Remember that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when gum-loving Violet Beauregarde decides to chew on that "meal in a gum stick" that's still under development at the factory? You may recall she starts slowly swelling into a perfectly rounded ball shape due to a weird side effect, and literally has to be rolled out of the room. That's basically the feeling of PMS bloat, are we right?
PMS bloat does not mess around, but what causes it and, more importantly, what helps alleviate and prevent it? We spoke to a couple pros to get the details on all that uncomfortable swelling.
Most Common Areas to Swell
Let's get real for a second. It feels like we're swelling everywhere during PMS, which occurs roughly one to two weeks before menses depending on your personal cycle. While you may certainly feel bloated from head to toe, the most common areas to swell are the breasts, face, abdomen, legs, ankles, and feet.
What's the culprit? We asked Dr. Jason James, a board-certified OBGYN who also serves as chairman of the department of OBGYN at Baptist Hospital of Miami.
"A lot of the bloating symptoms are caused by water retention that is increased by hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle," he explains. "This will result in swollen face, legs, and even breasts."
It doesn't help that we crave junk food—often high in sodium—at this time of the month, either. The unfortunate truth is that salt intake further compounds water retention in the body. However, note that water retention isn't the only reason our bodies swell during PMS.
"Hormone changes can slow down bowel motility, resulting in gas retention, which causes a swollen abdomen," says Dr. James. "Increased blood flow to the uterus can cause uterine swelling, which also leads to a bloated abdomen."
And as for the tender, painful-to-the-touch breasts we deal with during PMS? The hormonal changes—namely an increase in progesterone and estrogen—are to blame for that, as well, explains Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a New York-based gynecologist and assistant clinical professor of OBGYN at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
"People also feel fatigued and don't exercise as much or drink a lot of caffeine, which can also cause changes in the breast," she explains. "At the end of your cycle when you're about to get your period, if you haven't gotten pregnant, what usually happens is the progesterone and estrogen levels plummet." That means a reduction in swelling and pain, which is one thing you can thank your period for.
Preventing and Alleviating PMS Bloat
OK, so we know what causes our bodies to go Violet Beauregard on us during PMS. Let's talk about the preventative measures and treatments.
For starters, we can watch our diets.
"Try and stick to a healthy diet and avoid too many salty foods," says Dr. James. "Additionally, too much caffeine can minimize some of the fluid changes and hormonal influences on the various tissues in the body."
Regarding tender breasts, "Using a period tracker to avoid those dietary things when you're PMS-ing can curb swelling," says Dr. Dweck, who also adds that wearing a bra with very good support can be helpful.
She also advocates evening primrose oil and B6 vitamins as supplements that can alleviate pain and swelling.
Finally, both Dr. Dweck and Dr. James agree that exercise is another way to scare away the bloat monster.
"Vigorous exercise will make sure to maintain your circulation and rid excess fluids and gas," explains Dr. James. It can also help with your cramps (which may seem counterintuitive) and give you an endorphin boost.
As a rule of thumb, if you experience severe pain or bloating during your cycle—especially if it's hindering you from going about your day as normal—it's best to seek out the advice of your doctor.