Our Growing Caffeine Habit
I was in London recently (talking about PMS on a breakfast TV show, as it happens) and it seemed that every second person was striding down the road holding a large lidded cardboard coffee cup and with a different coffee shop every few steps along the street.
Coffee shops have become THE places we head to for a break, to meet work colleagues or friends, and at the start (or end) of the day to pep us up. And there’s no longer such a thing as a ‘small’ or normal coffee: there are infinite variations on the standard coffee and double shots are not unusual. Whether at home or at work – or in the journey between the two – coffee is used by many of us to punctuate the day.
Well, I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, but if you have PMS, you need to think about what effect all that caffeine is having on how you feel, especially in the second half of your cycle. You might be missing an important element of what’s aggravating your PMS.
And I’m not just talking about coffee. Tea – a fundamental part of British life – also contains caffeine, as do cola-type drinks (including the sugar-free ones) and the powerful ‘energy drinks’ we reach for when we need a pick-me-up .
How Caffeine Makes PMS Worse
Research conducted at Oregon State University on over 800 women students found that the risk of PMS was between two and seven times greater in women who consumed two or more cups of coffee or tea each day. So, although individuals vary in their sensitivity to caffeine, the association between caffeine and PMS overall is pretty conclusive.
The caffeine in coffee (and caffeine-rich other drinks and foods) contributes to making us feel worse during PMS in a number of different ways:
- At some point, everyone has got a little too ‘wired’ drinking coffee, so you’ll already know that caffeine is a STIMULANT which raises your heart rate, your breathing, your body temperature, and your blood pressure. It increases levels of adrenaline and cortisol (known as the ‘stress hormone’) which in turn can lead to food cravings, anxiety and irritability.
- Like alcohol, caffeine gives you a short-term boost but ultimately LOWERS THE LEVELS OF SEROTONIN – the brain’s feelgood chemical – in your system and leaves you feeling low on energy. This of course leads you to seek out more coffee to get you back ‘up’. And so the cycle continues…
- Coffee is often described as DIURETIC (meaning it makes you go to the toilet more often) although the actual evidence for this is negligible. However, it definitely does have a ‘loosening’ effect which may contribute to washing out valuable vitamins and minerals from your system. Did you know for example, that coffee is often used in spas and retreats – in coffee enemas!
- Caffeine also blocks the proper absorption of vitamins and minerals. It’s ACID-FORMING, meaning that your body will automatically try to restore it’s alkaline balance by pulling minerals like calcium from within, e.g. out of your own bones - a compelling reason for why women with osteoporosis should avoid coffee.
- Coffee RAISES BLOOD SUGAR LEVELS when keeping sugar levels steady (e.g. by eating regularly and including complex carbs in your diet) are essential to PMS prevention, particularly for maintaining a good mood, high energy levels and for beating food cravings.
- Proper rest and recharging are essential components of any PMS self-care plan but caffeine INTERFERES WITH THE NATURAL SLEEP CYCLE (which is why I’ve never understood the habit of taking strong coffee after dinner!)
- And as if all that wasn’t enough, drinking coffee INCREASES breast tenderness – a common PMS symptom.
How We Get Hooked on Caffeine
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug – albeit a legal one – which acts on the central nervous system. Like other drugs, it sets up a cycle of physical dependency which makes withdrawal difficult. At the same time, our bodies quickly get used to the caffeine ‘hit’ which means that we need larger and larger amounts for it to have the same impact. (Probably one of the reasons why coffee measures are getting bigger and stronger!)
Another way in which we can fall into a pattern of dependency and increasing caffeine consumption is when caffeine stops us sleeping, making us tired, then we wake up feeling that we ‘need’ some coffee to get us going in the morning – a vicious circle!
What Goes With Coffee Isn’t Good For PMS Either!
Where there’s coffee, there’s also often milk (the role of which in PMS is somewhat controversial) and sugar and cakes and biscuits – all of which play havoc with blood sugar levels and have an impact on hormone balance and PMS.
What you eat and drink can really make a dramatic change to your PMS, and sugar, refined foods, alcohol and caffeine are all best reduced (or better still, avoided altogether) from the middle of your cycle through to your period. I know this is a toughie because you are more prone to succumb to all of these when you are suffering from PMS, but consuming those foods sets off a chain reaction which directly results in worse PMS.
Instead, try following a whole foods plant-based diet for as much of the time as you can – you’ll feel the difference. Keep a symptom diary to record how you feel and allow two or three cycles to see the effects.
Tips For Cutting Out Caffeine For The Sake of Your PMS
Reducing caffeine consumption will improve your sleep time, help reduce breast pain and bring down your stress levels, all of which are important for PMS prevention.
However, be aware that withdrawal symptoms like headaches, tiredness and irritability may take a few days (or longer if you’ve been used to a lot of caffeine) before they pass and your system is ‘clean’. Don’t give up – and if you do get sidetracked for whatever reason, give it another go until you succeed.
- Reduce your intake of coffee (or similar caffeinated drinks) gradually to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
- To prevent disruption of your natural sleep rhythms, aim for your last coffee to be drunk no later than 2pm
- If you’re not giving up altogether, try to reduce to two cups of coffee a day only
- But try to reduce by even more during the two weeks leading up to your period
- Try drinking your coffee black and with less or no sugar (this also makes it less likely you’ll drink a large amount). But be beware filter coffee which has been standing around ‘brewing’ for a long time has a much stronger caffeine level than freshly made coffee.
- Try only having coffee as a treat, making sure you sit down to enjoy it, and not having it on the run.
- Try to break the coffee-biscuit-cake-link. This habit is negative for your PMS on all fronts: the caffeine, the sugar, AND the refined carbs – a triple PMS whammy!
- Switch to naturally caffeine-free drinks. Rooibos (or Redbush) tea from South Africa is increasingly easy to get in shops and cafes and is tasty and totally good for you as it’s full of antioxidants. Or try green tea (which has a little caffeine, but has lots of antioxidant and benefits and is a very gentle stimulant). Or mint tea (also good for the digestion, and calming and non-stimulating). Remember that drinks sold as ‘decaffeinated’ are highly processed to extract the caffeine and still contain some residual caffeine.
What effect does coffee have on your PMS? Let me know in the Comments below. Or on the PMS Warrior Facebook page.
Thanks for reading!