Ask An Adult: Is There A Medical Reason We Actually Need Chocolate When We've Got PMS?
The Debrief: And the truth behind other period myths, busted in a way no instruction booklet inside a tampon packet will ever let slip…
Artwork by Beth Hoeckel
Nothing’s in its right place, you’re warm then cold then warm then cold no matter how many layers you put on, you begin to feel everyone around you is there to simply get in your way, and you cannot stop Googling photos of macaroni cheese. What on earth could this be? Well, it’s PMS signifying the just-about-monthly (or longer or shorter, many people are irregular) return of your period, duh. And acknowledging it is the first step to overcoming it.
As Lily Allen once sang ‘periods, we all get periods’, but still, PMS, that time before periods when hormone discrepancies cause changes in body shape and moods, is used as a stick to beat us with. People – both women and men – will write off our legitimate white hot rage as ‘oh, you’re just coming on’, and nothing will be more infuriating than when they actually get it right. But, at a low level, every time someone assumes that our anger is down to our period, it gives credence to the idea that women can’t be legitimately angry about anything.
On top of the stigma associated with PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, to use its full name), we have to deal with a whole bunch of other things presumably going haywire. We bloat, we get diarrhoea, we have an urge to tidy our flats to near-clinical levels of hygiene… but why is all of this? And is there anything that happens to us ahead of our periods that can be spun around so that they’re no longer hindrances to our lives, but actually times of great productivity? Can we myth-bust PMS into something quite positive? After all, it’s literally very draining to think that we might all be destined to spend 5-8 years of our lives feeling like crap.
Which is why we decided to ask some sensible adults to bust the physical and psychological myths around PMS in a way you’ll never learn from the instruction booklet inside a tampon packet:
The myth: you’re disproportionately angry
The reality: While Dr Sophie Wilkinson (not the author of this piece, we promise) says that ‘some people have really bad problems with rage’, she says that this sort of anger isn’t necessarily felt by everyone. ‘Some people feel it much more than others.’ However, Dr Ellen Goudsmit, a psychologist who has written academic papers such as Functional Disorders of the Menstrual Cycle, claims that this is just women becoming functional in their socialising: ‘You lose your tolerance for stupidity. It’s not that we’re erratic, it’s more a case of “I can’t cope with bullshit today.”'
This feeling can totally make people more productive. Dr Wilkinson explains that the anxiety people feel when they’ve got symptoms of PMS can be converted into really good, productive energy. ‘We don’t like dealing with the unknown, but once you realise what’s going on, you’re much more likely to deal with it. Some people relay their anxieties in different ways. Where one person might go on a massive cleaning spree, I would probably read really manically.’ So that whole idea that women are too temperamental to work with ahead of their periods? Bullshit.
The myth: you actually need chocolate
The reality: Very possibly. We all know the temptation of hibernating with whatever chocolately treat you can get your hands on. Though diet is totally important to managing symptoms of PMS, chocolate really can be good for it. ‘My friend at uni would drink chocolate Yazoo. It’s not very grown up, but it actually has a lot of vitamins B6 and B12 in it,' explains Dr Wilkinson.
That said, try to be healthy elsewhere in your diet. ‘As well as chocolate, dark green leafy vegetables and seeds can be good for giving you those vitamins,’ she continues. Plus, not all of your vices can be enjoyed with the ‘oh well, I’ve got PMS, so I might as well’ excuse. ‘Avoid anything that's going to make you retain water ever more or make you dehydrated like tea, coffee or alcohol.’
Female hormones are influenced by diet; vegetarians have a lower instance of PMS
Dr Goudsmit agrees, explaining that diet is integral to the management of symptoms of PMS. ‘The prevalence of PMS in countries like Japan is much lower, but when Japanese women move to America and adopt the diet, the rate goes up,' she says. 'Female hormones are influenced by diet; vegetarians have a lower instance of PMS. Eat less sugar, loads of vegetables, and more fibre. That keeps the oestrogen from re-circulating in your system.’
The myth: you’re not meant to get diarrhoea, right?
The reality: Though we’ve been loathe to mention the fact we sometimes get a little… loose to our peers, it turns out getting a bit of a strange stomach ahead of your period is totally normal. ‘There’s a lot of inflammation in that area’ the womb becomes engorged and swollen and it directly irritates other structures, and one of them is your colon. That’s why you get diarrhoea,’ says Dr Wilkinson. Though she hasn’t had a lot of people complaining about it, she ‘wouldn’t say it’s uncommon’.
The myth: Everyone gets PMS
The reality: Dr Wilkinson says that PMS comes in different forms. ‘Some women have bloating, swelling, tender boobs and feeling irritable and tired, but some people are a lot more sensitive.’ Dr Goudsmit says that this goes even further. ‘People dismiss and trivialise PMS, saying 90 per cent of women have it. However, all women may experience changes, but it’s only if you’re impaired by symptoms that it’s PMS. Actual PMS affects about five per cent of women.’ So it turns out that people like to say we have PMS when we really really don't. The power is in knowing it's not your period making you think assertively.
Myth: it’s weird to be horny on your period
The reality: OK, period sex is a bit of a heavy prospect for some to broach with their significant or not-so-significant others, and clean-up involves the sacrifice of an old towel, but feeling incredibly turned on before your period isn’t that weird. Dr Goudsmit says it’s hormonal. ‘The speculation is that women get aroused before ovulation, so that they know to procreate – timing is everything. This is caused by a rise of oestrogen, and you have two waves of it throughout your menstrual cycle. Though there’s not a lot of research in this area, I would put my money on oestrogen [being the cause for all that pre-period horn].
Though Dr Wilkinson explains that though it could be hormonal, it’s also down to the simple fact that the whole down-there area is more sensitive because it’s pumped with – yep – blood. ‘Everything’s more engorged as there’s more bloodlfow to that area, and you might want to have sex.’ Though research into this is quite limited, it probably goes to show that everyone really is different, and so what if you get turned on before your period? It's your body, fuck all you want if you want to. But be safe, though. Though it's rare, people can and do get pregnant on their period.
The myth: that you have to deal with PMS on your own
The reality: Help is out there and if you feel severe symptoms of PMS, it’s not that ridiculous to go to the doctor about it. ‘There’s a spectrum of treatments. There’s no proven benefit to primrose oil, but B6 and B12 [both found in cereals, eggs, milk and fish] can help,' says Dr Wilkinson. 'Sometimes the best thing to do is go on the pill to control hormone levels, as PMS is mainly down to a hormone rise. And while Dr Goudsmit says that women ‘must take responsibility’ for their PMS, it’s in the respect that ‘if we are not in control then we need to get treatment, we need to get off bad diets, we need to get counseling because this is not something you have to suffer from. You’re not going to walk around with a broken leg, you’re going to get help. If you feel shitty for two weeks out of the month, for goodness sake go to the GP.’
As it turns out, the symptoms of PMS affect all sorts of women and in different ways, but it’s how you deal with those symptoms that affect your behaviour. So next time someone tells you you’re being ragey because you’ve got Aunt Flo coming to stay, either breeze over it, or launch a bloody tampon at them. After all, what do they know?
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