Feeling like you have the flu days before your period is common among many women. The flu-like physical and emotional symptoms that start anywhere from a few days to two weeks before a woman gets her monthly period are what doctors are calling the “period flu”.
Period flu includes many symptoms that are commonly grouped under the term premenstrual syndrome or PMS. These symptoms are usually not very severe and most women cope well with them. However, in some women, these symptoms are so bad that they are unable to go about their everyday lives during this time.
As reported by the Office on Women’s Health, over 90 percent of women say they get some premenstrual symptoms, such as bloating, headaches, and moodiness. About 20 to 40 percent have more severe PMS-related problems affecting them.
According to Dr. Fenske from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, “PMS tends to be worse early and late in a woman’s reproductive years because there’s just much more fluctuation in hormones during those times.” Period flu should come to an end after menopause. (1)
Period Flu Symptoms
Period flu is “kind of similar to PMS symptoms, but it’s a little bit more exaggerated,” says Ob-Gyn Dr Tamika Cross from Serenity Women’s Health in Pearland, Texas.
Just like PMS, period flu typically strikes at the same point in your cycle—after ovulation and before your period. These episodes generally last no more than two weeks. The symptoms typically start after ovulation, usually improve after a period begins, and disappear by the time it ends.
If you have ever had PMS, then you are familiar with symptoms such as breast tenderness, irritability, and fatigue. Period flu is typically worse, causing more intense feelings of joint pain, muscle aches, low-grade fever, nausea, headaches, sinus pain, and dizziness.
Causes of Period Flu
Period flu remains poorly understood by researchers and healthcare professionals. The precise underlying cause is unclear however most agree these flu-like symptoms are due to the varying fluctuations in a woman’s hormones before and during her period. Understanding a bit more about a woman’s hormones can help explain the period flu.
You and Your Hormones
Every woman has a unique balance of hormones. These hormones change over time. There are eight major hormone types you can experience over your lifetime, each having a different impact on your metabolism, weight, and well-being. Of these, the four key hormones involved during your reproductive life are estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone (LH), and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). In addition, prostaglandins also contribute to the menstrual cycle. (2)
Estrogen: There are three estrogens – estrone, estradiol, and estriol.. Estradiol, the most potent, is a steroid hormone mostly produced in the ovaries from cholesterol and is the main estrogen found in women. Estrogen levels fall the week before your period causing the achiness of PMS.
Progesterone: Progesterone is a steroid hormone found in the ovaries. It helps maintain the uterine lining and is also thought to affect brain hormones like serotonin, our feel-good hormone. Fluctuations in serotonin during your menstrual cycle can change how you feel since it stabilizes your mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.
LH: This hormone, released by the pituitary gland, stimulates the release of the egg. The onset of LH usually precedes ovulation by 36 hours, causing thickening of the uterine lining in preparation for the fertilized egg.
FSH: This hormone, also produced in the pituitary gland, stimulates egg development and the release of estrogen.
Prostaglandins: These are lipid compounds found in almost all tissues of the body. During your period, prostaglandins trigger muscles in your uterus to contract. These contractions help expel the uterus lining. Higher levels of prostaglandins can cause more severe menstrual cramps. Some of the prostaglandins enter the bloodstream, causing headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and the feeling of being flushed or feverish. (2)
Treatments and Remedies For Period Flu
There are lifestyle changes and remedies you can try to ease the symptoms of period flu until your period starts at which time these symptoms should disappear.
- Drink plenty of water
- Get plenty of sleep
- Watch what you eat
Scientific studies on the effectiveness of alternative medicines for PMS and conditions such as period flu have produced mixed results. Herbal products and dietary supplements such as chasteberry, St. John’s wort, calcium, or vitamin B6 have also been known to help. The Office on Women’s Health reports improved symptoms with herbal supplements, such as evening primrose oil and black cohosh. Consult your healthcare provider for dosages. (3)
Other practices that may help reduce period flu symptoms include:
- deep breathing
- relaxation techniques
- acupuncture (3)
Diet and Period Flu
In addition to ibuprofen, women who have severe period symptoms each month may opt for birth control pills which can help by regulating hormone levels. However, changes in your diet may lead to similar results. Try the following before going the medical route. (4)
Eating whole grains and vegetables normally support a healthy body. During your period, continue to eat moderate amounts while avoiding animal products and oils including eggs, dairy, fats and oils, fried foods, processed foods, and refined grains including processed bread, cereals, and pastries. Phytoestrogens found in some plants are classified as endocrine disruptors. These chemicals may also interfere with your hormones when consumed at high doses. (4)
The more estrogen-based foods you consume, the more likely your uterine lining becomes abnormally thick. As a result, when it begins to break down during your menstrual cycle, this process creates more prostaglandins, resulting in higher levels of pain. Also, the more fiber in your diet, the better estrogen byproducts are absorbed and cleared out of the body through your intestines. (4)
It is also a good practice to reduce or avoid alcohol, coffee, and salt during this time.
No matter how severe your symptoms are, know that the period flu will disappear with the onset of your period. Take care of yourself, eat less, drink more water, sleep, and above all, stay positive.