Ask Marilyn: what can I do about worse PMS symptoms in the winter?

Q: My PMS always gets worse in the winter and I find it really hard to get up in the mornings. Why is this? What can I do about it?

A: Many women find that their symptoms of PMS get worse when the nights are longer and darker. This lack of warmth and light seems to make things worse because when you are exposed to plenty of bright light your body starts to produce serotonin which wakes you up and makes you feel more energetic and alert. Without enough serotonin you can end up feeling depressed and irritable, with food cravings and problems sleeping. Sounds a lot like PMS, doesn’t it?

It’s clear that too little serotonin and not enough light can play a part in PMS or make symptoms worse. Change in appetite, insomnia, reduced energy, weight gain, problems concentrating and fatigue are symptoms of both PMS and low serotonin levels so if you are suffering from any of these symptoms you need to light up your life. This is crucial if your PMS gets worse in the winter or if you suffer from depression. By boosting your serotonin levels, your mood will be boosted and you will have more energy in the morning to leap out of bed.

To increase your serotonin production make sure you are exposed to either full-spectrum light from the sun or a bright white light for at least 15 minutes during the morning. Light has a direct effect on your brain, helping to set your body clock for sleep and waking. The incandescent lights you may have in your lamps are not good enough and you should try to walk outdoors – even if the sun isn’t out. Don’t wear sunglasses as your eyes need to be exposed to natural light. If you think you need something more you could buy an alarm clock that is also a bedside lamp so when you set it to wake up at 6.30 am it gradually turns up the light intensity starting about 20 minutes before you need to get up – simulating what dawn does. If this doesn’t wake you first the alarm goes off at your wake up time. You may also want to consider getting a special light box that can provide full-spectrum.  The light is measured in units called lux, and a typical light box provides 10,000 lux. Daylight is around 5,000 lux and it takes around 2,500 lux to have a therapeutic effect on your internal clock. You can do light therapy yourself as long as you don’t over do it and follow the instructions on the box to the letter – but it is always best to check with your doctor first for advice.

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