Over time, we’ve sort of normalized awful periods. We accept that our bodies are going to try to murder us once a month—that the horrendous cramps and mood swings and headaches are just a part of being a woman. Some of us put bandages on the situation by taking birth control to “regulate” our cycles, while others just continue to suffer.
What most of us don’t acknowledge is the idea that these pains and discomforts are often our bodies trying to tell us that something is wrong. Unfortunately, when this happens, the pill presents itself as such an easy fix. I went on the pill when I was seventeen because I was experiencing terrible mood swings, cramps, hot flashes, and heavy bleeding each month. The gynecologist and I convinced my mom to let me go on the pill, which muted the symptoms—the causes of which I’d never even wondered.
PMS symptoms are usually our body’s way of telling us something is wrong.
Monica Yates, ICF-Certified Health Coach and Period Coach, is on a mission to “help women harness the power of their period.” Through her nutritional/wellness programs, speaking engagements, and “period parties,” Yates teaches women how to listen to, nourish, and work with their bodies.
The first step in listening to our bodies is to identify when something just doesn’t seem right. According to Yates, when it comes to our cycles, “anything besides fatigue is not normal.” Those days when the sound of someone’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard? Not normal. The week where you’re so bloated you can’t button your jeans? Not normal. The intense cravings for junk food? Not. Normal.
“Each different PMS symptom is gonna tell you somewhere else to look within your body,” says Yates, and that place is often your hormones. Most of our period-related problems are due to our sex hormones (progesterone and estrogen) being out of balance.
More often than not, if we can identify the root cause, we can lessen the symptoms or stop them altogether. Having talked to women around the globe for the past few years, Yates recognizes the following 10 as the most common period-related symptoms—along with what usually causes each one.
Headaches and migraines can plague the beginning of your cycle or the end. When you get them can say a lot about what’s off balance within your body.
If your headaches are at the beginning of your cycle, it’s likely due to an estrogen drop off, Yates says. “Estrogen has risen too high in your cycle around the time of ovulation. The bigger the drop off, the bigger the side effects.”
Headaches at the end of your cycle, on the other hand, are often caused by a loss of iron (you are losing blood, after all). Your body is probably telling you to consume more iron—whether that comes from red meat, leafy green vegetables, or a supplement.
2. Mood Swings
“Mood swings are caused by an imbalance between the progesterone to estrogen ratio,” says Yates. “Most of us have too much estrogen and not enough progesterone.” The sad reason it’s all-too common? We’re way too stressed out.
“We’re so deficient because we’re so stressed,” says Yates. “Cortisol depletes progesterone.” When you’re stressed out, your body produces cortisol as a “fight-or-flight” response. And since cortisol is made from the same “ingredients” as progesterone, your body prioritizes the perceived threat over fertility (progesterone production).
3. Post-Ovulatory Depression
As your estrogen levels drop in the middle of your cycle, “you want progesterone to rise to counteract,” says Yates. “While estrogen makes you energized, progesterone has an antidepressant/anti-anxiety effect to keep your brain feeling calm.”
When everything is balanced, Yates says, “you should feel zen and calm. Not tired, but not energized.” If your estrogen levels drop and your progesterone levels don’t rise as they should, you might be left feeling tired, fatigued, and depressed. Note: This is different from clinical depression. If you’re feeling depressed around the same time each month, it may be because of low progesterone levels.
As with mood swings and depression, it’s when the anxiety happens around the same time each month that it’s likely related to your hormones. This is not to say that clinical anxiety disorders are caused by a hormone imbalance.
Cycle-related anxiety typically happens right before your period starts—in the luteal phase. Yates says both estrogen and progesterone levels drop during this phase. If you don’t have enough progesterone to begin with or you lose too much, that’s when anxiety and restlessness happen.
Period bloat is different from the feeling you get after eating too much junk food, as—like the other symptoms—it happens around your period. Yates notes a few potential causes for this type of bloating:
- Your body hasn’t flushed out the excess estrogen
- You’re magnesium deficient
- Your gut health isn’t that great
Some fatigue right before your period starts is normal. You might feel a little tired, have sore muscles, and lack your normal endurance levels. “If you can, give yourself the day off and don’t push yourself,” says Yates. “This element of compassion is really going to help with the rest of your PMS symptoms.”
It’s when you’re waking up really tired, never getting a good night’s sleep, and/or crashing in the afternoon that fatigue is a concern, says Yates. Pay attention to how often this is happening and whether you’re able to find relief. It could be a sign that you’re low on estrogen, which helps with energy.
7. Thyroid Issues
Stress is a common thread when it comes to regulating your hormones. When you’re constantly stressed, says Yates, cortisol can suppress your thyroid hormones—leading to a heavy period and blood clots in your menstruation (along with fatigue, a lowered sex drive, a slow metabolism, cold body temperature, etc…).
“Half of the DMs I get are from women with endometriosis,” says Yates. “It’s horrible.” Endometriosis is an estrogen-dominant condition: your body is producing too much estrogen (and probably not enough progesterone), which can lead to the growth of lesions and abnormal tissue around your uterus. Yates suggests starting your relief journey with an anti-inflammatory diet, supplements (turmeric, zinc, l-tyrosine), and lifestyle changes to create an environment where endometriosis is less likely to flourish.
Yates notes four different types of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The causes and remedies for each are different, so it’s important to identify which type you’ve got before making drastic changes.
- Inflammatory PCOS – caused by chronic inflammation
- Insulin-Resistant PCOS – often caused by a poor diet
- Post-Pill PCOS – caused by your body trying to adjust after getting off the pill
- Adrenal PCOS – caused by chronic stress
10. No Period
Unless you’re on birth control that stops your period, you’re pregnant, or you’re approaching menopause, the absence of a period is usually a sign that something’s wrong. One common cause is excessive stress. If you’re constantly in the fight-or-flight stage, Yates says, “your brain can perceive world is not a safe place and can stop ovulation as a defensive mechanism.”
It might also be that you’re not eating enough—or that you’re not eating enough of the right things. “If you’re not eating enough,” says Yates, “the brain perceives a famine and tries to protect you because you can’t sustain a baby and yourself.” You might also not be eating enough carbohydrates or fat—which are necessary for hormone production and ovulation.
“Mother Nature didn’t intend for our periods to be shit.”
“Mother Nature didn’t intend for our periods to be shit,” says Yates. “Once you learn to love your cycle and appreciate it and all the benefits it brings, life becomes easier, which makes you happier, which leads to better periods.” Sign me up for a happier life and better periods, please!
Disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and entertainment purposes only. It cannot diagnose or treat any condition.