Why Does PMS Cause Physical Changes?

by Caitlin Flynn

We don't need science to tell us that having our period is not always the happiest time of the month, either physically or emotionally — and the days leading up our periods can be even worse, with the arrival of PMS symptoms like mood swings, cramps, nausea and joint pain (or, if we're really lucky, all of the above). Even if we have irregular periods, most of us have a sixth sense about when we need to start packing tampons in our purse, thanks to those super enjoyable physical and emotional changes. PMS symptoms can begin to occur up to ten days before we get our periods, but if we're lucky they won't kick in until a few days prior. Not every woman experiences PMS or has multiple symptoms, of course, and symptoms vary in severity from person to person. But approximately 85 percent of women exhibit at least one symptom of PMS and those with depression and other mood disorders are at a greater overall risk for PMS, too.

For women who generally experience mild symptoms that can be dealt with by popping a few ibuprofen, PMS is basically a given and many of us no longer think twice about why it happens. But when we do stop to ponder it... why must we deal with this physical and emotional discomfort month after month? Mother Nature, you owe us some answers for this stuff! But while we may be waiting a while on that formal apology, you can check out these five scientific explanations for your PMS symptoms right now. And that's almost as good, right?

1. Swollen And Sore Breasts

Your boobs may not be able to predict the weather, but don't feel too bad about it — because they can predict when your period is approaching. Why? Your ovaries release progesterone, a hormone essential for pregnancy, in the time leading up to your period. Progesterone causes the milk ducts in your breasts to expand — which equals swollen and sore boobs. Many of us have no complaints about our boobs getting bigger, of course — but why must it be at this achy cost?

2. Bloating

Unlike bigger boobs, bloating doesn't really have any possible upside. So why must it exist? It's those dang hormones again! The fluctuation of estrogen and progesterone causes fluid retention around the waist area. This is why we gain weight in the days leading up to our period — but it's "water weight," composed of fluid, not fat. About three days into your period, the excess water and blood will have been flushed from your system and the bloating will subside.

There are a few ways to combat severe bloating. Doctors recommend reducing salt, sugar, and caffeine intake, which sounds like a smart idea to me in theory, but those things comprise about 90 percent of my diet. So... I guess I'll just break out the leggings and sweatpants once a month until I suddenly decide to be a super healthy eater and stop drinking coffee (translation: never).

3. Joint And Muscle Pain

Though cramps get all the press, they aren't the only physical pain associated with menstruation — a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that our muscle fibers fire more often about a week before our menstrual cycle begins. Our brains activate the neurons for muscle movement, so when progesterone decreases as your period begins, it throws the muscle movements out of whack.

The result? More PMS-related pain, of course — the destabilization of our joints primarily causes pain in the knees. Experts say this doesn't mean we shouldn't exercise during our period — although it's not a time to over-exert yourself, doing your usual workout can help boost your mood. Because, in the wise words of Elle Woods, "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy."

4. Headaches

Headaches are a less common PMS symptom than cramps, but they can be even more debilitating. 50 percent of women who are prone to headaches and migraines say it is directly related to their menstrual cycle. Estrogen levels drop before your period, while progesterone is released and can trigger headaches. Since these hormone changes happen in every woman's body during her cycle, why are some women prone to menstrual migraines and not others? The exact cause is unknown, but risk factors and triggers include: being on hormonal birth control, irregular sleep patterns, poor nutrition habits and consistent stress.

5. Skin Changes

Since we're dealing with cramps, aches, and general misery here, shouldn't we at least be rewarded with something nice, like glowing skin? Nah. When our hormone levels surge before our periods, our oil glands become overactive. The combination of low estrogen and high androgen levels puts our bodies' oil production at an all-time high, which subsequently blocks our pores. Hello, pimples! There's not much you can do to cure PMS-related acne, but there are a few preventive measures you can take to prevent related skin damage. When your pores are clogged, your sensitivity to the sun increases, so avoid laying out in the sun and be extra vigilant about wearing SPF during this joyous time of PMS.

After enduring all this physical and emotional discomfort, we owe it to ourselves to treat ourselves. I couldn't find any scientific evidence to back it up, but I'll impart this advice anyway: our chocolate cravings are the universe's way of apologizing for putting us through PMS. So don't deny yourself — this is no time to try to be a hero.

There's nothing in life that a cupcake sandwich can't solve, am I right? Except, you know, not having to deal with PMS in the first place.

Images: hervoices/Flickr; Giphy (7)