5HTP Regulates Mood, Sleep and Appetite

5HTP can be useful to improve mood and sleep

5HTP can make your world that bit sunnier

5HTP is useful if you need a little help boosting your serotonin levels.  You’ve heard me talk before about serotonin, ‘the happy hormone’ which you normally synthesise from the amino acid tryptophan in food via a complex chain of chemical reactions.  Serotonin has a role in how you feel in yourself, what you want to eat (and how often), and how much you sleep – all of the things which go awry when you have PMS. 

Boosting serotonin using 5HTP tablets (sometimes also sold as Serotone) is also useful to even out the ups and downs of perimenopause – because when oestrogen levels drop, so too, I’m afraid, does serotonin.

What is 5HTP and how does it work?

5HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is an extract of the seeds of an African shrub called griffonia.  It’s what’s termed a precursor to the neurotransmitter made in your brain called serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have been linked with depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, headaches and PMS. 

As luck would have it, we women generally have lower levels of serotonin than men – which may go part of the way to explaining why we tend to suffer more from conditions like depression.

5HTP for Mood

A number of properly designed (i.e. double-blind placebo-controlled) clinical trials have proven the effectiveness of 5-HTP in the treatment of depression, making it an effective natural alternative to antidepressant drugs.  After all, antidepressants such as Prozac are selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), meaning that they too work by increasing the amount of serotonin available to the brain.  5HTP can also help if you suffer from panic attacks.

5HTP for Appetite Control

Low serotonin (or poor metabolism of serotonin) leads to increased sugar cravings – which I’m sure you’re familiar with during PMS.  Eating simple carbs like white bread or chocolate actually does boost your brain’s serotonin levels (that’s why it feels so good) and food cravings are often your body’s way of telling you need a serotonin ‘hit’. 

But getting relief in this way is only temporary and leads to the vicious cycle of blood sugar levels going up and down – leaving you feeling worse than before.  So by balancing serotonin using 5HTP – together with all my other PMS tips, of course (at the bottom of this post and throughout PMS Warrior) – you can control appetite and beat food cravings.

5HTP for Sleep

5-HTP helps with relaxation, and is also converted into melatonin.  Melatonin is the hormone which regulates your sleep cycle.

How to use 5HTP

It's a good idea to take 5HTP with a small carbohydrate snack for absorption

5-HTP can make you feel a bit drowsy or ‘floaty’, so it’s best taken at night, with a small carbohydrate snack. 

Start with 50mg a day, and see what how you feel.  That dose may be enough.  However, a dose of 100mg a day – if you need it – is also safe.  But whichever dose you take, be sure to take a break from taking 5HTP from time to time to prevent the build-up of tolerance, which will make it much less effective.

Do NOT take 5HTP if pregnant or taking antidepressants or tranquilisers, and take medical advice if you are considering taking 5HTP with any other prescribed drugs.

Remember that 5HTP is just one tool in an holistic programme to synthesise serotonin and beat PMS by naturally balancing hormones.  So for a knock-out anti-PMS plan, add 5HTP into a programme which includes as many of the follow recommendations as you can manage:

Have you tried 5HTP? How did it work for you?

Thanks for reading!

Beat PMS Bloating - 5 Do's and Don'ts

When you’re already suffering from PMS, bloating around your middle just adds to the feelings of despondency.  And if you’re feeling fat – even when you’re not! – you’re more likely to feel sorry for yourself and comfort eat, giving in to those premenstrual food cravings.  So this post is about what you can do to make bloating go away – and better still, prevent it.

PMS Bloating Why Do We Get Bloated?

Many women tend to retain more fluid in the days leading up to their period.  This is because of rising oestrogen levels which make your kidneys hang on to more water and more salt.  (Bloating can also be a problem during perimenopause when oestrogen levels are going up and down).  

Other factors, such as stress and certain foods, can also contribute to bloating.  But if your bloating comes around on a monthly cycle, the cause is hormone changes. 

Constipation can also be a problem during PMS, which adds to the uncomfortable feelings around your middle.

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How Migraine Headaches are Linked to Your Hormones

 migraine with aura via evil erin on flickr


I remember when I saw a friend after she’d had her first major migraine attack.  She looked pale and shaken and thought she was having a stroke  – definitely not a normal, everyday tension headache!   Migraine symptoms include feeling sick or vomiting, vision problems that make you think you’re going blind or seeing stars, and temporary fragility and sensitivity to noise, light and movement that mean you literally can’t move and the only option is to lie still in a dark room.

Between puberty and menopause, migraines are THREE TIMES more common in women than men.  And women’s migraine headaches are often cyclical – meaning there’s a pattern to when they occur.  However the hormonal connection has often been ignored. 

We now know that the main trigger for hormonal headaches is a drop in oestrogen – specifically estradiol, the main type of oestrogen made in the ovaries.  Just as the cause of PMS is more about the balance of progesterone in relation to oestrogen (rather than the total amount you have of either), it’s not a low level of oestrogen that triggers a migraine headache – more the sudden drop from one level to another.  This happens at lots of points during a woman’s reproductive life and explains why we’re more prone to migraine headaches than men. 

It’s not just being stressed and overworked, or difficult or over dramatic – as some doctors have been guilty of labelling women in the past.

When Migraines Are Most Likely To Occur

AT OVULATION – or JUST before your period

Oestrogen levels plummet during the second half of your menstrual cycle, when progesterone levels increase to get your body ready for pregnancy (whether or not it needs to), making this a common time for migraine headaches.  For some women, this effect starts mid-cycle, at ovulation, rather than immediately before their period.

DURING perimenopause 

As you approach the menopause, even though oestrogen is heading in a generally downward direction, your oestrogen levels still tend to go up and down.  Many women experience more migraine attacks at this time.

during a pill-free week

For women taking the contraceptive pill, there’s typically a fall in the dose of synthetic oestrogen during the break between pill packets.  This is usually a week long and allows for a period (withdrawal bleed).  The fall in oestrogen at this time, however, may also trigger a menstrual migraine.

When Migraine Headaches Improve

Migraine headaches usually get better if you become pregnant because then there is a constant high level of oestrogen, which generally makes you feel good all round.  However, some women find that their migraine headaches come back immediately after they’ve given birth.  This is the time when high levels of all the key female hormones all drop suddenly, leading to post-natal depression in some cases.

Once past the menopause, women have a constant and stable (low) level of oestrogen meaning that migraine attacks tend to disappear – although this isn’t very comforting if you’re younger and suffering now!

What To Do About Migraine Headaches

As with PMS, the first step to identify the hormone connection is to keep a symptom diary.  If you note down your migraine headaches over three months or so, you’ll be better able to see the pattern of your migraine attacks, whether they’re connected to your menstrual cycle, and what the other triggers might be.  Some foods (like alcohol and caffeine) trigger migraine symptoms in some women. Lack of sleep and stress can also be trigger, for example.

Once a migraine has started, the medications usually used are painkillers, anti-sickness medicines or anti-inflammatories (e.g. ibuprofen, mefenamic acid, diclofenac, etc).

Conventional treatment for preventing migraine headaches uses synthetic hormones include oestrogen patches for short term use, or the pill.  But if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m keen on natural solutions and lifestyle changes rather than synthetic hormones to achieve hormone balance. 

How To Balance Hormones to Prevent Migraine Headaches

Everything I talk about on PMS Warrior contributes to natural hormone balance and this will also help with migraine prevention:

By following a holistic lifestyle plan for balancing your hormones, you may not be able to totally eliminate migraine headaches, but their severity and frequency should reduce.  Let me know what works for you in the comments below, on twitter, or on the PMS Warrior Facebook page.

Thanks for reading!

Try Agnus Castus FREE For A Month!

Bionorica one-a-day agnus castus tablet compared to Viridian agnus castus capsules (and 20p piece for scale)

agnus castus products - capsule by Viridian and tablet by Bionorica
The two forms of agnus castus – capsules and tablets (NEW)

There’s solid research behind agnus castus, and it’s a godsend for many women with PMS.  Agnus castus is an age-old herbal remedy, which seems to work by:

  • Raising progesterone
  • Reducing prolactin
  • Counteracting excessive oestrogen

Agnus castus can also be helpful during perimenopause.  Although hormone levels overall are declining during this time, fewer menstrual cycles where ovulation occurs (called anovulatory cycles) mean less progesterone is released in the second half of your cycle.  This in turn can lead to oestrogen dominance, often accompanied by symptoms like hot flushes (or ‘flashes’, if you’re American), forgetfulness and putting on weight.  Which is where topping up with progesterone, either by a ‘natural’ progesterone cream, or agnus castus, comes in.

A small number of women – usually those with with the most extreme form of PMS, called PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) – have an intolerance to progesterone.  But for most PMS sufferers and women in perminenopause, agnus castus is a safe and effective herbal remedy with minimal side effects.

Well, the good news seems to have just got better: there’s now a one-a-day formulation of agnus castus available in tablet form.

The New Agnus Castus Kid on the Block

I was recently sent a free sample of a month’s supply of a new agnus castus product called Cyclopret. (Free samples were available to members of NAPS to tie in with PMS Awareness Week).

I’ve been used to taking agnus castus three times a day in the form of powdered herb in a capsule.  My choice of brand is usually Viridian, which is an ethical UK-based company which donates part of its profits to charity.  Obviously, I pay for my usual supply myself (not freebies!).

I was intrigued to find that this agnus product looked completely different – and that the recommended dose was only one tablet a day. 

Hang on a minute… just ONE? Was this some sort of homoeopathic remedy, I wondered, with only the teensiest, tiniest molecule of actually active ingredient which would prove worse than useless?

I checked the packaging and was even more bemused. The dose in each individual tablet is advertised as being 4mg.  That’s 4mg compared to a single capsule of my regular brand containing:

  • 200mg agnus castus extract
  • PLUS 150mg of agnus castus powder (i.e. the whole berry) in each capsule
  • with a recommended dose of 1-3 capsules per day
  • totalling a whole lot more than 4mg of agnus castus! 

Extracting Only the Active Ingredients From Agnus Castus

I emailed Bionorica, who make Cyclopret, and queried the difference in appearance, strength and recommended dose.   This is what I gleaned:

  1. Bionorica is a long-established German company that specialises in herbs. (Interestingly, one of their other products is St John’s Wort, an anti-depressant herb which seems to have a beneficial effect on serotonin, and which I will do a post about soon).  The Germans pioneered the use of agnus castus and have a long history of using it in PMS treatment and research its effects, so this felt like a good sign.
  2. Rather than using the whole agnus castus plant or berries in a dried form, Bionorica extract the active compounds using water and alcohol.  This process is called phytoneering – I guess from ‘phyto’ = plants + ‘engineering’ – and more technical information is available from the English language pages on their German website (there’s also a separate website specifically for the UK).

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PMS and breast tenderness

When you have PMS breast tenderness, your breasts can feel heavy like melons!Breast tenderness may not be the most life-changing of PMS symptoms, but sore and swollen breasts can make you feel uncomfortable all the same.  Breasts so heavy and sensitive that something brushing up against you makes you wince can make you feel grouchy and vulnerable.

Breast Tenderness Is Very Common

So-called fibrocystic breasts (fibrocystic means benign breast pain that’s related to your monthly cycle, rather than something more worrying, like breast cancer) are very common in women of child bearing age, and breast tenderness is one of the top ten PMS symptoms.  Breast tenderness often goes hand in hand with feelings of bloating, swelling and fluid retention in the second half of your cycle, together with weight gain. 

It’s all because your body is getting ready for pregnancy (even if you’re not) and responding to the monthly fluctuations in hormones which are part of your cycle.  In particular, oestrogen and prolactin are significant for breast tenderness: oestrogen is what makes you curvy, creating fat around your hips, bottom and thighs for example, and prolactin is naturally produced when we breastfeed.

What Can You Do About Monthly Breast Tenderness?

The best thing to do to prevent breast tenderness is to balance your hormones throughout the month by eating whole foods and consuming essential fatty acids (like evening primrose oil, or borage oil) and fibre (like flax and complex carbohydrates), getting regular exercise and reducing stress. (I never said there was a ‘magic bullet’ for PMS!)

On top of all that, the following tips are specific to reducing breast tenderness caused by monthly hormonal changes.  (Be aware that certain medications can cause breast tenderness as a side-effect too: these include the Pill and antidepressants).

SALT Aggravates BREAST TENDERNESS (And BLoating)

Salt (sodium) is a factor in fluid retention and bloating generally.  And we all eat too much of it. 

It’s not just a case of reducing the salt you use in cooking, or what you add to your plate at the table.  Most of the salt – and sugar, for that matter – that we consume is hidden in shop bought foods.  Examples include butters and margarines, bread, canned food and ready meals – not to mention most crisps, crackers and other savoury snacks (salted nuts, anyone?). 

If you are prone to bloating and breast tenderness, try to cut down wherever you can and see if it makes a difference.  It will certainly make a difference to your health overall.

Saturated fats and dairy aggravate breast tenderness

A high consumption of saturated animal fats has been shown to increase oestrogen levels which in turn exacerbates PMS symptoms like breast tenderness.  This is probably due to the hormones used in livestock farming and milk production (basically, farmers give cows oestrogen to make them grow and get fat).

If you already have an imbalance of oestrogen – as demonstrated by PMS symptoms like breast tenderness – it doesn’t help to take on board artificial oestrogens from external sources.

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Helping women to speak out about PMS and PMDD

When Premenstrual Syndrome Makes The News

woman reading PMS story in newspaperLast time (still buzzing from my TV appearance!) I wrote about the patchy awareness of doctors about PMS.  Since then I’ve been giving some thought to the awareness women themselves have about PMS and what prompts them to seek help – or holds them back.

One of the reasons I was pleased to be featured on the LORRAINE programme was that the media often seek out the most extreme stories about PMS in order to get a more sensational ‘story’.  For this reason, case studies often focus on examples of very extreme PMS called PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder).  (Dr Hilary alluded to this in the programme through his example about PMS / PMDD being used as mitigation in murder trials).

I notice that the Daily Mail, for instance, regularly features stories about premenstrual syndrome in its health pages – and that’s good to see.  But they tend to mainly feature women with PMDD.  Examples are this piece from 2009 and this more recent 2011 one. 

About PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder)

While PMDD sufferers may represent ‘the sharp end’ of PMS, they are a relatively small group of PMS sufferers overall.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think PMDD is massively debilitating and disruptive and it’s essential to highlight it, especially as it’s frequently misdiagnosed as a psychiatric illness.  There are many PMDD sufferers active on the NAPS online Forum who describe totally horrendous symptoms and frustrating responses from the medical system.  And I’m struck by how often PMDD seems to be resistant to treatment – natural or otherwise. 

This raises the point about whether PMDD is actually an extreme form of PMS – or a separate condition (though still clearly hormonal and cyclical in nature).  There certainly do seem to be some differences I’ve noticed.  For example, a lot of women with PMDD are progesterone intolerant but see improvements from oestrogen treatment, whereas for many of the rest of us, oestrogen dominance seems to be a factor in our PMS. 

Perhaps just as we are some way away from understanding PMS, the same is true of understanding the true nature of PMDD – what someone once described as ‘PMS on steroids’!

Whether It’s Moderate or Severe, PMS Disrupts Lives

The majority of women with PMS may have symptoms which are less extreme and dramatic than PMDD, but PMS nevertheless affect their lives in a big way.  And as Dr Hilary pointed out on the Lorraine programme, would so many men put up with such a thing taking them over every month? 

My concern is that unless the whole spectrum of PMS experiences is talked about, some women won’t seek help.  For instance, if a woman who suffers from bad PMS only ever hears about PMDD in the media, she may think ‘I shouldn’t bother my GP with this, I’m not bad enough’. 

Ordinary, everyday, common-or-garden PMS may not make the headlines very often, but it is still hugely disruptive to women’s personal and professional lives and leads to countless work absences and relationship problems.  It’s also amazingly common: every time I go to speak about my interest in PMS, someone else takes me aside to speak about their daughter, sister, mother, neighbour, colleague or friend.  And for my money, PMS is also getting worse because of all the stresses we put on our natural hormone balance these days.

Thankfully, I’ve never tried to kill anybody – or myself – while under the influence of PMS, but that’s not to say that PMS hasn’t robbed me of much motivation, health and happiness throughout my adult life.  I hope that by LORRAINE featuring my story, it helps women with all different degrees of PMS feel able to get informed and know you can get through it.

Top Tips For Managing PMS

Whereas PMDD is often difficult to treat and sufferers often go through endless treatment options before they find any relief, moderate to severe PMS is really responsive to lifestyle changes.

All the things I keep talking about on PMS Warrior really do work – especially if you do them together, as they reinforce each other.  The main ones are:

  • Exercise (especially outdoors) to raise your mood, reduce stress and strengthen your bones
  • Eating regularly so that your blood sugar levels are stable (for fewer food cravings)
  • Including complex carbohydrates in your diet to keep your serotonin levels high
  • Sunshine, good food, fun and sex to raise serotonin levels and keep you happy and optimistic
  • Consuming enough essential fatty acids for balanced brain chemistry
  • Eating nourishing, vitamin-rich whole foods and kicking the junk foods that only makes PMS worse
  • Avoiding substances that aggravate PMS, like caffeine and alcohol
  • Reducing stress
  • Sleeping well and getting enough rest.

You don’t have to try and make all of these changes all at once – but see how much better your PMS is when you incorporate them into your life.

Thanks for reading!

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. Continue reading

Agnus Castus - does it work for PMS?

Agnus Castus is a Proven Herbal Treatment Option for PMS

agnus castus effective for PMS

The herb Agnus Castus in its natural state

Agnus castus is an alternative to the two main choices offered by doctors to women with PMS, namely synthetic hormones (usually oestrogen and progesterone) or SSRIs anti-depressants. 

Agnus castus is the most studied one of the herbal alternatives for PMS, and is considered to be safe and effective and without the side effects associated with pharmaceuticals. 

Agnus castus has been used to restore hormonal balance and help make menstrual cycles more regular over many generations.  It seems to have a balancing effect on female hormones in the second half of the menstrual cycle which alleviates PMS (something we’re all grateful for!)

What’s The Evidence for Agnus Castus’ Effectiveness?

Unlike some alternative therapies, there’s plentiful research evidence to back up the age-old use of agnus castus.  A randomised controlled study involving 170 women in Germany in 2001 showed a significant improvement in symptoms compared to a placebo (dummy pill): 

Over half the women had a 50% or greater improvement in their symptoms

Patient acceptance was high and side effects were few and mild

Another study in Germany in 2004this time involving more than 1,600 women – showed that four out of five of the women rated their PMS as ‘much better’ or ‘very much better’ as a result of taking agnus castus.  More recently still (2010), a research study in China again showed significant improvements in women with PMS symptoms using agnus castus compared to a placebo.  And there are numerous other studies around the world which all show remarkable consistent results.  It’s pretty impressive stuff.

How does Agnus Castus Work?

Here’s the science bit.  Your hormones make up a finely balanced system.  Although the causes of PMS are still not fully understood, two factors seem to be key:

  • Hormone levels being out of balance with each other (e.g. too much oestrogen and not enough progesterone), and / or
  • A hyper-sensitivity to the monthly fluctuations in your body’s hormone levels (and since hormones going up and down is the very essence of the monthly menstrual cycle, this hormone rollercoaster is hard to avoid) 

Although agnus castus doesn’t actually contain any hormones itself, it has properties which act on the body’s endocrine (hormone) system and seems to work on the pituitary gland in the brain which produces the hormones which regulate those secreted from your ovaries which then determine your menstrual cycle.  It’s all interrelated. 

agnus castus

Balanced hormones, balanced life.

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