PMS vs. pregnancy symptoms

Not sure if you’re pregnant or simply going through PMS? Take a look at our tips on how to determine whether or not you are pregnant

Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

12 August 2016

An introduction to PMS vs. pregnancy symptoms

Pregnancy is often a pressing concern for those experiencing premenstrual syndrome. The difference between PMS and pregnancy symptoms is not always apparent as the hormonal changes we go through in each instance, often produce similar results.

These shared symptoms are the source of any doubt that we might experience, particularly if our periods are not very regular. Premenstrual cramping or nausea can conjure similar images of morning sickness and abdominal pain, making us unsure as to whether what we are feeling is just run of the mill PMS symptoms or perhaps the first signs of pregnancy. 

It is important, however, to remain calm and to be familiar with our PMS symptoms; what is normal, what is changed and what symptoms are entirely unique to pregnancy. This understanding can equip us with the knowledge we need to determine whether we are just going through the phases of PMS, or if there is a possibility we could be pregnant.

Shared symptoms of PMS and pregnancy

Part of the problem of trying to determine whether or not we are pregnant lies in the similarity between some PMS and pregnancy symptoms. There is a point where certain symptoms can overlap, making it difficult to distinguish whether what we are feeling is PMS induced or being caused by a more pronounced shift in our hormones.

However, even those there are shared symptoms between PMS and pregnancy, within these symptoms there are noticeable differences that we should make ourselves aware of.

  • Cramping: Premenstrual cramping is probably something that most of us are familiar with. It is one of the more unpleasant side-effects of PMS; however it can also occur in early pregnancy. In pregnancy, cramping appears as the lining of the uterus starts to stretch, making room for new growth. This can feel very similar to PMS cramping, but it normally happens lower in the abdomen, sometimes triggering pain in the back as well
  • Fatigue: Fatigue usually appears in PMS because we find ourselves suffering from a lack of sleep, or dipping levels of iron. This will normally pass after we have our periods however; with pregnancy fatigue can be much more persistent and prolonged, often lingering as far along as the third trimester
  • Mood swings: The psychological symptoms of PMS, such as stress, anxiety or low moods, can be a debilitating experience for sufferers, often causing them to have mood swings, veering from irritation to anger to sadness. This is because of our hormones fluctuating during our menstrual cycle. In pregnancy, our hormone levels also change and can lead to volatile outbursts of emotion such as crying or shouting
  • Breast pain: Breast pain or tenderness is commonplace during PMS, as our breasts can become swollen. This symptom does not normally last though, gradually disappearing after we experience our period. When we are pregnant, this is not the case as our breasts often feel heavier, noticeably increase in size and become generally more sensitive
  • Cravings: Reaching for a packet of crisps or a deluxe bar of chocolate is a normal indulgence during PMS. Our body craves sugary and salty foods, and although we know we shouldn’t, we often end up giving in to this urge. In pregnancy, we also find ourselves craving food as well, however what we crave is often more drastic and surprising; women who have been consummate vegetarians find themselves wanting nothing more than to tuck into a ham sandwich; mushy peas are no longer an accompaniment to fish and chips but rather a delicious midday treat, and for some reason a jar full of pickles is our new best friend
  • Nausea: Nausea is a first class offender when it comes to making us worry about pregnancy. It is considered to be an unusual PMS symptom so it is not immediately recognised by sufferers, and instead is often misdiagnosed as an early sign of pregnancy.  However, PMS very rarely induces vomiting, whereas morning sickness affects more than 75% of pregnant women. If your PMS nausea actually causes you to be sick, then it might be worth considering whether or not you could be pregnant.

Symptoms that are not shared by PMS and pregnancy

Just as there are recognisable symptoms shared by premenstrual syndrome and pregnancy, each condition has its own unique range of symptoms.

  • Sickness: If you’ve ever been pregnant then the chances are that you’ve already experienced the delight that is morning sickness. The name can be completely misleading though, because it doesn’t just schedule an appointment at 7am, rather it can appear morning, afternoon, evening, and all through the night. Nevertheless, sickness is a well-known symptom of pregnancy and it rarely occurs during the PMS, making it a reliable sign of pregnancy
  • Missing periods: This is often the first symptom that people associate with pregnancy. If your period is more than a week late, then it might be time to consider taking a pregnancy test as missing periods only occur in PMS as a result of further complications
  • Frequent trips to the toilet: Pregnancy place a stress on your bladder, making you feel as though you need to urinate more often. This symptom is not present during PMS unless you are suffering from another health problem such as a UTI. If you find yourself needing to urinate more often, then regardless of your concerns, you should visit your doctor to determine what is responsible
  • Menstruation: Simply put, you can’t get a period while you are pregnant. You can get some spotted bleeding during the first trimester – the first three months of pregnancy -  but this isn’t regular and is considerably different from a normal flow, being lighter and less prolonged that menstrual bleeding.


Although there are symptoms that are associated with pregnancy, such as missing periods, occasionally complications can arise during PMS that can cause us to experience these side-effects.

It is rare, but not unknown for some women to miss their periods during PMS. This is usually due to an underlying health condition that may need to be addressed before your cycle can resume as normal.

  • Stress: Stress is a psychological condition that can wreak havoc on our bodies, triggering rapid changes in our hormones. If you are suffering from stress, it can place too much pressure on the pituitary gland, which can have a knock on effect on our adrenals and our iron levels. When this happens, it can interrupt our cycle, causing our period to be delayed or missed entirely
  • Menopause: The menopause usually occurs if you are over the age of 45, but it has been known to appear earlier. If you are over the age of 40, it could be that your body is entering the Peri-menopause, meaning that your periods will become more irregular and possibly less frequent. Your doctor should be able to test your hormone levels and determine whether or not you are menopausal
  • Adrenal fatigue: When our adrenals become fatigued, either due to stress or an underlying health condition, it can have an effect on our menstrual cycle, as the adrenals to have an influence on our hormone and thyroid levels. There are a number of steps that you can take to strengthen your adrenals, such as dietary changes, or drinking more water or juices to support your immune system
  • Thyroid: Thyroid complaints are common, especially in women. An underactive thyroid does not produce enough hormones such as thyroxin, which can cause our periods to become irregular and heavier than usual
  • Weight: Our weight can drastically influence our body, particularly the hormones that we produce and how our pituitary gland functions. If are overweight, then this places a stress on our pituitary gland and causes our levels of oestrogen to rise, having an impact on our menstrual cycle. However, if we are underweight, then this can also affect our periods as our body will be struggling to perform its normal functions, such as producing enough oestrogen to trigger a period
  • Polycystic Ovary Symptom: Polycystic Ovary Symptom occurs when your ovaries contain a lot of follicles. Sometimes these follicles are unable to release an egg, meaning that ovulation cannot happen and your menstrual cycle often does not appear. If you suspect that you are suffering from PCOS, then you must speak to your doctor who will be recommend ways of effectively managing your symptoms
  • Contraceptives: Contraceptives such as the Pill can disrupt our menstrual cycles, particularly if we are not consistent with the doses that we are taking. It might be worth considering whether or not you have been regular with the times that you have taken the Pill, and if you’ve been frequent enough with your dosages.

How do I find out if I am pregnant?

If you suspect that you are pregnant that there are two primary ways of confirming your condition.

  • Pregnancy test: Pregnancy tests can be bought over the counter and are usually quite accurate in predicting whether or not you are pregnant. It can sometimes be the quickest way of getting an answer; however it is also important that you consult your doctor, especially if you feel as though you are suffering from a medical condition such as adrenal fatigue, stress or PCOS
  • Blood test: If you speak to your doctor, they can take a sample of your blood and have it examined in a laboratory. The tests that they conduct should be able to tell you if you are pregnant. Your doctor might also be able to talk to you about other underlying health conditions such as hypothyroidism or PCOS.

What should I do now?

Now that you have an understanding of the differences between PMS and pregnancy symptoms, it might be worth considering what you should do now. If you still feel as though there is a possibility that you could be pregnant, the best thing to do would be to see your doctor.

They will be able to take a blood test and tell you if you are pregnant or not. If you are not pregnant but you’re period still has not arrived, they can talk to you about the different factors that could be determining why you have missed your period.

If you are quite sure that your symptoms are definitely being induced by PMS, then you should look at trying to ease your discomfort. There are a number of home and herbal remedies that are aimed at relieving the unfortunate symptoms of PMS, such as Agnus castus.

If you are struggling to sleep then you could try our herbal sleep remedy Dormeasan, or if you are suffering badly with stress then it might be worth your while taking a look at Stress Relief Daytime, a natural tincture solution that should take the edge of any stress you are experiencing throughout the day.

The main thing is that you do not suffer with your PMS symptoms in silence, and if they become more persistent or prolonged, you should seek immediate help from your doctor.

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A traditional herbal remedy used to relieve the symptoms of PMS
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