Could PMS have a purpose?

Learn what the patterns of your cycle mean…

Andi sat in my office with tears filling her eyes. "I don't understand it! I'm ok for most of the month but near my period I feel lifeless. I get depressed and don't want to leave my house. I think about hurting myself. I...I just feel like life is not worth living." 

Andi has a condition called PMDD which is an extreme and debilitating form of PMS that can include thoughts of suicide. Life before her period had become a scary roller coaster ride of emotions. 

While most women do not feel suicidal near their menses, there are a long list of other bothersome symptoms that can appear like anxiety, depression, irritability, low energy, food cravings, breast tenderness, migraine, cramping, and bloating. 

And how are women taught to manage these symptoms? Mostly by taking medications like painkillers, diuretics (water pills), anti-depressants and birth control pills. 

But is there a way to find meaning and insight in the symptoms of PMS?

Is there a way to stop simply suppressing symptoms every month and use these insights for healing and transformation of our lives? 

"Vital signs" like heart rate and blood pressure are often collected during doctor's visits because they are considered measures of the body's most essential functions. I think of the menstrual cycle as a "vitality sign" because it provides a special window into a women's health and wellbeing. 

PMS and other period problems can be signs of inflammation, abnormal gut flora and nutrient deficiencies. The health of a women's cycle can provide insight into the function of the liver, thyroid and endocrine system, digestive tract, and the immune and musculoskeletal systems. It can even provide insight into brain function! 

The 28 day menstrual cycle involves a complex symphony of hormones. There are rising and falling levels of estrogen, progesterone, LH, FSH and other hormones. If levels of these hormones are out of balance, it can lead to an increase in symptoms. For example, if estrogen levels are high and progesterone levels are too low before the period, it is common to have more breast tenderness, heavy bleeding, anxiety and difficulty sleeping.

After the menses begins, it is normal for hormone levels to drop and temporarily shift into a balance that looks more like the hormone levels of menopause. This shift may help a women realize that things are "off" in her life. For example, she may realize that a relationship with a loved one is not as healthy or supportive as it should be. She may recognize that she has not been speaking honestly about her needs. She may also become suddenly aware that she is over-scheduled and not carving out enough time for self-care. 

If these issues are not realized or addressed, they will continue to arise month after month, year after year. 

Unfortunately, women are not often taught the importance of understanding their cycle and how to use that knowledge for better health. 

The messages we get are that the menstrual cycle is a big fat nuisance that should be suppressed at all costs. And certainly if it is painful and debilitating, I totally understand why a woman would want to get rid of it altogether! 

But if you can start to understand the messages your cycle is sending, you can start to unravel the problems and the pain. You can start to correct the underlying root causes and begin to heal. 

A simple way to start the process of discovery and healing is to simply track your cycle. This can be written in a notebook, on a calendar, in a spreadsheet or in a tracking app on your phone. 

Remember that Day 1 of your cycle is the first day of your period. Track the number of days you bleed and how heavy the bleeding is. How many pads or tampons do you use on your heaviest day? Is there cramping or clotting? 

We often think of a healthy cycle as being 28 days but this can vary slightly from person to person. If your cycle is consistently shorter than 25 days or longer than 30 days, this may be a sign of an issue to address. 

Start to note symptoms, emotions, energy changes throughout the cycle. Do you feel more energetic around mid-cycle? Irritated at your boss or your kids near your period? Do you seem to get a migraine headache a few days before your period? Write it all down. You will soon start to see patterns emerge. 

Once you've gone through this process of discovery, consider working with a practitioner who can help you interpret the meaning of these patterns and co-create a plan to not only get rid of bothersome symptoms but truly heal your cycle in body, mind and spirit.