I was very pleased to see that The Food Hospital series has been promoting the idea of food as medicine. And even better, it featured PMS in the episode screened just before Xmas (alongside case studies in IBS, high cholesterol and raw foodism). Watch it here.
I was already aware that they were looking for PMS sufferers, as the call for volunteers came out via The National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome earlier in the year. So I was curious and excited to see how they would tackle PMS using food.
In my experience – not to mention, the growing weight of research evidence – a diet based on good fats, complex carbs and junk-free whole foods (together with regular exercise and stress reduction) can deliver dramatic improvements in PMS for the vast majority of women. And it looked like the The Food Hospital would be singing from the same songsheet.
But I have to say, I was rather disappointed. Here’s why…
The PMS Case Study – Julie
Julie is only 26, but has been suffering from PMS for five years already – poor woman! – and reported that her symptoms had got worse around a year ago. She eloquently described ‘losing’ a week a month to PMS, and talked about how it made her feel “very angry, very down, with lots of mood swings and very anxious” and how it meant that she “couldn’t concentrate on anything, apart from being upset”.
Also around a year ago, she had given up dairy for the very good reason that it made her feel sick. (Surely your body’s way of telling you it can’t process dairy!). During this time she had lost weight, which had made her feel better in herself.
She had taken the contraceptive pill in the past, but commented that she continued to suffer from PMS symptoms during that time – which is not uncommon. She was clear that she didn’t want to take anti-depressants because she didn’t like the idea of not being in control of the chemicals going into her body. And she was already on the right track with thinking that what she ate had an impact on how she felt.
The programme’s nutritionist concluded that the reason for Julie’s worsening PMS was her reducing her dairy intake. There was no discussion shown about the other factors which would form part of a fuller assessment, such as other changes in her life during the period her PMS had got worse, such as her stress and activity levels, and any other diet changes. I would also have been interested to hear whether PMS ran in her family.
The Programme’s Recommendations for PMS
In my view, there was a mixture of good and bad advice.
The good was the (very brief!) discussion of the role of serotonin and the importance of complex carbohydrates – both of which I’ve written about previously. Also, the importance of Vitamin D to ensure that you can absorb calcium properly. (Half the population in the UK are deficient in Vitamin D, so Julie was not unusual in this respect). Without question though, Vitamin D is best absorbed through the action of sunshine on the skin.
But what I didn’t agree with was the fact that the PMS management plan hinged on increasing dairy intake – despite this being poorly tolerated by Julie. There was no mention of the importance of omega-3 fats, B vitamins, exercise, or stress management (to reduce cortisol levels) and stimulant reduction.
Dairy for PMS? Not Such A Great Idea
While dairy intake is often discussed in relation to PMS because of the link between calcium intake and PMS, this is something of a fallacy. I wrote about the downsides of milk in a previous post. (And while we’re on the subject, here’s an interesting piece on why cheese is so addictive).
Although milk does contain calcium, it’s true, it also has an acid-forming effect in the body (which means it actually leaches calcium from our bones, making them weaker – a real issue for women who are at risk of osteoporosis). It is also high in saturated fat and protein, and contains no antioxidants or fibre. Remember that while milk may be the perfect rich food for babies while they’re growing, most babies – except human ones, that is – are weaned and stop drinking milk.
Even if you do want to include some dairy in your diet, the 4-5 daily servings a day recommended by the programme is way too much for good health. The China Study provides comprehensive and compelling evidence from a large-scale long-term study about the benefits of low (or no) dairy diets on all chronic diseases.
There are plenty of healthier plant-based non-dairy sources of calcium which are alkaline-forming (that is, they maintain the best pH levels for your health). The programme itself even mentioned calcium-enriched soya milk, almond milk or rice milk as alternatives for Julie, given that she struggled to eat dairy products. (I am a big fan of nutrient-packed smoothies, and there’s a good suggestion for a PMS smoothie on The Food Hospital website – which you could make with soya milk, rice milk, hemp milk, or almond milk)
Interestingly, in the update on The Food Hospital’s website about Julie, she had trouble increasing her calcium intake due to her dislike of milk so chose to eat more calcium rich vegetables, such as broccoli and asparagus, instead. So it seems it wasn’t really more dairy that improved her PMS anyway, but more calcium-rich whole foods.
(Oh, and one other thing. Presumably because of the demands of television, Julie was reassessed by the Food Hospital Team just six weeks later. That would only have been one menstrual cycle later, and in practice, the impact of any diet and lifestyle changes should be implemented over at least three cycles).
Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year. And thanks for reading!