Men were right all along. Our hormones DO make us women irrational…
23:01 GMT, 4 July 2012
Out of control: Martina Mercer has done some reckless things while in the grip of severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
A wedding dress and a handmade bookcase were among the items that had been thrown, in great haste, on to the bonfire in the front garden. As thick black smoke billowed across the street, neighbours peered through their windows — and Martina Mercer’s expression changed from flushed fury to one of fear.
In a fit of anger against the husband with whom she’d recently split, she had gathered up every reminder of her marriage (it was her ex who’d made the wooden bookcase), lit a match and set fire to the lot.
It was only when it began to get out of control that Martina realised the severity of the situation.
‘The flames started to melt the PVC window frames on the house and a section of guttering,’ she says. ‘Luckily, I was able to put it out with buckets of water but I could have burnt the house down.
‘As it was, the fire caused hundreds of pounds worth of damage I could ill afford.’
So what had caused such impetuous recklessness As unlikely as it may sound, Martina puts it down to having been in the grip of severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
While most of the month she is an infectiously warm, cheerful optimist, in the days leading up to her period, Martina, 33, becomes a completely different person.
‘When I have PMS, I become the opposite of my usual self,’ she says. ‘I usually see the best in everything and everyone — but for a week every month I become irrational and unpleasant.
‘Of course, the bonfire was an extreme case of this. At the time I was 26 and had split from my husband. The reasons were personal between us and not related to my PMS. I’d been talking to my mum about him and had got really wound up. Before I knew it, I found myself gathering up every reminder of him and setting light to them.’
Although an extreme case, Martina is not the only woman who has acted out of character when overcome by hormones. Between 80 and 90 per cent of women are affected by premenstrual or menopausal symptoms, according to consultant gynaecologist Dr Nick Panay, who is chairman of the National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome (NAPS) and the British Menopause Society (BMS).
‘PMS is a problem with a medical basis,’ he says. ‘The fluctuating levels of female hormones affect the central nervous transmitters including serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline, which influence everything from our mood to our concentration and sleep. In a minority of cases, there is a significant impact on women’s personal and professional lives.’
In another extreme example, last month, mother-of-one Suzanne Gilchrist was jailed for more than four years for assault and other offences after claiming she had been suffering a ‘hormonal imbalance’ when she hit a pedestrian in her car and then tore through a town’s streets with him still clinging to her bonnet.
Men have long complained about women’s irrationality in the lead-up to their periods. But it would seem — though painful to admit — there may be some truth in their stereotyping.
Martina Mercer is now happily married to Justin, 33, a stay-at-home father to their children Mitchell, 11, Poppy, seven — her children from her first marriage — and Persephone, one, but she is still plagued by PMS.
Like most of her female relations, she entered puberty at nine and as a teenager suffered migraines and drastic mood swings. In her teens, her GP diagnosed PMS. However, he offered no solutions, saying it was ‘one of those things’.
‘I thought it was something I’d just have to get used to,’ Martina recalls.
'My mood swings were dreadful. After a row with my husband I drove my car into a wall on purpose'
Growing up, she’d also witnessed strange behaviour from her mother, a fellow sufferer. ‘I remember her putting our silver teapot in the washing machine to get it clean. She also once put my dad’s slippers in the oven to warm, and reduced them to ash.’
Martina’s hormones interfere with her working life, too. She runs a successful copywriting business from their home near York and that often means a 60-hour week.
Every month, Martina declares that she can’t go on, even though as the family breadwinner she can ill afford to take time off. ‘I get it into my head that life isn’t fair and I shouldn’t have to work so hard,’ she says. ‘So I announce I’m taking a week off, which terrifies everyone as without my work we can’t afford to live.’ She says her husband breathes a sigh of relief when her rational side kicks in and she forces herself back to her office.
‘Fortunately, my family is very supportive and my husband has learnt how to handle my curtness and bossiness,’ she says. ‘We joke about how even asking me if I’d like a cup of tea is a minefield. But jokes aside, it really is debilitating.’
Martina’s friends have also been on the receiving end of her hormone-driven anger. ‘As I have a home office, friends used to pop round to raid my wine cupboard or have a cuppa,’ she says.
‘Some would ask for lifts, while others would drop their children off while they went shopping.’
One month, while suffering from PMS, she decided enough was enough. She recalls: ‘I put a sign on the door with a list of charges for taxi services, tea, sandwiches, babysitting and use of the facilities. I offended a few people!’
One month, she decided she was working so hard that she deserved a 22,000 MG sports car. It wasn’t a calm, collected decision but a spur-of-the-moment one, brought on by her dreaded hormones.
‘I wanted it so I bought it,’ Martina says. ‘I regretted it two weeks later when my hormones were back to normal and I found out how much the tyres alone would cost to replace.’
Road rage: Lauren wrote off a car when she had PMS
Horrified by what she had done, and by the monthly payments she had signed up to, Martina tried to return the car. To no avail.
‘I ended up keeping it for three years, but I regretted it every time I looked at it.’
Marketing consultant Lauren Bangle, 52, is another who admits to bouts of irrational behaviour every month. She says she has been at the mercy of PMS and then perimenopausal (early menopausal) symptoms since she came off the pill in her early 30s.
‘I’ve been an emotional wreck for the past 20 years,’ she says. ‘I have some good days — but they are few and far between.’
As for the bad days On one occasion Lauren says she drove into a brick wall in a fit of pique.
‘I was 39 and my mood swings were dreadful,’ she says. ‘My former husband and I owned an upholstery business and we had a massive argument at work about fabric. In a fury, I drove straight home and banged the car into the small brick wall between our house and our neighbour’s.’
The car and wall were write-offs.
‘I burst into tears,’ says Lauren. ‘Motor sports are my passion and my coupe was my prized possession. I went to apologise to the neighbour for knocking her wall down. When she said it was my wall, I cried even more.’
Lauren, from Basingstoke, Hampshire, who has been single since she and her husband ended their 12-year marriage in 2006 due to the tensions involved in running a business together, spent 2,000 repairing her car, but never rebuilt the wall. ‘I couldn’t face it, in case I did the same thing again.’
She finally consulted her GP about her symptoms in her late 30s. She says: ‘He said it was probably an early menopause, but that there was nothing much I could do about it and should just live with it.’
More recently, she has been offered hormone replacement therapy (HRT), but as she is hostile to the idea of synthetic hormones, she prefers to soldier on without them. She sighs: ‘I shout at the dog. I’ve thrown my laptop across the room and I ran the car into a bollard at the petrol station last week.’
It is not known why some women suffer symptoms more than others. Researchers at Harvard and Gothenburg universities are investigating a genetic sensitivity to these hormonal fluctuations.
But for those who do suffer more severely, there are solutions, says Dr Panay: ‘The key is finding the treatment that suits the particular individual. Possible treatments include diet, exercise, complementary therapies, anti-depressants, oestrogen gels and patches, or cognitive behavioural therapy.’
Mother-of-two Nicki Cawood, 29, from Thirsk, North Yorkshire, sought help ten years ago when she threw a kitchen knife at her husband. Nicki’s PMS began when she turned 17 — which coincided with meeting Roy, then 22.
There are more than 100 recognised symptoms of PMS. They include crying, tiredness, headaches and aggression
‘I’d been a bit tearful and anxious as a younger teenager, but once I turned 17, I started getting worse,’ Nicki says.
‘My mood swings were unbelievable. One minute I was calm and rational; the next I was sobbing as if my heart would break; then I’d be full of rage; then I’d be crying again, this time with remorse.
‘I hoped it would improve over time. But it didn’t.’
Nicki and Roy had been together for a couple of months when he first experienced her PMS.
‘I remember the first time I shouted at him about something trivial,’ recalls Nicki. ‘We had never argued, so it was out of character. I could hear myself saying nasty things but couldn’t understand where they were coming from or how to stop.’
The couple learned to live with Nicki’s monthly outbursts, but after they had been together for a year, they became more serious.
‘One day, he asked me whether we were having chicken for tea again,’ Nicki says. ‘I was beyond livid and picked up a knife and threw it at him. It missed, so I threw two saucepans as well. They hit him. Then I burst into tears.’
Don't mess with me today! The fluctuating levels of female hormones at the time of the month influences everything from mood to concentration and sleep (posed by model)
Rather than retaliate or storm off, Roy escorted Nicki to the sofa and gave her a hug. ‘He was very sweet but very firm and said that enough was enough, that this wasn’t normal behaviour and that we needed to see a GP together.’
The GP spotted a link between Nicki’s moods and her monthly cycle and diagnosed severe PMS.
The diagnosis came as a relief. ‘I thought I was going mad. Anxiety, tears and sudden rage are not normal and I was glad to have a reasonable explanation,’ she says.
Nicki’s GP prescribed vitamin B6 tablets. Vitamin B6 plays a vital part in moderating the brain chemicals that control mood and behaviour.
Several trials have suggested it is effective in managing symptoms of PMS, morning sickness and hormonal side-effects of the pill — though further studies have highlighted neurological risks, such as loss of sensation in the hands and feet as well as permanent nerve damage. It is also not effective in all cases.
For Nicki, though, it worked. ‘The change was phenomenal. All the tears and anger vanished,’ she says.
Nicki took the tablets for a year, then gradually stopped. Her symptoms never returned and she and Roy, who works in manufacturing, have been happily married for 11 years.
She says: ‘I am very grateful Roy stepped in early on. It’s a shame women aren’t better educated about PMS. I’d heard of it making women a bit snappy and moody, but I’d never taken it seriously.’
Nick Panay says this is one of the problems. ‘Women’s hormonal issues are often taboo,’ he says.
‘GPs — and gynaecologists, too — often don’t have time to talk, or haven’t been trained to diagnose and treat them.’
Martina is familiar with the difficulties of diagnosing hormonal problems.
Over the years, in a bid to find out why she suffers from such extreme PMS, she has been diagnosed with conditions including polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis. St John’s Wort has offered some relief, but the contraceptive pill and coil have made her symptoms even worse.
Following her third pregnancy, it was discovered that Martina was producing an excessive amount of oestrogen — which can cause mood swings and depression. She will soon have an exploratory operation to investigate why this might be the case.
‘I’m scared about what they are going to find,’ she says.
‘Though I feel relieved that after 20 years I might have a real explanation for my debilitating mood swings.’
Her husband will have to be careful about how he offers her a cup of tea for a little while longer.
The National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome, pms.org.uk