Treating Premenstrual Syndrome: An Interview With Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a "lifestyle disorder" that must be treated holistically, says health visionary Christiane Northrup, M.D.

In this interview with Discovery Health Online, Dr. Northrup tells women who suffer with PMS how to best treat their symptoms.


She also notes that young women appreciate and value their feminine wisdom more than their mothers did and are doing a better job caring for themselves physically and emotionally.

But "having children is the acid test that will determine how our baby-boom daughters are really doing with self-care," says Dr. Northrup.

Q:  What have you found to be the most effective treatment plan for alleviating the common symptoms of PMS?

A:  Women must understand that there's always a message behind the PMS. If your relationship or job is not serving your highest purpose, then you might be more susceptible to PMS, which is the time of the month when anything that isn't working in your life will be less tolerable. If you're walled off from this information, you'll think that you are "Dr. Jekyl, Mr. Hyde." But really, the "disowned" part of you is just sending you a message. You also have to avoid excessive refined foods, caffeine and alcohol, and make sure you're taking a good multivitamin with enough B-complex and minerals. You also need omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) in your diet as well as regular exercise. PMS is a lifestyle disorder. It has to be treated holistically, looking at every aspect of your body, mind and spirit to find and correct the imbalances. It also helps to know that you aren't being "victimized" by your cycle.

Q:  In your book The Wisdom of Menopause, you point out that menopause rewires the brain, sparking a change in priorities. Do younger women experience a similar transformation as a result of childbirth or any other life passage?

A:  Yes. Every significant biological rite of passage rewires the brain in some way and opens us further to our wisdom — the onset of menstruation, the monthly menstrual cycle, pregnancy and birth, breastfeeding and menopause. All of these can be very significant ways to access inner wisdom. This wisdom is lost, however, if you persist in the culturally supported belief that the processes of your female body are nothing but a hormonal inconvenience that requires medical care to deal with or try to eradicate.

Q:  Today's twenty- and thirty-somethings have the advantage of reading your book so they can better prepare themselves for the changes coming from ages 40 to 55. What should they be particularly mindful of concerning their health to pave a gentler path to menopause?

A:  The most important thing they can do is embrace the wisdom of their monthly cycles, understanding that the menstrual cycle is our connection to the same universal rhythms that govern the ocean tides and the phases of the moon. Through them we are connected to a creative cycle of outwardly focused activity balanced with inward reflection that is the very essence of creative flow. When this is not acknowledged and worked with consciously, however, PMS, menstrual cramps and a host of other symptoms are the result. At ovulation, we may feel more receptive, more open to new ideas. After ovulation, progesterone levels start to rise and our moods often become more inward and reflective. The tide has gone out and everything that's on the bottom can be seen — we see everything that isn't working in our lives. The issues that come up for us during the luteal phase — the second half of our cycle, especially the week before bleeding — are important messages. Every month we have a chance to readjust our lives a bit.

Q:  Many baby-boomer women, seeing that their moms often put their own interests on hold — even their health — to care for others, swore that they would never do the same. While we may still be wrestling with the balance between caring for others and ourselves, do you believe the lesson has finally been learned by younger women? Has a new era of self-care arrived?

A:  In general, I find that my daughters and their friends appreciate their feminine wisdom far more than I did. And their self-care routines are a far more conscious part of their lives than were my mother's or mine. (I don't think I even knew what self-care was at their age!) But this will be truly tested only once they have children. It's easy to care for yourself when it's just you and you're still a college student or a young working woman. Having children is the acid test that will determine how our baby-boom daughters are really doing with self-care. I believe that they at least know that they can't do this alone. They will need support. I'm hoping that the men they marry will pitch in and help more than most baby-boom men have.

Q:  In your books, you stress that women must understand the experience of being female in our culture and how culture affects our perceptions of and relationship with our bodies. Do you see any new signs or norms in the culture that are particularly troubling or challenging for younger women?

A:  Yes. The influence of the mass media is more pervasive than ever. Many little girls now grow up in an overly sexualized way, with Britney Spears as their major role model. I'm concerned about what this does to a young girl's brain and sexual development. There's reason to believe that this influence, as well as dietary factors, is what's pushing the age of menarche down to younger ages than in the past century. More women are also getting breast implants than ever before. On the other hand, women are more active in sports and fitness activities and are more skilled in "real-world" skills. The answer to all of this is to stay tuned to your inner wisdom. It's really the only place to go for the answers that really matter in life.

Q:  We all know the value of eating well and getting regular exercise. We may even make it a priority, but then the frenzy of life interrupts and we find ourselves eating for comfort while our sneakers gather dust. What have you found works to help women maintain health-enhancing habits and behaviors once they start?

A:  You have to build a circle of supportive friends that helps you to include regular fitness and great food as part of your daily life. It simply isn't negotiable. You need others to help you stay on track, and you will do the same for them.

Q:  I hear that your next book may be about mothers and daughters. Could you share with us some of your thoughts on the health consequences of the mother-daughter relationship?

A:  Yes, my next book is about mothers and daughters. And it has taken me more than five years to finally get it together and write it. The mother-daughter relationship sets the stage for our state of health for our entire lives because our mothers are our first and most powerful female role models. Our most deeply ingrained beliefs about ourselves as women come from our mothers. And our behavior in all of our relationships, with food, with our children, with our mates and with ourselves are a reflection of those beliefs. I feel that this is my most important book so far because I'm writing about how the core beliefs and behaviors that most profoundly affect our health are passed from mother to daughter.

Dr. Northrup, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, is the author of The Wisdom of Menopause and Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and the founder of Women to Women in Yarmouth, Maine. For information about her books, appearances and schedule and her unique approach to health and wellness, visit her web site, Empowering Women's Wisdom.