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Is PMS making you crazy? Avoid with these tips if it does

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Research shows link between mental health problems and menstrual cycle

When it comes to stressful events, women are more likely to suffer psychologically if the event occurs at a certain time in their monthly menstrual cycle, according to a new study published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

The study, conducted by researchers from University College London, is the first to report a possible link between psychological vulnerability and a specific moment during the menstrual cycle – which, in this case, was ovulation.

The authors of the study believe common mental health problems that develop in women may be preventable if specific dates during the menstrual cycle are targeted. So they set out to test how vulnerable women are to a stressful event during different stages of their menstrual cycle.

The research team selected 41 women participants between the ages of 18 and 35, all of whom had regular menstrual cycles and were not on any contraceptive pill. They then asked each woman to watch a 14-minute stress-inducing movie that included a lot of death and injury.

Immediately after the women watched the stressful movie, researchers took saliva samples to test their hormone levels. Next, they had each woman write down any unwanted thoughts regarding the video over the next few days – and, if they had them, when and how often.

Unwanted thoughts frequently occur after a stressful event, such as the stress-filled movie the women watched, and they can last for a few days to a few weeks and longer. Unwanted and repetitive thoughts are also common symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders.

With that in mind, the research team discovered that intrusive thoughts more common during the early Luteal phase of the women’s menstrual cycle.

"We found that women in the 'early luteal' phase, which falls roughly 16 to 20 days after the start of their period, had more than three times as many intrusive thoughts as those who watched the video in other phases of their menstrual cycle,” said Dr. Sunjeev Kamboj, one of the study’s co-authors. “This indicates that there is actually a fairly narrow window within the menstrual cycle when women may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing distressing symptoms after a stressful event."

According to Dr. Kamboj and the research team, the results of their study may influence the manner in which health care professionals treat mental health problems in women, especially if such women have experienced a traumatic incident or have otherwise suffered from a state of chronic stress over time.

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"Asking women who have experienced a traumatic event about the time since their last period might help identify those at greatest risk of developing recurring symptoms similar to those seen in psychological disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Kamboj said, adding that this study might be of future benefit by providing doctors with a new way to identify potentially vulnerable women for whom preventative therapies may be useful.

However, Kamboj said that this is only a first step.

“Although we found large effects in healthy women after they experienced a relatively mild stressful event, we now need to see if the same pattern is found in women who have experienced a real traumatic event,” explained Dr. Kamboj. “We also need further research to investigate how using the contraceptive pill affects this whole process."

Of course, there are many women who don’t need a study to confirm that there are certain times of the month when they especially feel the effects of stress, which is commonly referred to as premenstrual syndrome, better known as PMS.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) estimates that at least 85 percent of menstruating women have at least one PMS symptom during their monthly cycle. While most of these women have fairly mild symptoms that don’t need treatment, the ACOG reports that another 3 to 8 percent suffer a more severe form of PMS, called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD.

If your PMS isn’t so bad that you need to see a doctor, some lifestyle changes may help you feel better. Below are some tips from the Department of Health and Human Services (available at WomensHealth.gov) that may help ease your symptoms.

Lifestyle changes:

• Exercise regularly. Each week, you should get:
o Two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity;
o One hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or
o A combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity activity; and
o Muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days.
• Eat healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
• Avoid salt, sugary foods, caffeine, and alcohol, especially when you’re having PMS symptoms.
• Get enough sleep. Try to get about 8 hours of sleep each night.
• Find healthy ways to cope with stress. Talk to your friends, exercise, or write in a journal. Some women also find yoga, massage, or relaxation therapy helpful.
• Don’t smoke.

Alternative therapies:

Certain vitamins and minerals have been found to help relieve some PMS symptoms. These include:
• Folic acid (400 micrograms)
• Calcium with vitamin D (see chart below for amounts)
• Magnesium (400 milligrams)
• Vitamin B-6 (50 to 100 mg)
• Vitamin E (400 international units)

SOURCES: 1.) "Identification of a narrow post-ovulatory window of vulnerability to distressing involuntary memories in healthy women" Mira Soni, Valerie H. Curran, and Sunjeev K. Kamboj. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Volume 104, September 2013, Pages 32–38. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2013.04.003; 2.) The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG); 3.) WomensHealth.Gov, Premenstrual Syndrome Fact Sheet