04/30/2014 05:35 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

6 Strategies to Treat PMS Without Medication

PMS. These three simple letters strike fear in the hearts of many men. For women, many of whom deal with it as a regular part of their lives, humor becomes the coping mechanism of choice. We bond over shared horror stories of random outbursts and crying jags, each one trying to top the other. We've even turned it into a verb, as in, "I'm PMS-ing so bad, I really need some chocolate."

The underlying truth, of course, is no laughing matter. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and its even more disabling cousin, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), affect nearly all women of child-bearing age. PMS includes a variety of symptoms both physical and emotional, ranging from bloating and muscle pain to irritability and frequent crying. PMDD is a more serious form of this disorder. If you're diagnosed with this condition you may experience panic attacks, lack of interest in daily activities and feelings of despair.

You're Not Alone
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an estimated 85 percent of women suffer from at least one PMS symptom as part of their monthly cycles. A smaller number of 3 to 8 percent meet the criteria for PMDD, which requires the presence of at least five symptoms for an official diagnosis.

With those numbers, it's little wonder that you see commercials and advertisements touting a variety of medicinal products promising relief. Doctors aren't entirely clear on what causes PMS and PMDD, but the hormonal changes of the menstrual cycle are at least one contributor. Some women find that the birth control pill alleviates their symptoms, which could be in part because it regulates hormonal levels.

To Medicate or Not to Medicate...
Others turn to pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen to treat cramps, headaches and other physical symptoms. Some over-the-counter products are marketed specifically as PMS remedies and contain a combination of ingredients. Those who suffer from some of the more severe emotional symptoms might obtain a prescription for antidepressants.

Lately many women have found success treating their PMS or PMDD with natural, non-medicinal methods that revolve around stress reduction. This makes sense when you consider the chemical and hormonal changes stress creates in your brain. While there is no conclusive proof as yet, studies have shown a link between stress and PMS levels.

If you suffer from PMS or PMDD, don't head for the pharmacy just yet. Check out these natural ways to treat your symptoms. You may find that one or more of them provide relief and keep you from the medicine cabinet.

Six Natural Strategies to Treat PMS and PMDD

1. Follow a healthy diet. While nutrition is a major part of overall wellness, there are some specific changes you can make that focus on the unique symptoms of PMS. Avoiding salt and alcohol can lessen bloat. Cutting back on refined sugar and carbs will help regulate your blood sugar to fight cravings and binges. Foods high in fiber absorb excess estrogen and help balance your hormones.

2. Add calcium supplements. Studies have had successful results treating women suffering from PMS with 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium carbonate. This is the most common form of calcium supplements and is also an active ingredient in many brands of antacids. While the milk industry has latched on to these studies as a way to promote their product, the research has involved only supplements, not food. Consuming dairy products as your source of calcium can present problems for those with lactose intolerance and gluten sensitivities.

3. Get plenty of exercise. While you may want nothing more than to curl up in a ball on the couch, exercise provides a double dose of relief from PMS symptoms. It stimulates production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, which regulates your moods, and endorphins, your body's natural pain reliever. You may want to consider taking up yoga, which is an ideal form of exercise for PMS treatment. It focuses on the connection between mind and body and relieves stress through meditation, breathing techniques and fluid movements.

4. Stop smoking. You really shouldn't need any more reasons to quit, but if so, here's a big one. A study conducted at the University of Connecticut at Amherst found women who smoked were more than twice as likely to develop PMS as their non-smoking counterparts. The exact connection is unknown, but it's suggested that smoking affects hormone levels and reduces the body's supply of vitamin D. Research has also demonstrated that smokers have shorter, more irregular menstrual cycles.

5. Make sure you get enough sleep. As if those pesky hormones didn't make enough trouble, they're likely to cause sleep interruptions at the time when you need quality rest. Make your bedroom as comfortable as possible, including the temperature. If you're too warm you're less likely to enter the deep sleep stage. Avoid caffeine and unwind before bedtime with a soothing bath or meditation.

6. Manage your stress levels. It comes back full circle to the relationship between stress and PMS. It all comes down to treating yourself well. Implementing the first five suggestions will go a long way to relieving stress. Use any of your other favorite methods for relaxing. Keep a journal, spend time with friends, get counseling from a therapist or pastor: Whatever works for you is the right answer.

PMS and PMDD can't be "cured." There's no magic solution, but that doesn't mean you have to wave the white flag. Use these tactics to improve your overall well-being and manage your symptoms naturally.

To your best health,
Tracey Marks, M.D.

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