Women's Health Friday April 17, 2015

It's Not 'Just PMS' - How The Menstrual Cycle Really Affects Your Body

Are you the type with unpredictable mood swings? Or happy scoffing your body weight in chocolatey goods? Do you partake in a bit of both? Simultaneously?

What with terrible breakouts, weight gain, mood swings, cravings and a little too much water retention for our liking, your time of the month can be unpredictable and completely uncomfortable. To summarise, it's one to five days of cramps, awkwardness and general misery.

OK, this is a little melodramatic and no, fellas, a bad mood doesn't necessarily mean a woman is on her period. In fact, the majority of us do take it in our stride and have our own ways of dealing with this time. The hot water bottle, multi-pack of tampons and a nice slab of Galaxy usually get you through the worst of it, but what exactly is behind those annoying symptoms?

What is the menstrual cycle?

Your cycle is generally 28 days long and can be divided into four stages:

  • Menstrual phase
  • Follicular phase
  • Ovulation phase
  • Luteal phase

While the other phases usually have a limited affect on your body and emotions, it's the menstrual phase (day 1-5), more commonly referred to as your period, that's responsible for most of the trouble. This is when the uterus lining is shed, resulting in blood loss and cramping. The effect on your body is obvious, but what about the shift in your frame of mind? What is happening to warrant food craving, tiredness and mood swings?

Mood swings (PMS)

Nothing can grate more than the "is it your time of the month?" comment. More often than not, your emotions are completely justified. But when it comes to PMS, this can be the exception. Mood swings and outbursts are often uncontrollable with the most common symptoms including a short temper, crying, anxiety and oversensitivity. It's no walk in the park.

In terms of establishing "WHY?" – well, we're afraid there is no straight answer. Many researchers have linked these mood swings and oversensitivity to the change in oestrogen levels, with experts claiming that levels drop dramatically just before your period. Everyday Health's expert Carol Livoti, from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has also suggested a link between lower serotonin levels and low mood, irritability and carb-filled cravings.

How to deal

There is a form of severe PMS known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) with symptoms such as severe depression, panic attacks and trouble focusing on basic tasks. For those with this condition, there are appropriate antidepressants you can take for this particular time of the month called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

For the majority of us, however, there are a few simple tips that could help:

  • Exercise – to boost energy and improve your mood
  • Eat frequent small meals – to curb the sugar highs and keep you satiated
  • Meditate – and consider other techniques to help you zone out
  • Adjust your diet up to two weeks before – reduce caffeine and alcohol intake to cope with PMS symptoms

Carb cravings

Many of us just love the chocolates and sweets when Flo visits; in fact any time of the month, but during those five days your sweet tooth taste buds have intensified.

Amanda Bontempo, ambulatory oncology dietician at New York University, puts our cravings down to those pesky hormones, in particular serotonin. As the serotonin dips the stress hormone cortisol hits the roof, resulting in unwanted cravings for sugar and fat.

How to deal

Grabbing healthier alternatives is always the best option. Dark chocolate has been proven to be good for you whilst the odd indulgence certainly won't do you any harm. Also consider your diet, especially in the two weeks running up to your period, by stocking up on your intake of fibre and protein to curb the impending cravings.

Bad skin

If you thought you didn't have quite enough woe during your menstrual cycle, it is not uncommon to have a bout of acne as well. In fact, WebMD say "63% of acne-prone women experience these premenstrual flares". These mainly emerge 7-10 days before your period.

Surprise surprise, you've guessed it; it's down to your hormones gallivanting all over the place; this time oestrogen and progesterone. The dip in both, alongside the small amount of testosterone that is maintained, results in all sorts of problems including skin swelling and pores becoming compressed. What's more, progesterone increases the production of sebum - that layer of oil that keeps the skin clean.

How to deal

One of the most popular solutions for acne is hormonal contraception such as Yasmin as well as topical and other types of acne treatments. Otherwise, it is a case of waiting for the storm to blow over every month.


Whether it is bad skin or giving Jack Dee a grumpy run for his money, PMS symptoms are never fun. However, there are subtle lifestyle changes you can apply to make your time of the month much more bearable. Meanwhile, if you have a big occasion coming up, such as as a holiday or wedding, you may even want to delay your period for a couple of weeks. Click to find out more about prescription period delay treatment.

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