“Are you getting your period, baby?” asked my then boyfriend once after an incident of sidewalk rage on my part.
Naturally, that didn’t exactly go over well with me, especially when I quickly did the math and realized that he was right.
Damn you for being more on top of my hormones than I am, I thought, holding back the wave of emotion that flooded over me as daggers from my eyes pierced his, knowing he’d never fully understand.
There’s a meme I’ve seen circled through social media that reads: “Do you ever start crying about something & then the next day you get your period and you’re like, I knew I wasn’t a weak-ass bitch?”
We’ve all been there, right?
The thing is, while it’s pretty funny/relatable to many females, the reality is that premenstrual syndrome – or, “PMS” as it’s more widely known – still seems something of a joke than a mental health condition to be taken seriously.
But it’s time to get serious about it.
With that said, the female period is having an overdue moment in the spotlight, with a handful of impactful campaigns as of late designed to (finally) remove the stigma associated with periods. One company in the UK has even introduced a “period policy,” giving female employees time off for cramps.
Finally, some employers are starting to realize the real effects of PMS.
But, wanting to binge on every comforting food item in sight or being bed-ridden with debilitating cramps is one thing. The effect of PMS on your overall mood and mental health is quite another. The psychological symptoms of PMS, of course, include extreme irritability, sadness and anxiety – and they often surface without any warning.
That’s because many of us don’t plan for it.
As women, most of us are regimented when it comes to tracking periods thanks to years of trying not to become pregnant, followed by years of knowing the precise window in which we should try to get pregnant.
But when it comes to PMS, most of us aren’t so astute. That is, until it overtakes us like the devil and we wonder whether we’re losing our minds until a few days later when good, old “Aunt Flow” decides to grace us in all her bloodstained glory.
For some women, the week leading up to her period may be characterized by something much more worrisome than regular PMS.
In recent years, attention has turned to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which, in simple terms, is basically severe PMS that can be difficult to control and can cause everything form heightened anxiety to suicidal thoughts. The phenomenon affects two to five per cent of females who are of reproductive age.
Earlier this week, new research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry revealed that genes play an important role in the more severe forms of PMS. Those “lucky few” who experience PMDD may have a cellular disorder that can be blamed.
According to researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women with PMDD are more sensitive to the effects of sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, thanks to a molecular mechanism in their genes.
While researchers already knew that women with PMDD are probably more sensitive to these hormones, they were able to find a specific subset of genes that makes some women more sensitive than others by studying their white blood cells.
The researchers hope that shedding light on the role of genes in PMDD will help treat women with such mood disorders. Currently, the only tested treatments available to treat the psychological symptoms are antidepressants, and hormone therapy to stabilize the hormones in the body – both of which are not without their side effects.
“This is a big moment for women’s health, because it establishes that women with PMDD have an intrinsic difference in their molecular apparatus for response to sex hormones – not just emotional behaviours they should be able to voluntarily control,” said Dr. David Goldman of the NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and colleagues.
The research is also important because it proves that PMS isn’t something we construct in our heads as an excuse for acting like a spoiled bratty child or a crotchety old woman.
Back in 2002, psychology professor Joan Chrisle told the American Psychological Association that PMS and PMDD are both “’culture-bound’ syndromes.” She argues that it’s a societal construction created to brand women as dysfunctional for having perfectly normal feelings.
In 2012, research emerged from our very own University of Toronto that also claimed that PMS might not be real. Findings led by University of Toronto experts revealed no clear link between a woman’s negative moods and the pre-menstrual phase of their cycle.
“There is so much cultural baggage around women’s menstrual cycles, and entire industries built around the idea that women are moody, irrational — even unstable — in the phase leading up to menstruation,” says Dr. Gillian Einstein, one of several U of T experts who reviewed the literature. She claimed her review shows no clear evidence that PMS exists.
Um, I’m pretty sure most of us would beg to differ.
Most of my friends will be the first to admit that it’s damn real and it’s not easy to control. Other recent research even found that a woman’s brain on PMS is similar to her brain on alcohol or depressants.
Among my girlfriends, coping tactics range from Midol to marijuana (oh, and staying far, far away from the TTC during rush hour). Some experts advise staying away from things like salt and alcohol in the week leading up to your period to make you less bloated and feel less destitute. Some women swear by herbal remedies like evening primrose oil, raspberry leaf, dandelion, ginger, or natural progesterone creams.
It’s important to make a conscious effort to reduce your stress level in the week leading up to your period by setting aside “me time” for things like yoga, meditation, extra sleep or a massage. Make a point to allocate more time for exercise – literally put it in your calendar if you have to.
The point is, we really should be paying attention to the timing of our PMS and have mechanisms in place to deal with it.
Apps like the Life Period Tracker can keep you on top of your PMS and period so that you can better prepare for it. If you think you suffer from PMS, you may also want to keep track of your symptoms and the severity of them over the next few months. You can record your symptoms on a PMS symptom tracker and take it with you to see a doctor.
Because, really, life is stressful enough without having to go through added turmoil each month until menopause.