PMS Escape and the serotonin connection

PMS Escape – Clinically Proven to work in a PMS crisis

I’m not keen on the remedies and supplements which are targeted at women with PMS but which are not backed up by science.  But when I find a product I like, I stick with it and spread the love.

Ready-made anti-PMS cocktail. Now all SOLD OUT

Several years ago, I discovered a powdered drink from America specifically designed for women with PMS called PMS Escape.   It had been developed by Dr Judith Wurtman while she was Director of the Program in Women’s Health at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Clinical Research Center and was a clinically tested and patented blend of carbohydrates and vitamins. 

Having come out of an academic institution, it’s not surprising that PMS Escape was supported by research papers which provided evidence of its effectiveness in double blind trials.  These showed that it successfully boosted serotonin levels and thereby reduced the PMS symptoms of sadness, tension and anger (as well as cravings for sugar and carbohydrates) compared with a placebo. 

I’ve already written about how carbohydrates are essential to managing PMS symptoms, but the great advantage of PMS Escape was that it served up a balanced mix of carbs in a quickly digested convenient form, giving almost instant relief.  Taken on an empty stomach, PMS Escape would have a calming, soothing effect within 20 minutes or so.  The effect was rapid and astonishing, and a lifesaver in a crisis – for example, when you had to get it together to face a challenging day at work despite your PMS.

I’ve kept a little stockpile of PMS Escape in my cupboard and it has bailed me out on several occasions.  Just yesterday I had an unexpectedly ratty day after I let my blood sugar levels plummet by forgetting to eat from breakfast till 3pm.  Fatal.  I got shaky and irritable, impatient and muddle-headed, but nonetheless I needed to get myself together to meet someone.  Due to very poor planning, I didn’t have the time or the ingredients to prepare and eat a sensible carbohydrate-rich plant-based meal which would have got me back onto an even keel.  So I reached for the PMS Escape – the sticking plaster solution.  And it worked a treat.  I was able to face the world and get on with my day.  It also saved me from the potato crisps and chocolate fingers – which would have given me a short-lived energy and mood boost but would have left me feeling worse in the long run. 

I’ve only used PMS Escape occasionally but when I have, it’s been very effective.  So as far as I could see, the only downside was the cost – about £12 for enough for 3 days’ usage (a month’s supply) – and the fact you could only order it online.

Well, I don’t need to worry about either of these any more, as it’s now been discontinued.

I’m sorry to drop that bombshell – especially if you’ve got excited because I’ve just waxed lyrical about it – but you have to understand … I’m grieving too!  PMS Escape is now showing ‘out of stock’ or ‘sold out’ pretty much everywhere.  What a shame that the one thing that has been proven to be fast-acting, safe and effective, has been withdrawn. 

PMS Escape Withdrawn – So Now What Do We Do?

At first I suspected that PMS Escape had stopped being imported into the UK because of new health food regulations, but I see that it’s the American side of the operation that has withdrawn it.   So that seems pretty final.  (If anyone knows exactly why it’s been discontinued, I’d be interested to know.  I’ve tried emailing the manufacturer / distributor, Enzymatic Therapy, and got no response). 

But as the saying goes, perhaps it’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all.  It’s time to move on and find an alternative PMS emergency fix.  But first a little about how and why PMS Escape worked so well.

Why Serotonin Is Important In PMS

Serotonin-raising bananas and exercise are both good for PMSDr Wurtman was onto something with her serotonin-boosting drink.  Serotonin is the brain’s feelgood chemical and has a role in regulating mood, appetite and sleep.   Women have less serotonin than men anyway, and you won’t be surprised to learn that serotonin levels are thought to be particularly low during PMS.  The changes in the ratio of oestrogen and progesterone which occur in the second half of the menstrual cycle (the luteal phase) seem to decrease the activity of serotonin in the brain at this time, resulting in anxiety, aggression and depression. 

Serotonin also affects appetite and the sense of fullness you get after eating properly.  (You may have noticed that most women can’t last long on a very low carbohydrate diet without feeling an urge to binge because their serotonin levels get too low and their appetite control goes to pot). 

When serotonin levels are low – like in PMS – you’re liable to be tormented by food cravings which spur you on to eat more sweet or starchy foods.  This is your body’s way of telling to get some tryptophan in from food to make more serotonin in the brain.  (Tryptophan is the precurser to serotonin, which means you need it to start off the chain of chemical reactions for serotonin production).  But when you respond to the cravings by eating sugary and refined foods, your blood sugar levels which can lead to spikes in insulin production and an energy crash which leaves you feeling worse.  Protein-rich foods also don’t always allow for the tryptophan in them to be absorbed because of other completing amino acids which stop trypophan getting to the brain.  So complex carbohydrates  – together with the vitamins needed to synthesise tryptophan like zinc and the B vitamins – are the best way to go to increase serotonin.

Anti-depressants like Prozac also work to increase serotonin.  The SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) mean that you hang on to serotonin in your brain better and they act very much like serotonin-boosting foods.  However, a nutritional solution is a better, safer and more targeted way of helping women with mild to moderate PMS than anti-depressants .

Create Your Own Serotonin Boosting Mood Foods

To maintain serotonin levels – or for an emergency serotonin fix during PMS – these are the golden rules:

  1. Include complex carbohydrates as part of a varied diet. This means eating whole grains (not refined, processed white flour, for instance), vegetables; beans and grains.  Put down that croissant and pick up whole grain roll.
  2. Eat foods rich in B-vitamins.  The B vitamins play a critical role in brain health and in serotonin production and are essential for high energy and good mood

So here are a few ideas for serotonin boosting, calming, uplifting foods:

  • Bananas contain tryptophan, carbohydrates and vitamin B6, and they’re quick and easy to eat.  Add them to a smoothie, to your breakfast porridge, or eat on the run.
  • Flaxseeds raise serotonin levels because they contain both tryptophan and high levels of omega 3 fatty acids which your brain nerve cells need.
  • Beans and lentils are full of protein and good carbs.  Try falafels in wholemeal pita bread or indian dahl or vegetable chilli for a comforting meal
  • Buckwheat isn’t wheat, it’s a seed which is naturally rich in many B vitamins and contains much more tryptophan than most starchy carbs.  Other seeds that you’d be forgiven for thinking are grains are millet and quinoa.  They contain protein and carbs and essential amino acids so are great all-round foods (I’ll be posting some suggestions on how to cook them soon). 
  • Green leafy vegetables – bursting with fibre, carbohydrates and B vitamins. Steam them, stir fry them, bake them, eat them raw (finely shredded and marinated). Use large lettus leaves or chard (collard greens) as a wrap instead of a flour tortilla.

Other Ways of Boosting Serotonin

In addition to tryptophan-rich foods, some women find a supplement called 5HTP (5 Hydroxytryptophan) to have a useful anti-depressant effect.  It too works on raising serotonin levels and I’ll be writing a post about how and when to use it in the near future.

And while food is important, there are things you can do for yourself that increase serotonin.  You know what makes you feel good (even if during PMS you don’t feel like doing any of it!):

  • Exercise
  • Getting natural light every day.  This also tops up your Vitamin D levels which helps with calcium absorption from food.  Serotonin levels are reduced in winter due to the lack of sunlight and are also a factor in Seasonal Affective Disorder (or winter depression) which also exacerbates PMS
  • Proper sleep, rest and relaxation
  • Sex

Further Thoughts on Serotonin Solutions

Dr Judith Wurtman, who originated PMS Escape, has co-written a book about boosting serotonin levels for weight management, improved sleep and mood, which explains more of the science around serotonin.  It’s called The Serotonin Power Diet and is useful for women with PMS to understand the role this vital brain chemical plays and how we as women – and especially women with PMS – are particularly serotonin sensitive.  Dr Wurtman herself seems to have moved on from studying PMS and now mostly runs weight management clinics. 

Based on my own experience, I would like to see a replacement for PMS Escape.  I think there is a market for some sort of serotonin rescue product for women with PMS who need an emergency fix.   What do you think?

Who knows, maybe once I finish my nutritional studies, I will look at developing and testing an effective and convenient alternative serotonin boosting product myself.  (So if there are any research scientists or food technologists who are interested in a development project, please get in touch!)

I know this has been a long post, but PMS and serotonin is an important and complicated area.  As ever, thanks for reading.


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16 thoughts on “PMS Escape and the serotonin connection

  1. Hi I've never heard of this pms escape but I'd certainly try it if I could get my hands on it!!! I defintiely think the link between PMS and serotonin is important but complicated. I was diagnosed with depression two and a half years ago and prescribed anti depressants which defintely help but since then I've been tracking my moods and mentsrual cycle and its clear that its PMS related. I dont want to take anti depressants as i feel i dont need them (except for the second half of my cycle) but my PMS gets so bad I feel suicidal. Anything that could help stabilise my mood naturally is worth trying.

    • Hi Leonie. Yes, PMS (especially in its most extreme form, PMDD) can often be misdiagnosed as depression – even though it's cyclical (monthly) and related to hormones and brain chemistry. Which isn't to say that anti-depressants don't work, but they're not ideal long term. I hope you get some ideas for PMS management strategies from the rest of the site, especially in regards to stress reduction, exercise and nutrition. I'll be doing posts on maca, 5-HTP and St John's Wort but please be aware that none of the natural mood-elevators are to be taken alongside SSRI anti-depressants (just as it's not a good idea to mix synthetic hormones and natural supplements which affect hormones).
      Have you seen the forum on (the National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome)? There are many women on there who have experiences similar to yours.

  2. I have been using PMS escape for the last year or so…and LOVE it, I felt like I finally found something that didn't make me feel total normal, but definately helped a LOT. I also give myself B12 injections and have accupuncture right at ovulation. I'd been stockpiling boxes of PMS escape, when I grabbed my last box yesterday I went to order some online and discovered it is no more. I'm on the verge of tears :(
    There has to be a way to create somekind of concoction that mimics it. I'm not sure if I can make something that tastes so good….but if we know what was it it, that's at least a start.

  3. Great article, thank you! I really loved and relied on pms escape too and couldn't work out why I could no longer buy it, I only have 1 1/2 sachets left! :-( If you ever find anything like it, let us know!!

  4. Hi Yvonne,

    Yes, I too grieve for PMS Escape! :-(

    However, we must remember there are alternatives: PMS Escape was basically a very easily absorbed form of dried potato starch with vitamins. I think when you're in the middle of PMS crisis, you don't automatically reach for the wholegrains, crackers or vegetables – which will actually help you to feel better.

    Another great way of naturally boosting serotonin is sunshine – even winter sunshine.

    PS. Don't forget I regularly post tips, recipes and research I haven't got round to posting on the blog on Twitter and Facebook.

    Thanks for visiting!

  5. Thank you so much for your website. I have been googling info all week about PMS and PMDD. I feel as if I have a more severe case of PMS. Have you ever thought you might have PMDD as well? I totally relate to your vicious cycle and I really want to do something about it because it is affecting my relationships. I eat healthy and I do exercise, but when PMS comes it all goes out the window because I'm so sad. I also read about seratonin, etc.. Do you know if there are seratonin (blood) tests for PMS and PMDD? I alway feel on the edge the day before my period like I'm about to snap and I act like a manic woman: argumentative, confrontational, weepy, complusive, etc.

  6. Hi Clair,

    Firstly, thanks for the feedback :-)

    Just to clarify, you can't have PMDD 'as well as' PMS. They're both cyclical (i.e. occuring monthly) sets of symptoms caused by hormones, and the difference is mainly one of degree. In fact, some experts don't recognise PMDD as a separate entity: they just feel that there's 'ordinary' PMS and extreme PMS.

    Others however feel that there's PMS and then it's even more disruptive and severe cousin, PMDD.
    There is currently a campaign to lobby the World Health Organisation to recognise PMDD as a separate diagnosis, listed under mental health disorders. It's estimated that only about 3-5% of women suffer from PDD, and it can be very resistant to the usual forms of PMS management.

    Obviously, it would be impossible and inappropriate for me to try to give you personalised feedback with so little information about your symptoms and circumstances. However, I would say that what you describe sounds like very bad PMS, rather than PMDD. PMDD is characterised by panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, an inability to be around people, and a really deep and enduring depression and intense feelings of unhappiness. Because of these sorts of symptoms, it has been known for it be (mis)diagnosed as manic depression.

    Regarding your point about testing for serotonin. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. It's the reuptake of serotonin in the brain that causes a low mood, not the actual level in the brain. You can have perfectly normal levels of serotonin, but if the receptors in your brain are reuptaking too quickly, too little serotonin is left and that's what can make you feel bad. This is why antidepressants like Prozac are called SSRIs or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors – they stop the serotonin being reuptaken so your brain has more of it to use. So, in short, there isn't a test, and even if there was, it wouldn't tell you anything because it's all about the reuptake rate, not the absolute level.

    Hope that helps, and I've written to your email address separately with some things to think about in trying to manage your PMS.

    • hi there:) I feel that in the 8yrs that I have been suffering with my menstrual cycle I have had times were my pms is severe or "normal" (?!) and times when I have suffered with pmdd. For example after having my second child I def had pmdd, this lasted several yrs. I would then say I suffered severe/normal pms for about 5yrs. In Oct 2010 my doc mentioned pmdd and up until Oct last yr I battled every month with debilitating symptoms! Then having found various websites (including this one!) I have changed many things in my life which may have contributed and my last cycle was slightly better…thankfully!! I'm a huge believer in stress amounts affecting how bad you feel and now try to minimise stress and even arrange things in the "good" phase so I can enjoy them! Your advice, pms warrior, has been invaluable in understanding how to manage this condition! I'm at day 19 and so far I'm not too bad and have strategies in place for nxt wk!!

  7. Hello Hayley,

    Thanks so much for leaving such a nice comment. So glad that natural solutions are helping you, bit by bit, and that the site has helped!

    It's definately a good plan to keep a diary and plan for your PMS crisis / wobble during the month :-)

    So many women suffer for so many years, my mission is to get PMS out from the shadows and to inform women about all the ways they can help themselves.

    Fingers crossed for a less bumpy menstrual cycle this month for you. Keep looking after yourself :-)

    PS. You hopefully won't need it, but the Forum on the NAPS (National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome) website has lots of women on it with PMDD discussing treatments, experiences with doctors, and life's ups and (bigtime) downs on it.

    • Your welcome :)
      Been and bought rye bread today, (love it and don't know why I haven't had it for yrs!) only for hubby to say yummy and he looks forwrd to eating it! LOL
      NAPS has been another great help over the last few months and anyone else reading this please take a look!
      Please keep up the good work and I've told many people about this website hoping to spread the word :)

  8. I am so glad to see someone else touting the wonders of PMS Escape. I am 55 years old and started taking PMS Escape when it first came out many years ago. It was given to me as a sample from my gyne for my PMS. It has gone on and off the market a few times. I have contacted Dr. Wurtman directly to get an update on. It was being made in Japan for a while but the negative attitudes about carbohydrates killed the market for PMS Escape. Dr. Wurtman was "motivated" by my e-mails to pursue getting the product manufacutred again. I am now in menopause and don't need it but my daughter uses it. I have one box left! U se to order 4-6 boxes at a time to avoid being caught without it if Backbay Scientific went out of business or stopped manufacturing it.

    • Sorry, ignore last comment – the website let me order it, but I just noticed it does say 'Discontinued', so I guess the order won't be processed.

  9. I've been caught like that before – it's a pain.

    The mix is basically starch (complex carbs) and vitamins. If you're having a PMS crisis (e.g. for next time), at least try to stuff some brown pitta bread / brown rice / buckwheat or similar down you, with some green vegetables – whatever you can stomach – and some sunflower / pumpkin seeds (roasted, raw or soaked). Say to yourself 'THIS will make me feel better than ice cream / chocolate / cake etc'!

  10. Hi I came across your website, and i am amazed at what gps etc tell you. ive always had PMS so bad the gp put me on sertaline and then increased it. I am going to try the seratone diet. thank so much for this website

  11. Dear PMS Warrior, I am so glad to have found this website and written so well. I'm 37, been on Lexapro in combination with BC pills to counter my mood swings and depression for many years. There are good months and bad months, and the bad months comes with really bad panic attacks that's affected my job and social performances. It's defo better than when I was 25 and unable to get out of bed for work. The past couple years, I've been slowly adjusting my diet to be more veggie friendly and reducing pasta intake. I'm just now learning to lay off certain PMS cravings like tofu and other soy products, fatty stuffs and so on. Cheese will be a challenge. Now I've started quasi-juicing and was looking for a recipe add to my eating habits during the 2 weeks and came across this. I'm so bookmarking this website and see how the next few months go. THANK YOU.

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