Premenstrual syndrome (commonly referred to as PMS) is an issue that many women are familiar with in one form or another: up to 75% of women suffer from moderate to severe symptoms as some point during their childbearing years. Modern medicine only has limited options to offer to women who suffer from PMS, and they are often short-term solutions such as painkillers. This is why women often look at alternatives such as herbs and other natural remedies, which have been used for generations of women with success.
What is PMS?
PMS can be difficult to identity because it has a very varied range of symptoms: headache, bloating, irritability, mood swings, skin problems and others . There is a lack of research on the causes of PMS and how it works, but it appears clear that it is related to hormones levels increasing and decreasing during the menstrual cycle and creating an imbalance in the body.
PMS can have a severe impact on women’s quality of life, leading some to miss school or work, having issues with sleep, or affecting their mental health. It can be particularly helpful to keep a diary of when symptoms occur and how they manifest themselves, to identify possible triggers.
In more severe cases, we talk about PMDD (Prementrual dysphoric disorder). Again, treatment for PMDD is usually limited to birth control pills, antidepressants and NSAIDs (pain relief medicine), who all come with side effects.
How herbalism can help with PMS symptoms
First of all, it is important to look at one’s diet, sleep pattern and exercise regime, as these can all have an impact on PMS symptoms. Herbal remedies can be very beneficial for women because they generally have no side effects, are safe on the long term, and have been used successfully for centuries in folk medicine.
One of the herbs most commonly used for PMS related symptoms is Chasteberry (Vitex Agnus Castus). It is said to be particularly efficient against breast tenderness, and it also helps with a variety of symptoms such as bloating and headache. In practice, Chasteberry increases levels of Luteinizing Hormone (LH) in the body, while decreasing Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH). It can thus help the body address changing hormone levels during the menstrual cycle and help it reestablish balance.
Another herb that is very frequently prescribed for women’s issues is St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). St John’s wort is often used against depression and irritability as it is said to increase serotonin levels. A word of caution: be careful if you are taking antidepressants, as combining them with St John’s wort can be dangerous. A 2010 study confirmed that “Hypericum perforatum was statistically superior to placebo in improving physical and behavioural symptoms of PMS”. St John’s wort should be taken in the morning, as it is a stimulant.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is recommended for cramps: it is a highly relaxing plant with antispasmodic properties. Valerian is a perennial plant native to Europe and Asia, and it has a very long history of medicinal use. It was particularly used for insomnia as it has a sedative effect. It can easily be taken as a tea made from valerian roots, as it is the most potent part.
For digestive issues related to PMS, carminative herbs such as fennel seeds can be very helpful and in fact fennel seems to help reduce PMS symptoms more generally, as shows this study.
Evening Primrose oil is also frequently recommended, but there is little evidence that it is efficient: a 1990 study seems to suggest that any improvement experienced by women could simply be due to a placebo effect.