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Are there foods I can eat to relieve my PMS symptoms?

Anxious and sick woman lying on sofa

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The question: Are there certain foods or supplements that can help my PMS?

The answer: Depending on which premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms you experience each month, there may be some foods that can help you feel better. The list of PMS symptoms is long (more than 150), but food cravings, increased appetite, bloating, fluid retention, headache and feeling depressed or irritable are the most common.

It's believed that a low intake of certain vitamins and minerals influences hormones and brain chemicals called neurotransmitters which, in turn, can trigger or worsen PMS symptoms.

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Iron-rich plant foods may help ease PMS symptoms. A study published last month found that women who consumed the most non-heme iron – the type found in plants – were considerably less likely to have PMS compared to those whose diets provided the least. The body uses iron to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and appetite.

Good sources of plant-based iron include soybeans, chickpeas, black beans, firm tofu, pumpkin seeds, enriched breakfast cereals, dried prunes and cooked spinach. Including a source of vitamin C (e.g. bell peppers, citrus fruit, kiwi, strawberries) at meals will boost the amount of non-iron your body absorbs.

Meeting your daily calcium needs can help reduce mood swings, bloating, food cravings and painful cramps. It's been known for some time that calcium deficiency and PMS share similar symptoms. Researchers have also noticed that women with PMS tend to have abnormally low levels of calcium when they ovulate. And clinical trials show that giving women calcium supplements for three months significantly improves PMS symptoms.

Women, aged 19 to 50, need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. One cup of milk, ¾ cup plain yogurt and 1.5 ounces of cheese all contain roughly 300 milligrams of calcium. Other sources include fortified plant beverages (300 to 330 milligrams per 1 cup), sardines with bones (3 ounces = 325 mg), canned salmon with bones (3 ounces = 188 mg), cooked spinach (1 cup = 245 mg), cooked rapini (1 cup = 200 mg) and almond butter (2 tbsp. = 112 mg).

Adding foods high in thiamin (B1) and riboflavin (B3) to your diet have also been shown to guard against PMS. These two vitamins are needed for the production of neurotransmitters linked to improved mood and reduced anxiety.

Thiamin rich foods include fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, peas, nuts and lean pork. Good sources of riboflavin include milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, soy beverages, eggs, almonds and spinach.

I also recommend that you include a source of carbohydrate (e.g. whole grains, fruit, legumes, sweet potato) at every meal and snack. A higher carbohydrate intake has been show to improve PMS symptoms, presumably by increasing serotonin production in the brain.

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When it comes it supplements, increasing vitamin D3 intake has been linked with less severe PMS symptoms. If you're not already doing so, take 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day in the fall and winter. (Some people will need a higher dose – and/or may need to take the supplement year round – to maintain a sufficient vitamin D blood level.)

Evidence also shows that taking 100 milligrams of B6 each day can ease overall symptoms, especially depression. Supplemental magnesium may also help some women who experience mood swings and fluid retention. I generally advise my clients to take a supplement for three consecutive menstrual cycles to determine if it helps. Consult your dietitian or doctor about supplementing safely.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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