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Premenstrual syndrome, also known as PMS, is a common cause of physical and psychological distress for women in their reproductive years. Canadian researchers find that 40 per cent of women have substantial symptoms that disrupts their lives every month, and 5 per cent of women are completely incapacitated.
Of all the nutritional supplements tested for the relief of PMS, calcium carbonate-the cheapest form of the supplement-gets the best results. The usually effective dosage of calcium carbonate is 1,200 mg a day, but because the body can only absorb about 400 mg of calcium at a time, it needs to be taken in three separate doses, morning, noon, and night. Calcium should not be taken at the same time you take any other vitamins or minerals. Women who take calcium need magnesium to make sure the calcium goes into the tissues where it is needed.
Calcium most often helps relieve mood swings, fluid retention, carbohydrate cravings, and pain. The benefits usually are not noticed until the third month. Women who tend to get constipated around the time of their periods especially need to take magnesium, at least 400 mg a day, also in two separate doses.
With vitamin B6, PMS symptoms related to mood swings are most affected. Vitamin B6 is a cofactor for enzymes the brain needs to turn the amino acid tryptophan into the mood regulator serotonin and the feel-good chemical dopamine. Women who are already on antidepressants probably won't notice any effects. For some women using vitamin B6, PMS bloating symptoms are not affected at all, but for other women using vitamin B6, PMS mood swings are greatly relieved.
Just don't take a tremendous amount of B6(check vitamin B6 overdose page for more information). As little as 30 milligrams a day is enough to make a difference. Taking 500 milligrams a day can cause more problems than it corrects. And taking vitamin B6 with magnesium (with or without calcium) is best.
A study in the United Kingdom found that women who took 200 mg of magnesium every day plus 50 mg of vitamin B6 often got relief from anxiety, irritability, mood swings, and nervous tension, usually in the first month. B6 plus magnesium works faster than calcium plus magnesium, although it's best to start taking them as soon as one menstrual period ends to reduce PMS symptoms during the next period.
What about other natural therapies for PMS?
Evening primrose oil is more helpful for women who have problems with hard cervical discharges in the middle of their periods, usually just before ovulation. It is not as useful for PMS, and it's not recommended for women who have any history of seizure disorders.
The herb vitex, also known as agnus-castus, is especially useful in reducing breast pain, but women should stop taking it if a period does not come as expected. That's because vitex is not recommended during pregnancy. Vitex usually takes three to four months to begin to work.
And what about birth control pills?
Doctors often recommend changes in birth control pills to stop PMS. The idea is that changes in the ratio of progestin to estrogen in the pills will change PMS symptoms.
The first month the new Pill is taken, however, the change in progestin to estrogen ratio itself will make PMS symptoms worse. Many women then demand to go back to their prior brand of contraceptive, not experiencing any relief.
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Thys-Jacobs S, Starkey P, Bernstein D, Tian J. Calcium carbonate and the premenstrual syndrome: effects on premenstrual and menstrual symptoms. Premenstrual Syndrome Study Group. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1998 Aug;179(2):444-452.