Are your periods a painful, spot-inducing enemy that hijacks your life once a month? Break the cycle for good with our three-month lifestyle audit
To take control of your cycle from today follow our simple two-step plan. The first part focuses on rebalancing your hormones and will help everyone see improvements in their cycle within three months, while the second section pinpoints specific problems you may have, so you can tailor-make your own problem-free period plan.
A calorie-restricted or fast-food diet can leave your body lacking the minerals, vitamins and healthy fats needed for producing hormones, such as zinc and omega 3 fatty acids. Start your three-month plan with a commitment to following a balanced diet with plenty of fresh veg, lean protein and 'healthy' fats from oily fish, nuts and seeds. 'Many women with PMS are deficient in magnesium,' says Dr Glenville (www.marilynglenville.com), 'so taking a magnesium supplement alongside vitamins B6 for stress and E for mood swings may help with PMS symptoms such as irritability and breast pain.'
Herbs can be a powerful tool to help regulate the fluctuating hormones that cause PMS. Agnus castus is an effective hormone balancer, while black cohosh relieves anxiety, tension headaches and migraines. Skullcap and milk thistle calm and help detoxify the liver and help it get rid of excess female hormones.
Take a look around your home, as common household products, such as plastic food containers, may also affect your hormone balance. 'Some studies have linked chemicals like phthalates in food wrappers, bisphenol A in the linings of drinks cans, and triclosan in antibacterial handwashes to disrupted hormones,' explains Dr Glenville. 'From today, you can reduce your exposure by not microwaving food in plastic containers and choosing drinks in glass, not plastic bottles. Certain pesticides, too, are thought to interfere with female hormonal function, so eat organic when you can.'
If you're a smoker, then it's time to ditch the habit and, sorry girls, that after-work cocktail habit also needs reining in. 'Studies show smoking reduces oestrogen levels, and alcohol stops your liver processing hormones effectively, so they all cause hormonal havoc,' says Dr Glenville. Alcohol is known to worsen PMS symptoms, so avoid it completely during your most vulnerable week.
Skipping meals and snacking on sugary treats will send your blood sugar levels on a rollercoaster ride, and this spells bad news for your hormones. 'Blood sugar spikes trigger the release of the hormone insulin, which makes your ovaries produce excess testosterone,' says Dr Glenville. Your first step is to take a good look at your diet, and adjust it over the next three months to keep blood sugar levels stable and stop those cravings for good. Choose slower release carbs such as wholemeal bread and oats; include protein in every meal or snack; and have three smaller meals and three healthy snacks each day. 'Stable blood sugar boosts feel-good endorphins, keeps your hormones balanced and reduces sugar cravings,' says Dr Glenville.
Cut out that 3pm biscuit binge - snack on something that releases energy slowly such as a handful of nuts.
Check in on your sleep cycle. People who are sleep-deprived have high blood sugar levels, disrupting hormone function. Emma says there are three sleep positions which are best for health-boosting sleep. Over the next three months, give each one a try: the foetal position, on your left side with your back straight and knees bent; flat on your back in a star shape (best avoided by snorers!); and on your side with your arms stretched in front of you.
When stress is interfering with your sleep, reduce stress hormones in your blood by breathing in lemon, mango and lavender essences, a remedy verified by recent Japanese research. Breathing exercises can also help you relax. 'Breathe through your nostrils, focusing on the way your breath enters and leaves your body,' says Emma. 'Let your breathing be unforced. Allow your mind to become still. Do this once a day for 15 minutes.'
Reassess your exercise regime - regular exercise not only helps to reduce stress, but the endorphin release will help lift your mood. 'Stress can affect your hormone balance to the extent that it affects regularity and you can miss periods altogether. In addition, it can make you produce excess testosterone, which can contribute to acne and even thinning hair,' says Dr Glenville. 'I recommend a course of Qigong and yoga,' says Emma Cannon. 'It's the start of summer, so get outside and try walking if you're not fit, tennis if you are. And don't exercise to the point of profuse sweating or exhaustion - according to Chinese medicine, good health is about balance and moderation.'
When you're feeling tired and bloated, the thought of the gym is pretty unappealing, but exercise is better than vegging out at banishing time-of-the-month woes. 'Just 30 minutes of exercise a day relieves stress, lifts your mood, and reduces excess testosterone,' says Dr Glenville.
Is the emotional turmoil of PMS taking its toll? Ask your GP about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a psychological treatment that's been proven to help PMS. It's based on exercises that help you change the way you think and act when you're feeling low. 'Coffee can cause irritability by increasing blood pressure, so if your main issue is mood swings, you need to permanently cut back on the espressos,' says Zest expert Dr Pixie McKenna, author of The Handbag Doctor (Kyle Cathie, £8.99).
'When you feel the grouch coming on, make a massage oil with two drops of jasmoine, geranium and camomile oil in 15ml sweet almond oil and massage it into your abdomen,' says Dr Glenville.
'Falling oestrogen levels can by our liver struggling to hormones,' says Dr Glenville. 'Keep levels stable with food rich in plant oestrogens such as soya, linseeds, chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils.' If you're suffering from migrains, then cause headaches that are caused process and eliminate the Glenville. 'Keep levels stable linseeds, chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils.' If you're suffering from migraines, then an oestrogen patch or gel from your GP can help.
'Add 2 drops of grapefruit essential oil to a 5ml teaspoon of sweet almond oil and rub it on your temples,' says Dr Glenville. 'If you want to use painkillers, start taking anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen 24 hours ahead of the usual time you get a migraine,' adds Dr Pixie.
'This may well be due to blood loss,' says Dr Pixie. 'Over the next three months, boost your diet with iron-rich foods such as spinach and fortified cereals, and add vitamin C to help absorption - it's like the pin number for your iron credit card.'
'Eat low GI snacks such as oatcakes with cottage cheese, have a brisk walk, but don't fall into the sugary snacks and caffeine trap as you'll feel worse when you crash,' says Dr Glenville.
Tender breasts are a common symptom of hormonal imbalances as oestrogen enlarges breast ducts, and progesterone boosts the growth of milk glands. 'Try evening primrose oil, rich in anti-inflammatory acids for at least two months, unless you have epilepsy,' says Boots pharmacist Angela Chalmers. 'Ditch dairy and red meat for a couple of months to see if it helps, too,' says Dr Pixie. 'It will reduce exposure to artificial hormones, and a number of studies have shown a link between PMS and a high animal-fat intake. Eating cereals, pulses, green vegetables and oily fish instead will give you all the protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin D you need.'
'Take ibuprofen or paracetamol, or rub an anti-inflammatory cream such as Voltarol Emulgel P and Ibuleve on painful areas, and wear a soft bra overnight to provide comfortable support,' says Dr Pixie.
'Premenstrual spots are caused by the progesterone surge after ovulation,' says Dr Pixie. 'Anecdotal evidence says ditching dairy can help - the theory is that milk from recently pregnant cattle contains progesterone which may promote spots.' Make sure you keep calcium levels up with other sources, such as sardines, leafy green vegetables, pulses, nuts and tofu. 'You could also ask your pharmacist about Freederm gel, a specially formulated acne product that can help get rid of inflamed spots but that can take a few weeks to work.'
Look for skincare containing antibacterial benzoyl peroxide like Clean And Clear or Neutrogena On the Spot Treatment which prevent blackheads and whiteheads. And try dabbing tea tree oil, a natural antibacterial, on affected areas.
'Hormonal changes trigger water retention,' says Dr Glenville. 'Cut down on salt and drink six to eight cups of water, juice or herbal tea a day - if you dehydrate, your body holds on to any water it does get, causing bloating.'
'Try the diuretic Aquaban Herbal, £3.59, a traditional herbal remedy that contains three natural diuretics,' says Angela. 'Or massage your abdomen with two drops each of fennel, rosemary and juniper essential oils in 15ml of sweet almond oil,' says Dr Glenville.
'You're probably unaware that your womb contracts and relaxes throughout the month,' says Dr Glenville. 'However, around the time of your period, prostaglandins and other chemicals are released that cause strong muscular contractions that squeeze out the blood from the womb lining.' The pain is caused when the blood supply to the uterus is temporarily shut down by these chemicals, cutting off oxygen to muscles. Regular exercise can reduce the severity of cramps, and you could trial nutritional supplements for three months - calcium can be beneficial as it helps maintain normal muscle tone, while Vitamins B3 and E have also been shown to ease monthly pains.
Try a brew of thyme tea. 'Thyme has a host of properties that are good for the female reproductive system, specifically relieving period pain,' says Emma. 'Take a handful of fresh thyme, steep in a teapot for five to seven minutes then drink hot or cold.' For more conventional medication, studies have shown ibuprofen is better than paracetamol at treating cramps. 'Ask your pharmacist about antispasmodic Buscopan, too,' says Angela Chalmers who also recommends heat patches, exercise and massage to relieve menstrual cramps.
'Stress is a major factor in heavy bleeding,' says Peter Bowen-Simpkins, so reduce it with a programme of regular exercise and yoga. 'If you're flooding through to your bedding or passing clots, keep a menstrual diary for three months, marking your flow out of ten, and show it to your GP,' says Dr Pixie. 'You may be prescribed mefanemic acid, which can reduce blood flow and pain.'
'Ibuprofen can reduce blood flow, but don't take it if you're asthmatic or have an ulcer,' says Dr Pixie.
'Seek help if your problems are getting worse, interfering with your everyday life, or you notice something different that worries you,' says Peter Bowen- Simpkins (www.wellbeingofwomen.org. uk). There is no need to put up with unpleasant symptoms. Keep a diary for three cycles and then show it to your GP.
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