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A New Study Says PMS Isn't Real

Canadian doctors are saying PMS isn't real. New research out of the University of Toronto claims pre-menstrual syndrome, forever thought to be a monthly whirlwind of emotion you can set your clock by, is actually a giant fallacy we've all been...
October 23, 2012, 7:40pm

Pre-menstrual syndrome, long thought to be a monthly source of physical and emotional discomfort, is totally not real. Or so suggests new research out of the University of Toronto claims that PMS is actually a giant fallacy we’ve all been living and, with every Midol and ill-conceived joke, perpetuating. But before you start cheering — or grumbling about a bunch of misguided researchers — let me say that the results are complicated.

After analyzing 47 research studies, a group of doctors found what they call “no clear link” between moodiness and menstruation. Six of the papers in their review did indeed indicate a link between, but the Toronto doctors wrote off those papers as biased, they claim, because the study participants weren’t blinded to the purpose of those studies beforehand. They did not, however, dispute that menstruation can produce physical symptoms like bloating and abdominal pain. The menstrual cycle, they say, is a source of great “myth and misinformation.”

“This puzzlingly widespread belief” — that PMS causes moodiness — “needs challenging,” the authors conclude in an article published earlier this month in Gender Medicine journal. Translation: PMS is an old wives’ tale.

“There is so much cultural baggage around women's menstrual cycles, and entire industries built around the idea that women are moody, irrational — even unstable — in the phase leading up to menstruation," said Dr. Gillian Einstein, director of U of T's collaborative program in Women's Health, in an announcement of the research. Einstein peer-reviewed the article before it was published. "Our review — which shows no clear evidence that PMS exists — will be surprising to many people, including health professionals."

As a bit of background, there is no clinical explanation to account for whatever body chemistry causes bloating, cramping, mood swings, or the other emotional symptoms typically associated with PMS. The common presumption is that it’s got something to do with hormonal fluctuations in the week or two before a woman’s period starts, but as a National Library of Medicine article notes, that’s yet to be proven.

The Toronto study doesn’t entirely write off the notion that menstruation can have a psychological effect on women. The point that the study seems to make is that we shouldn’t call the moodiness surrounding a woman’s period “PMS,” but rather its proper acronym: PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. PMDD, the doctors acknowledge, is a clinical mood disorder associated with the menstrual cycle that, in their words, is “characterized by severe physical and behavioural symptoms in the later half of the menstrual cycle.” PMDD causes acute depression and irritability around the time of menstruation and, as PubMed notes, is much more severe than PMS, which is typically linked to more milder physical symptoms like cramping and bloating.

The Toronto doctors, however, disassociate cramping, bloating and abdominal pain with PMS, and want to peg those to PMDD as well.

So it sounds like what the doctors really are trying to correct is a language technicality. Kind of like how people who feel like vomiting will say they feel “nauseous” when what they mean is they feel “nauseated.” It’s an error that goes overlooked in most situations but drives a thorn into the ear drums of certain linguist sticklers.

Still, Einstein maintains that the PMS notion is a social construct — not a product of body chemistry — that overlooks issues like “stress, lack of social support, economic hardship” and “physical ailments” which might be the true culprits of women’s period-related prickliness. Period’o’clock “may be the time of the month when (women) feel they can say what’s on their minds,” Einstein told the Toronto Star.

“Once we understand the real problems, we can deliver solutions,” she said.