In last week's blog I gave you a quick look into my life on PMS. The madness, loss of control, and extreme fatigue all played their part in feeding into my feeding frenzy. This got me thinking of all of those times when I was just a wee lass playing soccer. We used to have regular running practices because apparently training endurance once a week was beneficial to our soccer skill. Yes, I am still holding onto some distain for those 15-30 minute runs once a week that totally cut into my MSN time.
Anywho, when one of these practices lined up with my period, I thought I had been given the crimson ticket out of that session. Jokes on me though because Mom knew otherwise. She preached to me that going for a run would actually relieve some of my PMS symptoms and that I would feel better afterwards. This could have been true but I think my stubborn-ness never let me fully accept it back then. To this day I am testing this theory that exercise is a natural remedy for cramps, or primary dysmenorrhoea, back aches, head aches, fatigue and many of the other symptoms associated with PMS.
Being the curious little lady that I am, I decided to do some research and discover the truth about exercise and PMS. Can we give all the credit to exercise? Does it all come down to the "runner's high" masking the symptoms? Does it simply distract us from the symptoms long enough to send a signal to the brain that those pain receptors really don't need to be our main concern? I will attempt to answer all of these questions by diving deep into the research, and using my own experiences to finally give us women the truth we need!
The Research - A side note
So I have to mention that when I first started my research, the very first article I read was incredibly negative. As a fitness professional I do not think that exercise is the end-all-be-all cure for everything, but this article would state the results of a study and then discredit them by criticizing the sample size or how old the study was. You can follow the link in the sentence above to see what I mean.
That being said, I did my best to not allow my own bias towards exercise cloud my judgement of the following articles that I used for this research. Shall I remind you of my stubborn-ness and how I would rather not have another "told you so" moment from my mother dearest (they really do seem to know best most of the time though).
Okay now I'll explain the research :)
I'll be honest, it was not easy to find well written, truly conclusive studies on this issue. I was able to find a study on runner's high that we may be able to draw our own conclusions from in term of how it relates to PMS. In this study, our furry, genetically similar, tiny friends (mice - duh) were split into two groups. Half of the mice ran on their little wheels for 5 hours. Yes - 5 HOURS. After the run, the small mice displayed far less anxious behaviour, and were much more resilient to pain than their non-exercising friends in the other half of the study.
So when we look at the common symptoms associated with PMS - anxiety, back pain, cramps, and lack of interest - we could be led to believe that the runner's high associated with aerobic exercise could simply be masking our symptoms.
So now that we know that running really can, temporarily, alleviate some of the PMS symptoms (yes mom - you told me so), let's see if strength training, as a form of distraction, can also help with these unruly tokens of fertility and female sexual health.
Pain, in the body, is the result of a pain receptor sending a signal up the spinal cord, into the brain, where it interprets the pain, and then sends a signal back to the origin that creates a sensation/reaction to protect us from experiencing any further pain or discomfort. I like to think that we experience cramps and back pain every month to prepare us for the potential pain and discomfort that we will have to endure when we get pregnant. It fits in nicely with all of the other crazy things we have to deal with as women who, biologically, are always on high alert for the coming of a child. You know, the way our hips are set wider to keep a baby comfortable, but also make squatting more biomechanically challenging. Oh! And what about all that hard-to-lose weight around our middles that is always there just in case a little mini-me decides to plant itself in my uterus and need the extra insulation.
So - back to pain and exercise. In a study researchers applied heat to the participant's arms while they completed memory and brain-distracting tasks. After the test the participants reported perceiving less pain while working on their puzzles, than before. Okay. So this means, that while the brain is distracted, it has no time to deal with your menial pain signals (put very simply).
So, in our amateur conclusion-drawing club, we are now tasked with tying this study to the fitness community's claims that exercise can help with PMS. Here is where I think it is conditional. If you are going to exercise while fighting to remove your insides from your insides, then it better be stimulating. Push yourself through a really tough workout where you try new exercises, or push through new weights. If you're going to out-smart your pain signals, you have to do it right!
Alright, now for my favourite, and often neglected aspect of PMS. Nutrition. I recognize that this is about how exercise can help with PMS and not nutrition, but I am going to mention this because I believe that when you decide to use exercise as a way of improving your life - in any way - you should always look at your eating habits as well.
In my own experience, the way I eat has always affected the intensity of my PMS symptoms. If I am getting all of my vitamins and minerals, drinking a lot of water, and keeping my alcohol and caffeine consumption to a minimum, then I hardly even get a headache. I may get a signalling cramp to let me know that I have gotten my period, but that is it. In contrast to that, when I am over indulging in bread-y foods, junk food, and drinking, then I experience all of the symptoms to the point where I feel completely helpless. The soreness, lack of energy, lack of interest, and feelings of anxiety are debilitating and I have to remind myself, in the moment, not to make any big decisions in this time.
So is there any scientific backing to my little theory?
YES! (sort of). Again, with PMS it is hard for science to put their finger on any one cause of the symptoms, and therefore it is difficult to say if there is any one cure for the symptoms. It is suggested that proper calcium and vitamin D intake can prevent PMS symptoms due to the hormonal changes that occur in the luteal phase of a women's cycle. These hormonal changes - ie. the increase of estrogen - draw calcium from the blood and bones. Therefore having adequate calcium in our system to replenish those stores could help relieve some of the symptoms associated with PMS. Vitamin D is important because that helps our bodies absorb calcium into our bones.
The next nutrient we need to watch out for is the B vitamins (thiamine, folate riboflavin, niacin, B6 and B12). These vitamins are integral parts of food metabolism, as well as neurotransmitter production and function. Scientists looked at how all of these vitamins could influence and potentially reduce the incidence of PMS symptoms and found that increasing thiamine and riboflavin at levels slightly above their RDA - 1.9mg/day and 1.4mg/day respectively - can help reduce symptoms by at least 30%. B6 was also shown to reduce women's PMS symptoms when consumed in doses of 80mg/day. This is likely due to it's role in neurotransmitter production, as I mentioned before.
Finally, in a study published by the Journal of Women's Health, 200mg of magnesium supplementation was shown to decrease breast tenderness, moody-ness, weight gain, and bloating in women.
So there you have it!
The research is done, and some conclusions have already been drawn, and now it is time to give my final thoughts on an issue that I am so happy to have explored further.
Based on everything I have read on the issue it sounds like PMS is no excuse to not go to the gym! Whether you are going in for a cardio session or going in for a big weight lifting session, getting in your workout will give you some time to work on yourself and forget about the cramping, and back pain. You may even get a break from the anxiety and moody-ness due to the "runner's high"! What I have learned from this, and what I think every one should get on board with in all aspects of their life, is that nutrition really is the most important part. What you put into your body will dictate the severity of your symptoms. Make sure you are getting enough iron from your dark leafy greens, and red meat; stock up on your B vitamins, calcium and vitamin D by keeping your vegetables and fruits colourful and fresh; and work a little more magnesium into your diet through supplements or broccoli. Well balanced nutrition really is everything.
I hope this has been as informative and helpful to you as it has been for me!
Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time!
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's most recent research, her travel adventures, and her personal fitness journey.