Everyone has heard of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), the constellation of physical and mental symptoms that happens when you are about to get your period. But have you ever heard of period flu?
While not technically a medical term and less well-understood than PMS, period flu is real to many women. As the name indicates, period flu symptoms mimic the real flu but are tied into your menstrual cycle and aren't contagious. Since it's so poorly understood, you may not even know the symptoms you've been experiencing have a name.
This article will help you understand the basics of period flu in more detail, including potential causes and what you can do for relief and prevention.
What is Period Flu?
Period flu refers to a pattern of flu-like symptoms that happen every month at the same time in your cycle, usually between ovulation and your period.
Here's a brief reminder of how your menstrual cycle works:
- The first day of your period is day one of your menstrual cycle.
- Your period marks the beginning of your follicular phase, which is when your body gets ready to release an egg from your ovary. Your uterine lining thickens, and estrogen continues to rise until ovulation.
- An egg is released mid-cycle, usually at the halfway point, and this is ovulation. Estrogen drops right before, and progesterone continues to rise.
- The second half of your cycle is called the luteal phase. If the egg has been fertilized and pregnancy occurs, it will implant on your uterine wall. If not, progesterone and estrogen drop significantly, and the uterus sheds its lining, resulting in your period. It is during this phase when the period flu symptoms strike.
Period flu is often categorized as part of PMS because the symptoms can be similar. But for some women, period flu can feel even worse than typical PMS symptoms.
It's also important to mention that the more severe form of PMS, known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), can also share some of the same symptoms. Talking with your healthcare professional can help you differentiate what's going on, especially if you are really struggling (you don't have to!).
Period Flu Symptoms
Like PMS, period flu symptoms can look different for everyone. Some women get intense symptoms, while others may experience more mild variations.
While there is some overlap, like tender breasts or mood swings, they may feel more like the flu than what you would typically associate with PMS.
Symptoms can include:
- Muscle aches
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Low-grade fever or chills
- Dizziness or lightheaded
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Joint pain
The main thing to recognize is that these symptoms occur at the same time every month and improve or disappear once your period comes.
What Causes Period Flu?
A quick look at the research reveals that there isn't much information about period flu (we’re not too shocked right?). The causes aren't certain, but since symptoms coincide with cycle timing, the most likely explanation is hormone fluctuations.
Hormone Fluctuations and Period Flu
Your hormones shift dramatically between ovulation and your period, as you saw above. This shift is part of why you have PMS, so it makes sense that it would also be a cause for period flu.
When estrogen and progesterone levels shift in the second half of your cycle, you can feel more tired and not sleep as well. Elevations in progesterone followed by steep declines can also impact neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that affect your mood and energy levels.
Progesterone also has an anti-inflammation effect, so when it starts to fall, it also ramps up the release of inflammatory compounds that can cause pain and discomfort. And if your hormones are already out of balance, as seen with estrogen dominance, this can only make things worse.
Prostaglandins and Period Flu
Prostaglandins are hormone-like compounds that up-regulate inflammation in the body. One of their roles is to stimulate uterine contractions—needed when you're pregnant and trying to give birth and to shed your uterine lining during your period.
Prostaglandins are also responsible for period poops (yes, that uptick in bowel movements is real, and you aren't alone if you have them) and menstrual cramps. They also elevate when you have an actual infection and can help explain why you may have a low-grade fever.
The more inflammation in the body, the more prostaglandins are present. While you might know that inflammation isn't great for your overall health, it's also critical to get it under control if you are experiencing period flu or PMS.
Period Flu Support
Period flu isn't something you should have to deal with as part of menstruation. There are ways you can support symptoms. Lifestyle changes that support your hormones, blood sugar balance, and inflammation can go a long way to helping you feel better.
Period Flu Relief
While many reach for an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication (and no judgment here if that's what helps you get through, but they do have side effects, especially if used longer-term), the following are more natural options that can help:
- Stay hydrated. Like when you are sick with the real flu, hydration is essential and can help reduce bloating and headaches.
- Use a heating pad. Research (and probably your grandmother) tell us that heat is an effective tool to help with abdominal and pelvic pain.
- Eat for blood sugar balance. Eat regular meals (it's not a time to skip breakfast) and pair your carbs with protein, fat, and fiber to help keep your blood sugar balanced. Blood sugar spikes can contribute to inflammation in the body and make things worse.
- Avoid inflammatory foods. It's hard when cravings hit, but foods high in fat, sugar, or other processed ingredients only add to the inflammatory burden (and can make your stomach feel worse).
Try to include nutrient-dense foods like lots of leafy greens, berries, olive oil, nuts, and seeds which can help bring inflammation down (and keep you regular if you are feeling bloated or constipated.
- Consider yoga. Movement may be the last thing on your mind when you aren't feeling well, but gentle yoga can help. A study on the effects of yoga and cardio for symptoms of PMS concluded that both work, but yoga was even more effective.
- Try supplements that support pain and inflammation. Curcumin, an active compound found in the spice turmeric, has many studies behind its use, especially for pain and anti-inflammatory benefits.
A study on women with PMS found that those who took curcumin twice a day for the week before their period and three days after had less severe symptoms. These results were from a small study, and the women took the supplements for three cycles. Still, based on the many studies pointing toward the anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric, it could be a food option for relief.
Ginger can also help with pain, nausea, and other symptoms of PMS, as noted in several studies. And another study on young women with PMS found that supplementing with calcium for three months improved fatigue, appetite, and mood changes.
Of course, if your period flu significantly impacts your day-to-day routine, and you must miss school or work consistently, it's a good idea to chat with your healthcare provider to develop a plan to help you feel better fast.
Preventing Period Flu
Looking at the underlying root causes, such as hormone imbalances or inflammation, is vital for taking charge of symptoms. Focusing on the root cause may not lead to immediate relief, but it's critical if you want to work on prevention.
- Diet patterns. Once again, addressing any food choices that exacerbate inflammation or blood sugar imbalances is crucial to keeping prostaglandins low and supporting healthy hormone balance.
You're probably already aware of a few positive diet changes you could make. Some of us need to cut back on sugar, while others need to bump up intake of fiber-rich fruits and veggies. But putting it all together isn't always easy. That's why I created my free 7-day hormone balancing starter kit that includes a meal plan to help you get started.
- Sleep. If you aren't sleeping, you've got to address it. Rest is so intimately connected with hormone and blood sugar balance and, as a result, PMS and period flu.
I know that just telling you to sleep more isn't helpful if you struggle with insomnia or your sleep patterns are off. Keep it simple by examining your sleep environment (too hot or loud?) your wind-down routine (hello screens and cell phones), and anything else that could be interfering.
- Go easy on caffeine and alcohol. I know it's not always that tip people want to read, but it's the truth. Alcohol can contribute to inflammation and exacerbate hormone imbalances that worsen period flu symptoms.
I'm not saying you can't drink occasionally, but if it's become a part of your daily routine and you are struggling with not feeling well, it's time to look at how much you are drinking.
When it comes to caffeine, these beverages can actually lead to worsening anxiety, fatigue, sleep, and cramps for some people.
- Exercise. Even 30 to 45 minutes of exercise three days a week can help reduce period flu and PMS, according to a research review. Physical activity also can help with energy and mood.
- Supplements for hormone balance. Supplements may not work as quickly as medication, but they can be incredibly effective over time. Some of the nutrients mentioned above can be used long-term to address inflammation. But there are also a few more to consider that are especially helpful for hormone balance.
For example, vitex, or chasteberry, works to balance your hormones naturally. Another powerful nutrient for hormone balance is diindolylmethane (DIM) which helps with estrogen detoxification. Both could be considered in addition to the above supplements to address hormone balance to help with period flu. But while those are helpful I would still encourage you to work with a qualified practitioner to understand why your hormones are imbalanced to begin with.
Period Flu May Not be Well-Understood, But it's Real for Many Women
Even if period flu isn't as commonly known as PMS, it doesn't make it less of a problem. If you notice flu-like symptoms every month at the same time during your menstrual cycle, it's time to take a closer look.
A root cause approach considers why you have these symptoms in the first place instead of only addressing the symptoms. With a few lifestyle changes to address inflammation and hormone balance, you can take charge of your health and feel like yourself again.
Remember too, sometimes it is just the flu. If you have a sore throat, runny nose, fever, or other symptoms that look like a cold or flu, be sure to take time to rest and talk to your provider.
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