Premenstrual syndrome needn't be a monthly nightmare. Good nutrition can help break the cycle, says Julia Burness

Sue Cleasby has been suffering from premenstrual syndrome for several years and would often find herself in a terrible state, even describing herself as a "raving lunatic".

"I would only feel normal for one week out of every month. PMS was disrupting my life, I had palpitations and felt generally out of whack." After trying a course of hormones prescribed by her doctor, which subsequently did not help her, she felt depressed and desperate. "It was destroying my marriage and upsetting my children," she says.

Sue realised she ought to try an alternative cure and turned to Maryon Stewart, the founder of the Women's Nutritional Advisory Service and author of No More PMS!. Stewart advised Sue that her diet may be the factor that was causing her severe PMS. She was also breast feeding at the time, a process that seriously depletes the mother of vital nutrients. Sue was told to cut out caffeine and increase her intake of fish, salads, fruit and take gentle exercise.

Stewart's nutrition plan helped Sue to regain normality, overcome PMS and beat depression. She found it amazing that something so simple, such as good nutrition, could heal what had plagued her for so long. "I do not get PMS anymore, and I have not resorted to my doctor," says Sue.

Taking the sensible holistic route to healing one's body is always good advice, but recent findings show that we can be more specific in our approach concerning PMS. Research by Dr Ann Walker, senior lecturer of human nutrition at the University of Reading, found that low magnesium levels could be one of the main causes of PMS. Dr Walker says that over 90 per cent of women do not receive the recommended level of magnesium in their diets.

Dr Walker's research found that low magnesium levels can lead to water retention, anxiety, irritability, cravings for sugar, and muscle cramps. All of these experiences are considered to be typical around the premenstrual time.

The mineral magnesium, found in green leafy vegetables, whole grains and pulses, is also involved in the functioning of the neurotransmitter dopamine: if magnesium is low there is a reduction in dopamine secretion, which upsets the balance of the neurotransmitter and the level of serotonin (known as the happy hormone) production.

Another area where magnesium is involved is the secretion of insulin, thus a decrease in insulin levels may be responsible for those premenstrual sugar cravings and occasional mood swings.

Adequate calcium intake is also needed to balance the magnesium mineral. Walker suggests that the equivalent of one pint of milk a day is required. Both magnesium and calcium can take up to a month to make a difference in the body. In the meantime, there are other natural alternatives that help with PMS symptoms. These include the herb Agnus Castus, which acts comparatively speedily; evening primrose oil; and zinc, which is known to help with the balancing of hormone production.

According to Dr Walker, self-help can be successful, especially for PMS. But if symptoms have not responded positively within four to five months, consult a qualified practitioner.

Contacts: National Institute of Medical Herbalists: 01392 426 022;

"No More PMS!" by Maryon Stewart, Vermilion, £8.99