Bad PMS isn’t in your head–it’s programmed in your genes, scientists discover

/Bad PMS isn’t in your head–it’s programmed in your genes, scientists discover

Bad PMS isn’t in your head–it’s programmed in your genes, scientists discover

My HormonologyWhenever I hear a joke made at a woman’s expense on TV, in the movies or in conversations about a bad premenstrual mood, I cringe. That’s because I know that women who experience irritability, anger, anxiety and/or depression in their premenstrual week are often blamed for it, told to suck it up, are accused of using hormones as an excuse for a bad mood or are made into the butt of jokes.

The truth is that these mood changes are typically the side effects of plunging estrogen and progesterone, which trigger a withdrawal-like state when their levels decline. While some of these effects can be managed or reduced–for instance, through a healthy diet, regular exercise, stress-reducing techniques, like yoga, and other proven treatments–the majority of women still usually experience some kind of negative effects in their pre-period week as hormones descend. Because that’s just how bodies work.

So, telling a woman to suck it up when she’s experiencing a mood-related change during her premenstrual week is like telling someone who’s quitting smoking, caffeine or another addictive substance to just get over it when withdrawal symptoms hit. Now try telling them this every month they kick the habit. Gets annoying pretty fast.

I bring this all up because there is a subset of women who experience extreme premenstrual symptoms. This group, who make up about 2% to 5% of cycling women, suffer from a condition called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Those who have it might feel hopeless or even suicidal, too anxious to interact with people or leave their homes, become overly angry for the situation or exhibit other behaviors that interfere with everyday life.

Unfortunately, because these intense symptoms crop up during their premenstrual week, women with PMDD are also dismissed, told to buck up and joked about.

But, now a new National Institutes of Health study might just give these women the validation they deserve–and one day even lead to a new treatment for PMDD: Turns out, PMDD sufferers have an anomaly in their gene activity that triggers more sensitivity to estrogen and progesterone, which leads to more intense premenstrual symptoms.

“This is a big moment for women’s health, because it establishes that women with PMDD have an intrinsic difference in their molecular apparatus for response to sex hormones – not just emotional behaviors they should be able to voluntarily control,” study co-author David Goldman, M.D. stated in a news release.

That last phrase of Dr. Goldman’s statement is so key: “not just emotional behaviors they can voluntarily control”. Because if you read the comments section of one major news outlet that covered this same study, you’d be reminded of all the people who sincerely believe PMS and PMDD are conditions that women can will themselves to overcome or are making up entirely.

Bottom line: If you suffer from premenstrual symptoms or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, rest assured, it’s not in your head. These are real biological conditions that are only starting to be understood.

About the Author:

Gabrielle Lichterman is the founder of Hormonology, author of 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life, Moods and Potential and creator of the popular Hormone Horoscope apps and Female Forecaster app. She teaches how hormones impact a woman's moods, health and behavior in talks and workshops.


  1. Gabrielle Lichterman October 2, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    I’m sorry to hear that your daughter is struggling with what sounds like premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). You can learn more about PMDD here and the steps I advise to take to treat it: There are non-hormonal treatments and I recommend trying all treatments until you find the right one or combination that works. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, dietary changes and diligently reducing stress (with a regular yoga, meditation or t’ai chi regimen). I also urge you to find a sympathetic GP or OB/GYN, optimally one who has treated PMDD patients already and is open to non-hormonal forms of treatment. A “holistic” medical doctor would be someone who would be open to non-hormonal treatments. Same goes with the registered dietitan and cognitive behavioral therapist: You want someone who’s already experienced with PMDD, though this admittedly takes some research. But, it’s worth it. If you have questions, email me directly at

  2. Jan October 2, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    My 35 year old daughter who is married with two small boys, suffers with severe PMS every month, affecting her mood behaviour and relationships. For up to ten days before her period, she experiences mood swings, is tearful and irritable and suffers with heightened anxiety about anything and everything. The day she begins her period there is a marked change in her mood. Her cycle is very regular and she has heavy periods lasting up to eight days.
    She suffers with hyperplasia and has been treated with the progesterone only pill to thin the womb lining but this does not help her symptoms in any way.her GP suggested the combined pill but she ended up in A&E twice with severe side effects, and she has now been told that she must not take anything with oestrogen in, or she risks having a stroke.
    SHe is at her wits end, the GPs at her practice are not sympathetic to this problem and have suggested Prozac to help her anxiety!
    Help, any suggestions?

Leave A Comment