Is it Worth Taking Vitamin B6 for PMS?

Vitamin B6 supplement is often suggested for PMS treatmentFor many years, the standard advice to women with PMS was to take evening primrose oil to combat breast tenderness and to take vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) to deal with PMS mood problems. 

I often hear from women with PMS that this advice still persists – for example, among counter staff in pharmacies – and as I’ve already considered the effectiveness evening primrose oil, I thought it was time to tackle vitamin B6.

First of all, it’s worth remembering how the link between vitamin B6 and PMS first came about. Back in the 1970s, vitamin B6 started being used to treat depression in women taking oral contraceptives (which had significantly different formulations then, compared to the second and third generation Pill that followed). 

This led to interest in the possibility of vitamin B6 also treating PMS symptoms.  This seemed logical given that vitamin B6 is needed for the production of serotonin and dopamine, the brain chemicals which lift mood and prevent anxiety.  Women who are prone to PMS do seem to have lower levels of serotonin leading to the classic PMS symptoms of irritability, anxiety and depression.

However, scientific trials looking at whether vitamin B6 really reduced PMS symptoms have been anything but conclusive.

Very Little Evidence For The Effectiveness of Vitamin B6 in PMS

The British Medical Journal undertook a review of several research trials looking at the effectiveness of vitamin B6 in PMS treatment.  The review noted the small numbers of subjects involved and problems with the study design in most cases, and concluded that:

[The studies were of] insufficient quality to draw definitive conclusions.

The Journal of the American College of Nutrition also reviewed twelve trials and found a mixed picture:

  • Three gave positive results for vitamin B6 in PMS treatment
  • Five gave ambiguous results for vitamin B6 in PMS treatment
  • Four with negative results for vitamin B6 in PMS treatment

Once again, the reviewers concluded that the studies were small and had design shortcomings.  Several subsequent research trials, both published and unpublished, also found no significant benefit of vitamin B6 supplementation for women with PMS.

Consquently, the clinical guidelines issued to UK doctors by the National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome (NAPS) state that:

[There is] insufficient evidence of efficacy is available to give a recommendation for using Vitamin B6 in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome.

So the science does not back up vitamin B6 – used on its own – as an effective supplement for PMS. 

This doesn’t surprise me, as my experience and studies tell me that vitamins seldom work best in isolation.  And in any event, vitamins are generally best obtained from food, rather than pills, (unless there is a proven deficiency) because that is how your body best digests and absorbs the nutrients. 

However, the whole family of B vitamins – obtained through good nutrition, naturally – are hugely important to reducing PMS symptoms.  They have been shown to reduce stress and irritability, reduce bloating and help with food cravings.

Why ALL the B Vitamins are Important for PMS Management

I’ve written previously about the research showing that vitamins B1 and B2 are really helpful for PMS management.  In fact, the whole group of B vitamins (including vitamin B6)  actually work best when taken together. 

Vitamin B6 is contained in some amounts in all foods.  And food really is the best medicine for balancing hormones.  So to boost your B vitamins, make sure you eat plenty of

  • Beans like chickpeas and kidney beans
  • Bananas
  • Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale
  • Avocado
  • Wholegrains, like brown rice and wholemeal bread
  • Sweetcorn and peas
  • Berries
  • Hemp protein

Magnesium – which I’ve also written about before – can help the body absorb and use vitamin B6.  Magnesium is also found in nuts and green leafy vegetables and wholegrains.

A Note About Correct Dosage of Vitamin B6

If you DO decide to take Vitamin B6 as a supplement, it’s important not to take too much. Actual deficiency of Vitamin B6 is rare and the recommended dietary allowance for Vitamin B6 is around 2 mg per day (although some multivitamins include vitamin B6 at much higher levels). 

Concerns have emerged that high doses of vitamin B6 as a supplement can lead to sensory neuropathy – tingling and numbness (pins and needles) in the hands and feet – which may cause nerve damage.  Although to be fair, that seems to have only been reported in VERY high dosages (500mg taken for two years or more) and the effect is reversible. 

Nonetheless, if vitamin B6 is used, doses should be limited to no more than 100 mg/day to avoid any risk of neuropathy, and the more usual dose is 10mg per day.

Thanks for reading! And let me know your experiences with vitamin B6 in the comments below, or on the PMS Warrior Facebook page.

Magnesium and why it's essential in the fight against PMS

The magnesium in avocados is good for PMS

Foods that fight PMS:  avocados (on the left) are one source of magnesium.  And if you can find artichokes as big and beautiful as the ones on the right anywhere in the UK, I recommend you snap them up! Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that the best diet for beating PMS is one which provides all the vitamins and minerals you need for health via whole foods, rather than vitamin supplements.  Magnesium is one of the essential minerals and is involved in most of the key processes going on in your body for you to function properly and is needed by every organ.  It therefore has an impact on a range of common conditions, ranging from PMS to depression and osteoporosis.

Luckily, there are plenty of sources of magnesium in many everyday foods – for example, green leafy vegetables are particularly good sources of magnesium. Yet magnesium deficiency is not unusual. 

Could this be because it’s quite common for people to see greens, beans, and grains as more of an optional side dish than the main event?  I think so.  I’ve also noticed that while people these days are more aware of getting their ‘Five a Day’ portions of fruits and vegetables, they tend to gravitate towards fruit rather than vegetables – especially rufty tufty vegetables like kale and beetroot tops, which are so good for you.  And for many people nuts and seeds just don’t appear on their radar.

Well, if this is you, I hope to convince of the benefits of changing your ways!

Why Does It Matter Whether I Get Enough Magnesium?

Magnesium is important for your nerves, your muscles (including your heart) and your  immune system.  It helps your metabolism to function and is as important as calcium in forming strong bones. 

If you don’t get enough magnesium, you could suffer from any of the following symptoms: 

  • Irritability, agitation and anxiety
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Hyperventilation
  • Muscle spasm or twitching
  • Slow nail growth
  • Headaches

Scientific studies suggest that magnesium supplements (which are easier to study in isolation than whole foods) help to relieve many of the physical symptoms that women with PMS experience, including bloating and fluid retention, weight gain, breast tenderness and insomnia.

And in terms of the psychological symptoms of PMS, inadequate magnesium appears to reduce serotonin levels – and we know how important serotonin is to keeping you on an even keel if you suffer from PMS or PMDD.

How To Get Enough Magnesium From Food

Beans are a great source of magnesium as part of PMS busting diet

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Although magnesium supplements exist in a variety of forms (and with varying levels of absorption and effectiveness), Nature provides plenty of dietary sources of easily absorbed magnesium.  A whole-foods plant-based diet will definately ensure that you get plenty of magnesium. 

Leafy greens are particularly great – full of the minerals potassium, magnesium and calcium – but if you’re not keen, there are other options too.  Here are some magnesium-rich foods to include in your meals.  They not only help beat PMS, they’re great for lowering cholesterol and keeping your heart healthy too: 

  • Leafy green vegetables (like kale, cabbage, beetroot tops, chard and spinach)
  • Seaweed
  • Avocados
  • Nuts (like Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, pine nuts, pistachios)
  • Blackstrap molasses (also a good source of iron, calcium, potassium and B6)
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • All types of beans and tofu (which is made from soya beans)
  • Oatmeal
  • Dark chocolate and cocoa powder (see, I told you the list wasn’t all green veg!)
  • Bananas
  • Whole grains (like brown rice and millet)
  • Many herbs and spices (like coriander, dill  sage, fennel and cumin)

Factors affecting absorption of Magnesium

Certain lifestyle factors may have the effect of lowering your magnesium levels. For example:  

The amount of magnesium that your cells can absorb also partly depends of the level of vitamin B6 in your body.  Vitamin B6 supplements are traditionally recommended for PMS  management and I examine the evidence for how effective this actually is in a separate post.  But what initial studies do seem to show is that vitamin B6 combined with magnesium seems to work better than B6 alone (or indeed, a magnesium supplement on it’s own). 

Magnesium supplementation is also often recommended in combination with calcium tablets for PMS.  This is also something I will also write about in a later post.

Thanks for reading!

The good, the bad and the ugly of vitamin supplements for PMS

I’m Not Easily Convinced By Pillsvitamin supplements - a pill for every ill?

Whether people know you suffer from PMS or not, you’ll probably have heard from friends, media pundits and women’s magazines that you should be taking vitamin supplements, either as a remedy for something specific or as a form of ‘just in case’ health insurance. 

Perhaps iron (for blood), vitamin C (for immunity), calcium (for bones), fish oil (for your heart) or a multi-vitamin (to cover all eventualities!)

I certainly bought into that thinking for many years.  I voraciously read all the health promotional literature and spent a shedload of money adding to my vitamin supplements stash.  I even convinced my friends to do likewise.  Not any more. (With a few exceptions).

I’m not really a fan of vitamin supplements any more – even though this feels like swimming against the tide where the holistic and alternative health community is concerned.  Yet I’m healthier than ever and largely PMS-free.  I take a small number of very targeted, evidence-based supplements (which are based on herbs or dehydrated foods rather than laboratory-synthesised vitamins) and spend most of time and money on making sure I eat well and live well.

Why have I changed my views?  Well, I think it’s easy to get sucked into popping a handful of vitamin supplements without really knowing whether you need them.  Or if they’re actually doing you any good.  Vitamin supplements are not foods (which are nature’s natural vitamin supplements) and they probably should be thought of more as medications.  In which case, why would you take a medication if you didn’t know that you really needed it, didn’t know how long you should take it for, and couldn’t say if it was making a difference?

Vitamin Supplements Aimed at Women with PMS

I know from experience that when you’re enduring PMS over endless months and years, you seek out any remedy going and try whatever you can.  And vitamin supplements promise all manner of solutions in a convenient (though usually not cheap) package.  These claims are very seductive and offer a lifeline to women who are often at the end of their tether.  But a few words of caution:

  • Getting a vitamin supplements ‘habit’ can quickly become a money pit – there may be better and more enjoyable ways of investing in your health
  • Every woman is different so random off-the-shelf supplementation based on a ‘one size fits all’ ideal is unlikely to be effective
  • Vitamin supplements may only be treating the symptoms of PMS or any other imbalance, rather than going to the root cause

Continue reading

Research study backs vitamins B1 and B2 - but only from food not vitamin supplements

vitaminIt’s a good day when you see some proper scientific research conducted into ways to alleviate PMS symptoms.  And by proper research, I mean rigorous, large-scale research carried out over a meaningful period of time, and looking at a large and representative sample.  The study of PMS is important and deserves it.

So I was very pleased to see that The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has published the results of a ten-year study which looked at the eating habits of over 1,000 women with PMS, and nearly 2,000 in the control group (i.e. without PMS).  

The objective of the study was:

To evaluate whether B vitamin intake from food sources and supplements is associated with the initial development of PMS.

Why Look at B-Vitamins?

You may already have heard that B-vitamins give you energy and clear brain fuzz.  (Anyone else tried fizzing, orange-y Berocca for a hangover, for example?).  In fact, the whole family of B-Vitamins are important for a range of health reasons, as they:

  • Help your nervous system carry information to and from your brain through the synthesis of feelgood chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine (likely to be one of the reasons why they are particularly significant in PMS).
  • Help your body release energy from food to give you energy and stamina.
  • Are important for healthy muscle function.

The various vitamins in the B-Vitamin group are sometimes called by alternatives names which can be confusing, so here’s a run down of the most common ones:  Continue reading

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