What is PMS, anyway?

21 Mar 2023

Discover why you may feel below par at that time of the month – and how to get back in balance PMS, or premenstrual syndrome, refers to the set of symptoms you can experience before your period arrives. It’s estimated that three-quarters of women have had PMS at some point.1 Symptoms of PMS are varied but typically include a mix of physical, emotional and behavioural signs, including:2
  • anxiety
  • low mood, with crying spells
  • mood swings, which may include irritability or anger
  • breast tenderness
  • fatigue
  • acne
  • temporary weight gain, caused by water retention
  • food cravings
  • insomnia
  • feeling an urge to ‘hibernate’
  • changes to your sex drive

Handpicked content: 6 types of acne explained

Thankfully, you’re unlikely to experience all the possible PMS symptoms. Most women have the same few, starting on the same date each month, usually soon after ovulation in the middle of your menstrual cycle.3,4 They can then last until your period starts, or up to seven days after this day.5 For some, PMS symptoms are very mild. But intensity can vary and for others, PMS can be so severe it may be difficult to get on with daily activities, like going to work.6 Other common conditions can be aggravated by PMS, too. For example, if you have IBS, depression, anxiety or chronic fatigue syndrome, you may find symptoms of these also get worse before your period.7

Handpicked content: Nine foods to avoid if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

What causes PMS?

Strangely, doctors don’t know exactly what causes PMS, but researchers assume changes in hormone levels during your menstrual cycle play a role. Oestrogen and progesterone drop dramatically soon after ovulation if you haven’t conceived, and it’s thought this might be behind PMS.

There’s some evidence that women with high levels of stress, a family history of depression or a previous personal history of depression (including postnatal depression) may be more likely to experience PMS too.8

How to help yourself through PMS

It’s important to focus on relieving your PMS all month long, not just in the days before your period. Evidence shows leading a healthy lifestyle is key.

That means taking regular exercise, getting enough sleep, taking steps to manage stress and eating a balanced diet with lots of fresh fruit and veg while avoiding too much sugar, salt and caffeine.

And don’t smoke. A 2011 study published in Menopause International found women who smoke have worse PMS symptoms than non-smoking women.9

The nutrients that may help

There’s quite a bit of research into certain nutrients that can be helpful in managing PMS symptoms. Your PMS superstars include:

Vitamin B6

Researchers at Keele University found that taking 50mg of vitamin B6 once or twice a day could help soothe PMS mood swings, along with other symptoms. You can find B6 in lentils, wholegrains, sunflower seeds and brown rice.10,11

Handpicked content: PMS? Vitamin B6 is your secret weapon

A study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology Science in 2017 found that calcium can help smooth out mood swings during PMS. Good sources of calcium are dairy, green leafy veg and tinned fish with bones.12,13


This mineral may help ease PMS symptoms, including breast tenderness and cramps, possibly because it can help relax muscles. It’s found in nuts, greens, beans and wholegrains.14,15
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
  1. . Mayo Clinic. Premenstrual syndrome. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/premenstrual-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20376780
  2. . As Source 1
  3. . As Source 1
  4. . Office on Women’s Health. Premenstrual syndrome. Available from: https://www.womenshealth.gov/menstrual-cycle/premenstrual-syndrome
  5. . Healthline. Understanding PMS. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/premenstrual-syndrome
  6. . As Source 4
  7. . As Source 4
  8. . As Source 4
  9. . Dennerstein L, Lehert P, Heinemann K. Global epidemiological study of variation of premenstrual symptoms with age and sociodemographic factors. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21903713
  10. . Wyatt KM, et al. Efficacy of vitamin B-6 in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: systematic review. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC27878/
  11. . NHS Choices. B vitamins and folic acid. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-b/
  12. . BDA. Food Fact Sheet: Calcium. Available from: https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/Calcium.pdf
  13. . Shobeiri F, et al. Effect of calcium on premenstrual syndrome: A double-blind randomized clinical trial. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5313351/
  14. . Fathizadeh N, et al. Evaluating the effect of magnesium and magnesium plus vitamin B6 supplement on the severity of premenstrual syndrome. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3208934/
  15. . National Institutes of Health. Magnesium. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/

Related Topics