Periods can make you feel like total crap — leaving you exhausted and achey, like you have the flu or some rare disorder that will eventually be named after you.
What you might think of as the “period flu” are the real (and rough) symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
A little statistical insight…
A survey of more than 32,000 Dutch women, ages 15 to 45, found that 13.8 percent missed work due to period symptoms. On average, the women missed 1.3 days of work per year due to their periods. About 80 percent of women in the study reported that even though they were at work, they lost productivity during their periods.
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s some deeply misogynistic bullshit to measure a woman’s productivity in the workforce in relation to her natural biological rhythms.” Well, 67.7 percent of participants also said they would appreciate more flexible schedules so they could work around their sometimes debilitating period symptoms. A girl can dream.
Some months you’re knocked down so hard, you assume there must be something wrong, and might ask is this really just PMS?
More than 90 percent of women say they have some PMS symptoms; some are mild and some are severe enough to impact daily activities. Women in their 30s are most likely to have PMS.
Let’s have a look at the common symptoms of PMS:
- feeling tired
- trouble with concentration or memory
- constipation or diarrhea
- bloating or a gassy feeling
- appetite changes or food cravings
- sensitivity to noise or light
- swollen or tender breasts
- sleep problems
- tension or anxiety
- depression, feelings of sadness, or crying spells
- mood swings
- low libido
Getting slammed with a pile of these symptoms at once definitely feels miserable. And it gets worse. An unlucky 5 percent of women of childbearing age have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) which is even more intense than PMS.
If you experience the exhaustion and pain associated with PMDD, you might swear your period is as bad as the flu.
You’re cursed to suffer. Just kidding! Your body is a highly complex wonderland, the essence of life (menstrual blood contains stem cells!!!), and is almost completely explainable by science.
Throughout the menstrual cycle, hormone levels wax and wane to support the delicate process of ovulation and menstruation. PMS begins after ovulation as estrogen and progesterone drop.
Symptoms fade during your period when hormone levels start to rise again. Shifting serotonin levels may also be a factor for women who experience PMDD. PMS symptoms tend to worsen by the late 30s and 40s and during perimenopause.
High stress levels and a family or personal history of depression may contribute to your chances of having PMS.
These conditions also tend to coexist with or be worsened by PMS:
It can be pretty tough to tell the difference between PMS, the flu, pregnancy, and some totally unrelated illnesses. Thanks, body!
Some of the first symptoms of early pregnancy — fatigue, headache, and nausea or vomiting — are suspiciously similar to flu symptoms (and lots of other issues).
If you think a recently fertilized egg might be the cause of your yucky feelings, remember a missed period is your clue that it’s time to take a pregnancy test. If your period never shows and you still feel sick, test again and call the doc to figure out what’s up.
OK, enough with the who, what, when, where, and why of weird hormonal symptoms. How do you make it go away and start feeling like your perky self again? Strap in — there’s a lot you can do to make the monthly hormone roller coaster more fun, or at least less terrible.
Feel better fast
If pain is your problem, reach for over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen.
There is some evidence that taking supplements —particularly calcium and vitamin B6 — may help with PMS symptoms. For some, dairy and cruciferous veg might lead to more gas and bloating that time of month. Instead, reach for these in capsule form.
You may have heard herbal supplements, like black cohosh, chasteberry, and evening primrose oil, can help with PMS. Studies on these substances are sparse and inconclusive. Do your research, talk to a healthcare provider, and use caution before taking any supplements.
They’re not tested or regulated like prescription meds.
Prevent future bouts with period flu
Follow these tips all month to turn down the dial on PMS symptoms:
- Sleep about 8 hours a night to ease anxiety and depression.
- Exercise to vanquish depression and fatigue. Seems counterintuitive, but it works!
- Talk to someone. Research suggests cognitive behavior therapy can help with premenstrual disorders.
- Treat yourself to a massage.
- Practice yoga. In one study, women who practiced yoga for 12 weeks needed less pain medication and their work was less impacted by menstrual pain. Participants reported less pain, abdominal swelling, breast tenderness, cramps, and cold sweats.
- Reduce caffeine, salt, and sugar 2 weeks before your period.
- Ditch the cigs. Smoking is associated with worse PMS symptoms.
Your doc may prescribe some medications to control symptoms associated with your period. Anti-anxiety meds and antidepressants may help with the emotional symptoms of PMS.
Diuretics can relieve bloating. Hormonal birth control may reduce symptoms, but they may also make things worse for some people. Work closely with your doctor to find the right solution.
While a “normal” menstrual cycle can certainly cause you to feel like you have the flu, check in with your doctor if you have symptoms that are outside what’s normal for you.
If you aren’t able to keep up with daily life because of symptoms, that’s another good reason to check in with the doctor about causes and treatment. Before you decide to take supplements for period symptoms, talk to your doctor about possible side effects and drug interactions.
Yes, period symptoms can be serious enough to send you hiding under the covers — just like the flu. Hormone fluctuations may cause PMS or PMDD that feels like having the flu every month.
You don’t have to ignore it and power through. Try the tips above to reduce the physical and emotional symptoms of PMS and PMDD. There are also prescription options for treating the “period flu.”