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Dealing with PMS and Staying Sober

Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, has served as a punch line for thousands of jokes, one-liners, and Saturday Night Live skits. The problem is there’s nothing funny about this once-a-month “gift.” Aside from being a real pain – and an emotional roller coaster ride –  PMS can also become a threat to sobriety.

Alcohol, the Brain, and PMS

When a normal person drinks alcohol, the brain’s endorphin receptors are flooded with serotonin and dopamine. The result is a flood of happiness and euphoria. For long-term alcoholics and binge drinkers, constant exposure to alcohol causes the brain’s neurotransmitter levels to become depleted. That means that any and all relief becomes totally dependent on the next drink.

Interestingly enough, many experts also believe that, for women in recovery, the brain becomes highly sensitive to PMS symptoms. And it’s that increased level of sensitivity that can ultimately lead some women to relapse. PMS is actually a blanket term that describes a myriad of symptoms brought on by a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. These symptoms can vary in intensity and duration, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates  85 percent of menstruating women experience at least one physical, mental and cognitive symptom.

The Sobriety Threat

Experts believe that PMS symptoms can create a hormonal imbalance within a woman’s brain. Just before ovulation, progesterone and estrogen hormone levels spike. If there is no fertilization (pregnancy), those levels quickly drop. This rise and fall of hormones is believed to lower levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA, which leads to feelings of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, thousands of women reach for alcohol in an attempt to regulate these feelings.

PMS can make each and every emotion feel as if it has been painfully amplified. For some, combination of mood swings and physical pain culminates in the belief that they simply cannot cope. In the blink of an eye, weeks and months of sobriety can go up in flames.
PMS can make each and every emotion feel as if it has been painfully amplified. For some, combination of mood swings and physical pain culminates in the belief that they simply cannot cope.

Coping without Alcohol

Fortunately, there are a number of coping skills that can help women overcome the PMS symptoms that threaten to derail sobriety. Instead of reaching for the bottle, try the following:

  • Tell yourself this is only temporary; it’s just your hormone levels fluctuating. Approaching it from a calm and rational angle can help to slow your racing mind.
  • Reach out to your AA sponsor or a trusted girlfriend. An Australian study on PMS pointed out that many women cope with PMS by isolating themselves. Instead of locking yourself in a room, far away from your friends and family members, do the exact opposite. Opening up to someone about how you feel can often talk you off the ledge.
  • Craving chocolate? Go for it; just make sure it’s dark chocolate. That’s because this form of chocolate contains more serotonin-boosting cocoa than any other.
  • Exercise can be a great way to boost mood naturally. For PMS, low intensity activities like walking and yoga are recommended over high intensity workouts. Regular exercise can also increase sleep quality and relieve insomnia, another troublesome side effect of PMS.


Learn more about the available recovery programs and support groups for alcohol abuse and addiction.

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