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That time of the month

For many women, the few days before a period is due are the worst days of the month.  For some this time means little more than being slightly more irritable than usual, but for others it can signal a whole array of devastating emotional and physical changes.
Pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS is caused by the hormone changes that occur during the second half of the menstrual cycle, after ovulation and before start of the next menstrual period.  For many women, symptoms only last for three or four days, but for others the ordeal can drag on for up to two weeks.  Given that the period itself may last a week, this leaves only one week or less during which the woman feels any sense of normality.

The emotional symptoms of PMS have received the most attention, and for this reason the condition is sometimes referred to as pre-menstrual tension or PMT.  Many women feel emotionally vulnerable at this time and may find themselves in tears over events which would not normally cause such distress.  However, what most sufferers seem to find particularly distressing is the tendency to become extremely irritable, angry or even violent.  These outbursts are usually disproportionately severe in terms of the events that trigger them, and sufferers often worry about the intense hatred they can feel towards their partner at this time of the month.  They may also be concerned about angry outbursts, which can often be directed towards their children.

The physical symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome are less well known but may be equally distressing.  The most common is fluid retention, which may lead to abdominal bloating, swollen hands and feet, and breast pain or tenderness.  In some cases abdominal cramps or lower back pain can occur before the period starts, and cravings for carbohydrates (especially chocolate) are also common.  In the most severe cases symptoms can include fatigue, constipation, muscle or joint pain, recurrent vaginal thrush, acne, swollen glands and migraines.

Pre-menstrual syndrome is usually caused by a relative deficiency of the hormone progesterone in relation to the other hormones that govern the menstrual cycle.  There is often an additional sensitivity to the hormone prolactin which is produced at this time of the month.

The most useful herb for treating pre-menstrual syndrome is chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus).  This herb works on the pituitary gland to normalise hormone production and generally leads to increased levels of progesterone and decreased levels of prolactin. It is extremely effective in reducing pre-menstrual symptoms when taken over the course of a few months.  Of course this depends on the quality of the product and the dose taken.

A combination of herbs may be used to provide relief from stubborn symptoms.  For example, herbal diuretics such as dandelion leaf can help to reduce fluid retention and bloating.  Numerous herbs are also available which can treat other symptoms such as breast tenderness, abdominal cramps, fatigue, constipation, recurrent vaginal thrush, and migraines.  For symptoms which are numerous or severe it may be beneficial to consult a qualified practitioner of herbal medicine who can prescribe an individually tailored blend of herbs.

In addition there are a number of supplements available, which can support herbal treatment and help to reduce symptoms.  Vitamin B complex supports the nervous system and preparations containing high levels of vitamin B6 are particularly useful for pre-menstrual syndrome.  Essential fatty acids are also helpful for this condition, particularly brands that combine Evening primrose and fish oils. It is also important to eat a healthy diet including plenty of fresh vegetables, nuts and seeds, and reduce consumption of red meat and dairy products.