More Fish, Less Crabby
When it comes to PMS, you are what you eat—and what you don't

By Linda Knittel

A woman's menstrual cycle is a miraculous process—but who can appreciate the magic of the human body when they're suffering from mood swings, bloating and fatigue? It's believed that at least 60 percent of American women suffer from these and other debilitating symptoms during the days prior to menstruation. The majority of these symptoms—collectively known as premenstrual syndrome, or PMS—are the result of hormonal imbalances. Easing them, therefore, hinges on keeping these hormones in check throughout a woman's monthly cycle.

Though it sounds like a complicated medical process, hormone balancing is often something you can do yourself—in your kitchen, no less—because the foods you choose largely determine the ebb and flow of your hormone levels. By choosing foods that help regulate hormones and avoiding those that contribute to imbalances, you can directly affect the way you feel throughout the month.

Estrogen Overload
By and large, PMS symptoms can be controlled. "Generally, women with PMS symptoms have elevated estrogen levels, or high estrogen levels in relation to progesterone," says Beth Burch, ND, of Transitions for Health in Portland, Ore. Stress, environmental toxins such as pesticides and a diet high in estrogenic and refined foods can greatly contribute to this condition, known as estrogen dominance. By reducing or eliminating dietary factors, including foods such as processed meat and dairy products, sugar, caffeine and alcohol, a woman can markedly ease her monthly symptoms (see "Foods to Avoid").

While eliminating foods may be one of the most effective ways to prevent PMS, there are also a number of desirable foods that actually work to help keep estrogen levels low. For example, a recent study found that consuming a low-fat vegetarian diet—full of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains—significantly reduces PMS symptoms (Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2000, vol. 95, no. 2). "The low-fat diet helps to increase sex-hormone-binding globulin in the blood, which is what keeps our hormones from floating around and being active," says Burch. "Plus, a vegetarian diet is high in the fiber needed to bind up estrogen in the intestinal tract and shuttle it out of the body."

Another way vegetarian eating can promote healthy estrogen levels is through the consumption of soy protein. "Soy is a plant compound that binds to estrogen receptors in the body and exerts one of two effects," says Burch. "When estrogen levels are low, soy foods can exert a weak estrogenic effect. When there is too much estrogen—as is the case with PMS—the isoflavones in soy bind to estrogen receptors and block the body's own estrogen from causing painful symptoms."

Certain nutrient-rich foods, including those packed with magnesium, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, may also help relieve the symptoms of PMS. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, symptoms such as weight gain, swelling, breast tenderness and abdominal bloating were significantly reduced after two months of supplementation with 200 mg magnesium daily (Journal of Women's Health, 1998, vol. 7, no. 9). "Magnesium is really important for the formation of mood-regulating neurotransmitters," says Burch. "When you realize that chocolate is really high in magnesium, it makes sense that women often crave it while suffering from PMS." Other good sources of magnesium include lima beans, kale, nuts and pumpkin seeds.

Studies of calcium's effect on PMS look promising, as well. According to a recent study, women who took 1,200 mg calcium a day for three months cut their food cravings, mood swings and water retention in half (American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1998, vol. 179, no. 2). To get more calcium in your diet, reach for broccoli, spinach, kale and figs. Researchers also recommend that women load up on omega-3-rich foods, such as salmon and flaxseeds, which promote the production of the good prostaglandins, the type that fight inflammation.

Whole Foods, Whole Body
When it comes to preventing PMS, the key is eating foods close to the earth. "I advise my clients to focus on fresh vegetables, whole grains and legumes so that they are getting plenty of fiber," says Burch. "Watch your fat intake, experiment with soy, do away with commercial dairy and meat products, and get plenty of purified water."

No one likes deprivation, so initially cutting out caffeine, refined foods and sugar may be difficult—but the effort will pay off. "You don't have to think of it as something you have to do forever," says Burch. "Try eliminating one thing at a time and see if it makes a difference." Chances are, when you notice how much better you feel without the monthly mood swings and bloating, you won't miss a thing.

Linda Knittel is a freelance writer specializing in health, nutrition and fitness.