CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A lot of people joke about premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, but it is no laughing matter. For some women the symptoms are so bad they are clinically depressed.
On most days, Crystal Mays is happy. But one week every month, she becomes a different person.
"Every month I kind of go off the deep end," she said.
Mays has premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD, a debilitating form of PMS. With PMDD, women become clinically depressed and anxious before their periods.
For women with the disorder, the symptoms of PMDD disappear immediately after they start their periods.
Dr. Susan Girdler, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, estimates about 10 percent of women of childbearing age have PMDD.
"But we're still talking about millions of women," she said.
Girdler is one of the first researchers to study the disorder. Last year, her team discovered that women with PMDD have trouble metabolizing the female hormone progesterone, especially when they are under stress. This hormone has a powerful effect on the brain.
"It regulates mood. It regulates depression. It regulates anxiety," Girdler said.
To learn more about PMDD, UNC researchers put women through a series of stressful events, including a mock job interview. They measure hormone levels, especially progesterone.
Girdler believes tests like these could pinpoint ways to correct the problem.
"This may set the stage for the development of pharmacologic treatments," she said.
Some women take antidepressants. Mays said nothing works for her, but it helps knowing that people now accept this as a real condition.
"It makes me feel like I'm not alone. It's something I have to cope with," she said.
PMDD does not affect fertility. It appears at the onset of menstruation and goes away during menopause -- more proof of the hormonal link. For more information on studies regarding the disorder call (919) 966-2547.