What is the real-life impact of premenstrual symptoms?

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Lethargy, bloating, mood swings, breaking out in spots — many people who menstruate experience one or more of these symptoms in the run up to their monthly period. For some, they are merely an inconvenience, but for others they can significantly impact day-to-day life. Why do such symptoms occur, and are some people more susceptible than others? We gathered some personal perspectives and expert advice on how to cope with PMS.

How do premenstrual symptoms really affect day-to-day life? Image credit: Guille Faingold/Stocksy.

The term pre-menstrual tension (PMT) was first coined in 1931 by an American gynecologist, Robert T. Frank, to describe symptoms experienced by people who menstruate at certain times during their cycles.

Although he described several physical symptoms, such as cyclical asthma, cardiac irregularity, and water retention, his main focus was on what he called “nervous tension,” which caused “improper or undesired” behaviors. He blamed this “hysteria” in the days before menstruation on an excess of estrogen.

Since then, doctors and researchers have discredited the notion of hysteria as a catch-all term used to describe almost any behaviors and conditions that defied the rules and expectations of a traditional patriarchal society.

The term PMT has consequently also fallen out of use. Instead, doctors now refer to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which can include both mental health and physical symptoms.

And an excess of estrogen is not to blame — levels of both estrogen and progesterone decrease dramatically after ovulation, so they are low in the days leading up to the period. However, even now, the exact cause of PMS is not entirely clear.

“The cause of these physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms is thought to be a result of hormonal changes and fluctuations, involving estrogen and progesterone, during the menstrual cycle especially 1–2 weeks before a period begins.”

– Dr. Sheryl Ross, OB/GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA What we do know is that a large number of women experience a range of symptoms in the days leading up to their period.

Most of these are a normal part of the cycle, but for some, they can interfere with day-to-day functioning.

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