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What is PMS?

December 3 2020 | Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her)

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “wow she’s not in a very good mood, she must be PMS-ing”... well, I’m sure you know where this is going. Growing up, every time I was moody, touchy or emotional, everyone seemed to assume it was because I was menstruating. Even before getting my period for the first time, I remember thinking to myself that menstruating would be the bane of my existence and that every month would bring a week-long sob-fest of rom-com marathons accompanied by bottomless tubs of ice cream. However, after years of getting my period, I’ve realized that my personal experience doesn’t mirror this description at all. Sure, I go through the occasional mood-swing, but who doesn’t? 

I’ve since been questioning everything I’ve learned over the years about what to expect while menstruating. I wonder if perhaps I am in the minority of menstruators who don’t deal with many symptoms of PMS, or maybe PMS as a whole has been painted in the wrong light? In order to clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding this topic, this week’s, the Marlow team is exploring all things PMS: understanding what exactly it is, highlighting the truth about what it means to have it, and debunking some of the myths that circulate about it.

What is PMS?

PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome, and is used to describe a range of symptoms (both physical and emotional) associated with the menstrual cycle. A general rule is that  in order to be diagnosed with PMS, a patient must experience a pattern of symptoms within the 5 day period leading up to the first day of menses, and these symptoms must persist for at least 3 cycles in a row. In pop-culture, it’s commonly known to be characterized by being highly-emotional, but there is way more to PMS than just being moody!

This example from New Girl perfectly illustrates how PMS is generally viewed in society. Main character, Jess is overtaken by her emotions in this scene, embodying the PMS trope: someone who is extremely emotional and ready to pop-off at any moment. While this may be the reality for some menstruators, it is important to remember that not every individual with PMS will experience these symptoms. Making this assumption paints all menstruators as irrational and can sometimes be used to invalidate their feelings.

Constantly making this assumption paints menstruators as weak and irrational.

What are the symptoms of PMS?

There are a variety of symptoms that accompany a premenstrual syndrome diagnosis. In fact, over 200 have been associated with PMS but few are solely related to the menstrual cycle. Some may experience only a couple of these symptoms, whereas others may experience all of the symptoms, everyone is different!

Here are some of the known symptoms of PMS:

  • Depressed mood

  • Anxiety

  • Sudden sadness

  • Anger or irritability

  • Decreased interest in usual activities

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Lack of energy

  • Change in appetite

  • Hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness)

  • Insomnia (sleeplessness)

  • Breast tenderness

  • Bloating

  • Weight gain

  • Headaches

  • Joint and/or muscle pain

  • Abdominal pain

  • Low sex drive

  • Diarrhea or constipation

  • Hot flashes 

How common is PMS?

PMS is incredibly common! 90% of menstruators say that they have experienced a variety of these symptoms at some point in their lives. Whether mild or severe, most people who menstruate report that they have had to adjust and learn how to manage their symptoms of PMS.

As stated previously, a PMS diagnosis is made after an individual has experienced symptoms consistently: within 5 days before the beginning of their period, for 3 cycles in a row. 

For the purpose of this blog, we reached out to our followers to learn a bit more about their realities of living with (or without) PMS. Based on our polls, we found that 91% of respondents regularly experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, and 76% find that their symptoms impact their day to day life and ability to perform everyday tasks. 

Many respondents highlighted that their physical symptoms are most common, ie. abdominal cramps, breast tenderness and bloating. Others stated that their emotional symptoms are more difficult to manage. One respondent even wrote: “I get lost in my sadness/isolation.”

Is there a cure for PMS?

Well, the short answer to this is no, BUT there are several ways that you can manage your symptoms. If you do experience symptoms of PMS, you need to figure out what works best for your own body, and a lot of this will come with trial and error. 

Typically when first starting to manage symptoms, it’s good practice to start by making small lifestyle changes. This could mean trying to increase your exercise frequency, improving your sleep schedule, and making an effort to include more nutrient dense foods into your diet. Some studies also suggest limiting your caffeine intake and avoiding regular consumption of alcohol. 

Aside from various changes in lifestyle, some menstruators choose to use over-the-counter pain relief medication in order to manage their symptoms. Ultimately, getting to know your own body is super important, test out different relief methods and see what works best for you!

In our Instagram poll, many of our followers also shared what tends to help them manage their symptoms. Some of their tips being: working out, using hot water bottles, drinking tea, spending time outside, getting a good amount of rest, and sometimes even having a good cry.

If managing PMS through lifestyle adjustments and over-the-counter medications isn’t doing the trick, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor! There are several other options that can sometimes offer some relief (birth control pills, IUDs, etc), so if you are struggling with managing your symptoms, consider talking to a medical professional and getting their input.