Most women have experienced some symptoms or discomfort associated with their monthly periods. It may be nothing more serious than feelings of irritation or tiredness a few days before their period which they can easily shrug off. Or it may be much more severe – depression, acute anxiety, food cravings, water retention, abdominal pain, or heavy bleeding which can turn the normal menstrual cycle into a misery – for the women concerned and for their families. Most doctors nowadays recognize premenstrual syndrome (P.M.S) as a collection of symptoms usually experienced in the two weeks before a period. Sore, “lumpy” breasts, sleep problems, a lack of interest in sex, and erratic periods are other symptoms, although some women become much keener on sex just before a period.
The causes of P.M.S. and other menstrual problems are still hotly debated. During this phase of the menstrual cycle levels of the sex hormones progesterone and oestrogen fall, affecting all parts of the body including the brain, which accounts for the wide variety of symptoms reported by women. Hormonal imbalance is certainly crucial factor, although there is a lively dispute over whether P.M.S. is caused by a deficiency of oestrogen or a problem with the way the body uses progesterone. Poor diet, lack of exercise, and stress undoubtedly aggravate the situation and may in some cases turn what might be a mild inconvenience into something much more distressing. There is also evidence that “oestrogen overload” is something of a modern epidemic caused by a combination of the contraceptive pill, poor diet, and stress.
Your symptoms may also be due to something else entirely – a shortage of iron or a thyroid problem, for example – so it is sensible to have a check-up rather than assuming that the problem is related to your monthly cycle.
Vitamin B6, and evening primrose oil are both recommended by doctors: the latter is frequently prescribed for tender breasts, the former for painful periods. For more severe P.M.S. and other menstrual problems the contraceptive pill is often recommended. This suppresses the normal monthly cycle and therefore the symptoms associated with it. The pill can have side effects such as water retention, depression, and headaches, but there are many different varieties to try if the first one prescribed does not suit you.
Conventional medicine treats specific symptoms. Diuretics may be prescribed for water retention. Depression may be treated with tranquilizers and antidepressants. Progesterone therapy – natural progesterone in the form of suppositories – is used by many doctors and does not have the side-effects associated with taking its synthetic form progestogen, which can actually cause depression. In really severe cases of P.M.S. a hormone known as GnRH, which stops the menstrual cycle completely, may be prescribed, while cases of heavy painful periods might be treated with danazol.
A hysterectomy (removal of the womb and ovaries) may be the drastic solution recommended for women suffering very heavy painful periods and conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids if all else has failed to cure the problem.
Complementary medical therapies should be tried for all but the most severe menstrual problems. Orthodox treatment usually revolves around changing the natural hormonal cycle artificially and should be considered only when the alternatives have failed. Persisting or severe bleeding, not responsive within 24 hours to complementary treatment, should be brought to the attention of your physician or gynaecologist.
Once again, nutrition plays a very important part in alleviating menstrual problems. However, if the symptoms are quite pronounced, treatments such as acupuncture, Ayurveda, and aromatherapy, which address the imbalance in the hormonal function, will be necessary as well. In cases where patients find it very difficult to change their diet, these treatments are usually sufficient to address the problem. Supportive Treatments such as light therapy, reflexology, Shiatsu, and hypnotherapy will also have a beneficial effect.
N.B. Amenorrhea. This means that periods stop completely or occur infrequently and is a much more serious problem than is generally realized. It shows that the constitution is in a weakened state and not functioning correctly. Amenorrhea is often aggravated by inadequate nutrition – some vegans and vegetarians, for example, do not make sure that they include all the necessary nutrients in their diet. The Hale Clinic would recommend changes in nutrition. Acupuncture is particularly good at “jump starting” periods again.
Acupuncture treatment is particularly effective for the treatment of heavy or irregular periods. “In Chinese medicine menstrual problems are seen and treated as an imbalance of the liver function”, says one acupuncturist. “The liver controls the smooth flow of blood in the body, so energizing that pathway clears the clotting and stagnation and improves the circulation”.
One patient who suffered extremely heavy periods had been told the only solution was a hysterectomy, but after nine months of acupuncture treatment her periods returned to normal. “It can be a long process”, says the therapist, “but it has proved a real alternative to surgery for women who have not responded to conventional treatments”.
In Chinese medicine liver imbalance is also believed to be the cause of other symptoms of P.M.S. such as anger, irritability, and sugar cravings. These too can be treated successfully by acupuncture. More about acupuncture...
Conventional and complementary medicine alike recognize a link between menstrual problems and an inadequate diet too low in important nutrients. “Dietary factors can have a powerful effect on female hormone chemistry”, says one nutritionist; he believes that many women have found changing their diet far more helpful than hormone treatment in combating period problems and P.M.S. Shortage of Vitamin B and of essential fatty acids found in seafood, green vegetables and some dairy products, as well as a lack of minerals such as magnesium and zinc are implicated in the physical and psychological symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.
Treatment starts with nutritional assessment – many busy women do not realize how poor their diet is until they have to compile a list of what they have eaten in the past week or so. A combination of changing your diet and taking supplements can have a significant effect on menstrual problems – but it requires time and commitment. Your diet should be low in salt, caffeine, sugar and animal fats.
There is also a range of herbal remedies that can be prescribed for specific symptoms such as heavy, painful periods, depression, and water retention, and for adjusting hormone imbalance. Products containing agnus castus or raspberry leaf may be recommended for heavy periods; burdock for water retention; vervain lemon balm, St. John’s Wort, ginseng or many others for depression. More about nutrition...
No one would suggest that premenstrual syndrome and other menstrual problems were “all in the mind”. But there is plenty of research to indicate that stress and other psychological factors have a profound effect on the workings of the body, even though the precise mechanisms may not yet be fully understood. Certainly stress aggravates any tendency to P.M.S., and many of the symptoms – depression, anxiety, food cravings, and bad temper – are, of course, quite similar.
One theory is that the body is particularly sensitive to adrenalin in the two weeks before a period, so that any already existing stress symptoms become more acute at this time.
Hypnotherapy treatment helps relieve stress and uncover any psychological concerns that may be exacerbating, or even causing, your problem. It involves a weekly session for some months and combines hypnosis with counselling. More about hypnotherapy...
P.M.S. and other menstrual problems are defined as an imbalance of Vata, one of three doshas or forces that control activity in the body. Among other things the Vata controls blood circulation and the system of sending messages to the brain.
Ayurvedic therapy aims to calm down the Vata dosha by detoxifying the body. This is one of the fundamental therapies of this ancient Indian system. Treatment starts with an assessment of the individual’s prakriti – their existing state of health – followed by the prescribing of panchakarma herbal treatment. Detoxification may take the form of heat therapy, treatments designed to reduce pressure on the lower part of the body, inhalation, massage with oil, or the use of enemas. Monthly sessions over three of four months usually result in significant reduction in symptoms. More about ayurveda...
“Reflexology provides a deeply relaxing treatment for P.M.S. sufferers”, according to one reflexologist. “The symptoms of irritation, painful periods and back ache are often stress related and reflexology is also very helpful in relieving pain”. Treatment usually involves around six weekly one-hour sessions. The speed of improvement and length of treatment will depend on the individual and how long they have had the problem. There may be a mild reaction to the first treatment. More about reflexology...
Treatment involves diagnosing “the maintaining cause” of menstrual symptoms. “The fundamental problem can be psychological as well as physical”, explains one homeopath, who believes that the stresses of modern life are responsible for a lot of menstrual problems. “Some women resent having periods; others may suffer because they are in a bad relationship. Coming off the pill after many years can play havoc with the hormonal system and an unhealthy lifestyle will aggravate any problems. Often it is a process of persuading the patient to help herself by making certain changes”.
Apart from a general assessment and advice on the patient’s physical and emotional condition, there are specific homeopathic remedies that may be prescribed for menstrual problems. Sepia is one of many remedies that is effective for heavy bleeding, irritability, and depression. Pulsatilla may be recommended by P.M.S. and Folliculinum for regulating periods. More about homeopathy...
Period pain can be relieved by pressing in the centre of the lower abdomen, or a point on the inside of either leg above the ankle.
Maya Abdominal Massage: A non-invasive massage technique that specialises in treating gynaecological and digestive conditions. It improves organ function by relieving congestion, enhancing blood supply; increasing lymphatic drainage and aiding nerve supply to the pelvic and reproductive organs.
Aromatherapy: Massage with essential oils helps rebalance hormones and reduce the effects of stress on them. Hormone-like essential oils such as clary sage, cypress, and geranium are particularly recommended for menstrual problems. Aromatherapy massage also eases pain and tension in the lower back and abdomen. Acupressure during the treatment helps to harmonize the internal energies of organs such as the liver, spleen, heart, and kidneys, reducing symptoms. A clinical aromatherapist will encourage changes in diet and recommend exercise/meditation for self-care.
Healing: In cases of heavy, painful, or irregular periods healing helps rebalance the hormonal system, reduce stress and control the blood flow.
Light Therapy: This works directly on the pineal gland in the brain to stimulate and balance the hormones. It can be used to treat P.M.S. and to regulate heavy, irregular or scanty periods. You can buy a full-spectrum light box and use it at home to ensure you are getting enough light.