. "One week is not going to be a deal-breaker," she said.
To prevent or reduce the intensity of your cravings, aim for an overall fiber- and nutrient-rich diet. High-fiber foods, such as whole grains, flaxseed, beans, lentils and berries, improve blood sugar and appetite control. And the more nutritious your diet is, the less likely you'll be to experience nutrient deficiencies that may worsen your symptoms.
Boost Your Moods
Many factors can contribute to your emotional state during PMS, including hormonal shifts, emotional stress, whether you're getting adequate sleep and your diet.
Some studies, for instance, suggest deficiencies of vitamin B-6 may contribute to premenstrual dysphoric disorder, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder involves severe depressive symptoms during the week before your period. Although the medical center indicates the research is limited and findings are mixed, ensuring a sufficient B-vitamin intake certainly can't hurt.
Steer clear of megadose dietary supplements, however. Taking more than 500 mg of vitamin B-6 per day can cause nerve damage in your arms and legs, notes the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Most women require 1.3 mg of vitamin B-6 per day, which is easily reached by eating fortified cereals, bananas, potatoes, garbanzo beans, poultry, oatmeal and fish. Eating plentiful amounts of the nutrient in food-form is not associated with adverse effects.
Although eating a balanced, healthy diet may make you feel good, the specific link between foods and nutrients and emotional PMS symptoms requires further research.
"If women find themselves more moody and irritable," Isacks said, "I would recommend regular physical activity. Exercise helps reduce symptoms of depression and stress. Meditation and yoga are also helpful, especially with stress."
PMS Tool Kit
If you have a relatively predictable menstrual cycle, you know when your symptoms are likely to peak. Plan ahead by stocking your kitchen with nutritious options and modest-size portions of foods you tend to crave.
Registered dietitian Robyn L. Goldberg recommends mangoes, which are one of the top fruit sources of fiber, and leafy greens, which are packed with calcium and magnesium. For a sweet, nutritious salad, top kale or spinach with sliced mangoes and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
If your taste buds require chocolate, keep single-serving dark chocolate bars in your refrigerator or freezer. Dark chocolate contains more antioxidants and less sugar and saturated fat than milk chocolate varieties.
For salty cravings, season a bowl of air-popped popcorn -- a whole grain rich in fiber and vitamin B -- with natural herbs or a low-sodium seasoning blend.
Keep a yoga mat, comfortable workout shoes and a water bottle nearby for stress relief and relaxation and to sweat away water retention. Meanwhile, increase your water intake to prevent dehydration, which can disrupt your energy levels and moods.
Don't forget to reach out. No one understands the physical and emotional roller coaster of PMS better than your girlfriends. Rent a chick flick, laugh and cry together, and share that pint of java chip. You'll likely consume less sugar, fat and calories that way and enjoy it even more.