PMS: when hormones go haywire

Spot breakouts, tender breasts, crying for no reason: premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can take many forms. Find out what’s happening in our bodies and what can relieve symptoms.

09.06.2022 Laetitia Hardegger 7 minutes

Did you feel great about yourself yesterday, yet today your trousers are too tight and everything irritates you? Then take a look at the calendar. It’s highly likely that the irritable days are just before your period. Many women find the monthly roller coaster of hormones before menstruation stressful.

What is PMS?

The medical term “premenstrual syndrome” covers a variety of symptoms that women can experience after ovulation up to menstruation. The cause of PMS has not yet been scientifically identified. Researchers believe that an imbalance in the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone triggers the syndrome. In turn, this affects the happiness hormone serotonin and can cause bad moods. The good news: when your period begins, the symptoms disappear and won’t return for at least two weeks.

The four phases of the menstrual cycle

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder

The most severe form of PMS is premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). It is characterised by depression, poor concentration and unusually impulsive behaviour. Approximately 3–8% of women are affected. The exact cause of PMDD is unknown. One factor is probably a genetic hypersensitivity to the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Serotonin metabolism disorders could also be a cause. It is hereditary. Women with PMDD are at high risk of postpartum depression after the birth of a child.

More information about postpartum depression

Who is affected?

Statistically, about one in four women of childbearing age suffers from PMS. Symptoms disappear during pregnancy and after menopause.

Are you unsure whether you’re affected by premenstrual syndrome? Keeping a menstrual diary can help: make a note of which symptoms occur and when, and then evaluate it with your gynaecologist.

Common symptoms and what helps combat them

Prostaglandins – substances released by the body during menstruation – are to blame. They cause the womb to contract to ensure that blood, tissue and other body fluids can be discharged.

Heat helps with feelings of tightness and cramps in the abdomen: put a hot water bottle on your stomach, take a warm bath or apply a heat patch. Gentle exercise like Nordic walking, hiking, cycling or yoga can also help relax the womb’s muscle contractions. In the acute phases, anti-spasmodics can be useful for coping with everyday life.

Natural remedies: Lady’s mantle, silverweed, yarrow, chamomile

In the second half of the cycle, the hormone oestrogen stimulates the growth of breast duct tissue.

If your breasts are particularly sensitive or tender, then quark compresses can help. They are cooling and reduce swelling.

Natural remedies: Agnus castus

Shortly before your period, the body works particularly hard and your metabolism speeds up – meaning it requires up to 350 additional calories. This manifests as increased hunger – particularly for sweet food. Low magnesium levels and the stress hormone cortisol are another reason for food cravings.

What you eat makes a difference: fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain products and potatoes contain plenty of vitamins and minerals. Fish is preferable to dairy products and meat.

Natural remedies: Peppermint, ginger, Jerusalem artichoke

Both the increase and decrease in hormones shortly before menstruation can trigger headaches. Some women suffer from menstrual migraines, which is not considered a PMS symptom but is a separate diagnosis.

The contraceptive pill is considered an effective remedy for PMS headaches. Otherwise, conventional painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol are generally beneficial. Two to three drops of peppermint oil or tiger balm on the forehead and temples can help with tension headaches.

Natural remedies: Meadowsweet, feverfew, lavender, ginger and willow bark

Severe cramps in the womb can have an effect on the surrounding muscles and spread to the back and joints.

As with abdominal pain, heat relaxes your muscles. So try filling a hot water bottle or warming up a microwave heat pack.

Natural remedies: Lemon balm, ginger, St. John’s wort

Researchers found that changes in ovarian hormones throughout the menstrual cycle are the cause of disturbed sleep. In addition, melatonin is lower in the female body during this phase of the cycle. Melatonin is the most important hormone for healthy sleep. 

It is better to resist cravings for sugary and unhealthy food, such as chocolate, crisps or pizza. A study found that women who ate a lot of plant-based products reduced the side effects of PMS by 76%.  A low-calorie diet before your period can therefore help to improve sleep quality.

Natural remedies: Valerian, hops, lemon balm, lavender, passion flower, oats

These herbs can help with sleeplessness

The body’s temperature control gets mixed up not only during menopause but also before menstruation. Also, oestrogen levels are at their lowest at this time.

Kneipp treatments with alternating hot and cold showers, mud baths and alternating hot and cold foot baths help bring your body temperature back into balance.

Natural remedies: Agnus castus, black cohosh, sage, lavender, yarrow, lady’s mantle

Doctors believe that oestrogen has an effect on the cardiovascular system, the fat and sugar metabolism and the gut. This can lead to cycle-related hormonal nausea, wind and constipation.

Healthy eating and getting plenty of exercise can relieve this. Suitable stomach-friendly foods include rice, fish and ripe bananas. Sugar, caffeine and nicotine should be avoided.

Natural remedies: Peppermint, savory, ginger, mallow (for heartburn)

Again, this is down to hormones: the oestrogen level drops rapidly and testosterone comes into play instead. It stimulates the sebaceous glands, resulting in greasy skin, blocked pores and consequently spots prior to menstruation. 

Along with regular cleansing, drying sulphur paste or clay applied to the skin at night can help. You can cleanse your face gently with a facial steam bath or an enzyme peel. You should seek medical treatment for severe acne.

Natural remedies: Chamomile, marjoram, sage, thyme, oregano, aniseed, parsley, chervil, juniper berries, rosemary, yarrow

Water is often retained in the breasts, eyelids, hands, feet and legs. Your body weight increases and you feel bloated. This is thought to be caused by increased permeability of the capillary wall to protein. Fluid and protein leak into the connective tissue. This leads to deficiencies in the blood vessels. The body reacts by immediately producing a wide range of hormones. These then retain body fluids and salt. This reduces excretion and the deposits increase slowly but steadily. 

A low-salt diet and diuretic foods, such as cucumbers, melons, pineapples, strawberries and asparagus, prevent water retention.

Natural remedies: Beech leaves, ginger, nettle, dandelion, coriander

Do you still have questions about PMS?

Our health advisors can provide you with useful information.

More information about our health consultation service

What helps relieve mood swings?

“She must be on her period again” – do comments like this annoy you too? On the strenuous days just before their period, women are subjected to a turmoil of changing emotions: irritability, anger, exhaustion, insecurity, depression and listlessness. It’s as if you’ve lost control of your feelings. If you suffer from mood swings in the second half of your cycle, you could significantly improve your well-being with very little effort:

Gentle exercise

A relaxing walk in nature often helps more than a hot water bottle in bed – even though you may have to motivate yourself first. Gentle exercise reduces PMS and rebalances the body. Along with gentle cardio exercise, things like yoga are a good way to take a deep breath and relax the mind and body.

Everything you need to know about yoga

Getting sufficient sleep

If your sleep disturbances are menstrual-related, it is often due to changes in hormone levels in the second half of your cycle. Progesterone has a sleep-inducing effect. If the level drops before menstruation, it can lead to disturbed sleep. This in turn has a negative effect on the adrenal glands and increases cortisol levels in the body. The production of the happiness hormone serotonin is reduced at the same time. If there is too much cortisol constantly circulating in the blood, this also affects your mood: mood swings, irritability and consistently bad moods are then common.


It can help to cut out caffeine and alcohol and instead increase magnesium intake (e.g. in bananas, nuts and broccoli). Treat yourself to a relaxing evening – for example with a good long massage or a warm bath. Products containing melatonin or valerian can help if you have difficulty falling asleep.

Mindfulness

Consciously shorten your daily to-do list and create regular oases of calm in your daily life. Meditation and mindfulness exercises can work wonders on mood swings and hormonal irritability. Just a few minutes a day helps to restore mental balance and to deal with cycle-related symptoms more calmly.

Learn how to meditate easily

Read more

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The monthly cycle affects the mind and body more than we think. What exactly happens? We explain the four phases in simple terms.
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