“I’m scared of you lately,” my husband said to me sheepishly a few months ago.
This sounds harsh, but in fairness to him, I’ve been scaring myself, too. Over the past year I’ve had mood swings worse than anything I experienced during puberty or pregnancy. I’ve been crying at the slightest provocation, and at one point even screamed at my beloved cat. I’ve gained 15 pounds. My face is breaking out. When I had a period that lasted 16 days then disappeared for two months, I started to suspect that my issues were due not to anxiety over a potential Trump presidency, but to hormones.
I finally visited my gynecologist last month for an overdue checkup, and she told me what I already knew: I am old. Or, rather, I am aging normally for a 40-something woman — I am officially perimenopausal.
Perimenopause, sometimes called second puberty, can hit a woman at any point from her late 30s to late 40s, and, as the name suggests, is a precursor state to menopause. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include menstrual irregularity (yes), sleep problems (yup), mood changes (sorry, family), and vaginal problems (TMI, not sharing). I’ve been spared hot flashes, but apparently those come later. It’s exactly like puberty but with saggier boobs and more chin hair. It’s basically the worst PMS you’ve ever had.
After commiserating with me, my doctor offered me samples of a non-prescription supplement called Serenol, which hit the market last summer. It’s being marketed for its ability to decrease the symptoms of PMS, which are heightened to a terrifying degree during perimenopause. It contains Swedish flower pollen extract, royal jelly, and chromium picolinate.
I’m generally a supplement scoffer and suspicious of them, because supplements are a minimally regulated minefield of the unknown. But my doctor is a woman who has seen me through two pregnancies, two C-sections, and one cervical cancer scare. If she thinks pollen and woo can help keep my inner Kanye-on-Twitter under control, I was willing to give it a try.
The particular extract in Serenol is produced and has been used in Sweden for years in an anti-PMS product with the unfortunate name of Femal. (Weirdly, if you search “Swedish flower pollen extract” online, you’ll also find supplements to support male prostate functioning.) A 2002 randomized, placebo controlled, double blind study of 29 women on Femal showed that it improved PMS symptoms like irritability and bloating.
Serenol contains a combination of both Swedish flower pollen and royal jelly, a substance produced by worker bees to feed the queen bee, which is rich in minerals and vitamins. The pollen is treated to remove all allergens, but if you’re allergic to honey or bee stings, you should stay away from Serenol. It also contains the mineral chromium picolinate, which has been studied in both humans and, yes, even farm animals. It may have some effect on insulin and metabolism, and can potentially decrease cravings and weight gain related to PMS.
It’s not clear how or why Serenol works; the website states it is “theorized to have a mild serotonergic effect on the hypothalamus.” (Serotonin is the feel-good neurotransmitter.) Because this is not a drug, the manufacturer can’t make specific treatment claims and the supplement hasn’t gone through a rigorous FDA approval process. James Komorowski, the vice-president of scientific and regulatory affairs at JDS Therapeutics, the company that manufactures Serenol, explains that they “liked” the data and wanted to license the extract. According to him, supplements are meant to “support the normal conditions of life,” such as PMS, rather than treat illnesses.
I’d argue that the decrease in a man’s ability to get an erection as he gets older is also a “normal condition of life,” yet millions of dollars of pharmaceutical money and FDA scrutiny have gone toward addressing that issue. Women, however, have to settle for flower pollen supported by one lousy study.
The only traditional medical PMS treatments available now are birth-control pills or antidepressants like Lexapro. Both of these have long side-effect profiles, and Dr. Miriam Greene, an ob-gyn at the NYU Langone Medical Center, says she’s been giving her patients with PMS Serenol for the past year.
In the original study of Femal, the Swedish version of Serenol, the authors noted that historically, PMS treatments have a high incidence of producing a placebo effect, which is the first thing I would assume happens with this supplement. Dr. Greene respectfully disagrees. “A small amount of patients might have a placebo effect, but I don’t think it would be long lasting,” she says. “I had a patient today who said, ‘This saved my life.’ How long can a placebo do something like that?”
I’m about to find out. I’ve been taking Serenol pretty consistently for about five weeks now and I’m almost out of my free samples. After about two weeks, I started feeling notably more stable, and the sense of calm has persisted. (Unfortunately the 15 pounds I gained have also persisted, but at least I haven’t gained even more weight.) I’ve been speaking more calmly. I still cry at any sort of commercial featuring children, but it’s not ugly crying anymore. I’ve been blaming — well, thanking — the placebo effect for my results because truthfully, if my doctor had given me a box of Tic Tacs with a label on it that said “PMS-B-Gon,” I would have sucked them down.
A part of me didn’t want this to work, because I secretly roll my eyes at people who claim that earthy supplements (hey, turmeric!) cure all their ills. The website also has a rather distasteful made-for-TV snake oil buying plan, wherein you can buy it from $34.99 per month to $63.99 per month, depending on the plan you choose. Why can’t I just pay 50 bucks or whatever for a bottle? Why make it complicated and shady?
The bottom line, though: I really felt terrible before Serenol, and now I don’t. Maybe my hormones are stabilizing and the flower power had nothing to do with it, but I feel better and have not terrorized my loved ones in weeks. Take that with a grain of pollen.