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Fifteen simple steps to help ease the discomfort of PMS

With pre-menstrual syndrome often proving distressing for many women, Vicki Notaro looks at simple ways to ease the symptoms

It's called The Curse for a reason - with your monthly period often comes the hell that is known as pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS. For some women, it's barely a blip on their radar - some mild cramping perhaps, or a bit of a headache. For others, PMS takes over their lives. "We don't fully understand what causes PMS," says health expert Dr Sinead Beirne. "Most doctors believe it's linked to the changing levels of hormones in the body during a woman's menstrual cycle."

Research conducted on more than 500 women by Cleanmarine found that 50% of us regularly experience PMS, with one-third of these women taking a day off work in the last year as a result. Extreme abdominal pain, migraine, dizziness, massive bloating and mood swings can all contribute to a miserable few days every cycle, and many women are at a loss as to what can be done about it.

The good news is, there are many things that can help. Instead of just resigning yourself to feeling bad one week out of every four, follow these 15 tips and tricks to reclaim your body from PMS' clutches.

1. Stop smoking

If you needed another reason to knock cigarettes on the head, the news that they make your monthly visit even harder to handle might just do it. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, women who smoke experience more severe pre-menstrual symptoms and have a 50% increase in the likelihood of cramps lasting two or more days.

2. Exercise more

Experts agree: getting a regular workout, even if it's mild, will help you feel far better at that time of the month.

Women's health expert Dr Rachel Mackey says: "Vigorous exercise releases natural painkillers called endorphins, which can help a lot with cramps." Breathing and stretching exercises help with both cramps and give your mind space.

3. Limit alcohol

"I believe the type of lifestyle you lead has a big bearing on the extent of the PMS symptoms that you get," says Dr Beirne. Drinking too much is part and parcel of that, as it dehydrates the body and increases the likelihood of bloating. Cut out caffeine, salt, alcohol and sugar. These all lead to bloating, mood swings, lack of energy and anxiousness.

4. Stabilise your blood sugars

"Eating a low GI diet similar to a diabetic diet will help with cravings, as your bloods sugars are more stable," says Dr Mackey.

Mood swings also tend to be associated with fluctuating blood sugar levels, so a low GI diet with regular small meals should help."

If that sounds daunting, it's not really - and it's not about following a specific diet. All low GI means is to avoid refined carbohydrates or high-sugar products.

5. Stay well-hydrated

For many women, bloating is a nightmare for at least a week every month. Some of us can't wear jeans, and find ourselves limited to leggings because our bellies are so rounded from hormonal bloat. "Reducing salt intake and increasing water intake will help with bloating," explains Dr Mackey. Dr Beirne agrees, and advises eating smaller meals more frequently too.

6. Swap coffee for green tea

Speaking of caffeine, that cup of Joe in the morning that you swear peps you up could be detrimental when it comes to PMS: it can contribute to mood swings and that sense of being unbalanced during your period. Instead, it is recommended you try healthy snacks to keep you feeling energised, such as turkey, brown rice and almonds.

7. Cook your own meals

You know you need to stay well-hydrated to avoid bloat, headaches, cramps and cravings, but drinking lots of water won't help if you're still stuffing salty food in your mouth! To keep track of the amount of salt in your food, prep all your own meals (and avoid sprinkling any white stuff on top at the table). That way, you know what seasoning has gone in to cooking, and eating fresh, processed and home-cooked foods rich in vitamins will help with PMS across the board.

8. Nix cravings

Chocolate and other sweet snacks do boost serotonin levels in the brain, giving a feeling of well-being, but only temporarily, as they can cause a major sugar crash. So you might be happy when you're munching, but soon the rush will be gone. And in the tender mental state brought on by PMS hormones, it could make you feel worse in the long run - guilty about calorie consumption and still craving more carbs.

Load up on vitamin B12, found in lean meat like grilled chicken. If you want something sweet, don't deny yourself, but go for an low-sugar option like dark chocolate or a yoghurt-topped rice cake.

9. Consider contraceptives

"When symptoms are very marked, a combined oral contraceptive pill is often extremely helpful," says Dr Mackey. "Take one of the brands that have 24 pills with a four-day break as this prevents breakthrough symptoms." If you're over 35 and/or a smoker, talk to your doctor before taking anything that contains oestrogen. Still, progesterone-only contraceptives like the coil can also help, so discuss it with your GP.

10. Try a supplement or two

Dr Mackey advises taking 50-100mg of vitamin B6 daily to help alleviate symptoms. However Dr Beirne is more of an advocate of a healthy diet and regular exercise. "But some people find supplements beneficial, and that's great."

A good all-in-one tablet is Krill Oil, as it's formulated especially for women and includes B vitamins, rosemary oil and vitamin D3.

11. Give natural remedies a go

Peppermint is used to aid bloating, so try a cup of peppermint tea. You might find it soothing. Evening primrose oil contains an essential fatty acid that can help with breast pain, while Valerian root can help you relax. Some women also swear by acupuncture to alleviate PMS symptoms, particularly headaches. Discuss it with your local practitioner or GP.

12. Consider painkillers

Some women feel like they have to suffer through PMS without any pharmaceutical aid, but that's not the case. If you're in a lot of pain, taking an over-the-counter remedy a couple of times a month can really help. "Painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen can help with cramps, muscle and joint pain during PMS," explains Dr Beirne. Just don't take them for longer than a couple of days, and try more natural lifestyle changes before reaching for the medicine box.

13. Try to relax

Go easy on yourself. Life is tough enough without getting your period every month, so don't be dismissive of this added little headache. Life should go on as normal, but there's nothing wrong with treating yourself - running a bath, using nice products and getting some extra shut-eye are all going to help in making you feel better. "Symptoms of PMS can be worse if you get stressed easily," says Dr Beirne, so cut yourself some slack and chill out when it's that time of the month!

14. Look for underlying issues

Yes, we can blame mood swings on our hormones. But it's important to remember that the arrival of our period each month isn't always welcomed, especially if we're trying to conceive. It's easy to write off feeling low as a symptom, but don't ignore it altogether.

Also, if you're around the age of menopause, this could be why your symptoms are worse. "For women in their 40s, it is often perimenopausal symptoms which occur, which is just exaggerated PMS," says Dr Mackey.

15. Seek support

If you've tried everything else, and PMS is still bringing you down, there's no shame in asking for help. "I would highly recommend doing some computerised cognitive behaviour therapy online," says Dr Beirne. "There's a great website with a free CBT course called Try to practice mindfulness and start by uploading the headspace on your smartphone."

If you still feel like you're struggling, talk to your GP. "We've got lots of medications that can help such as anti depressants, which can work really well."

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