Cramps, mood swings, crappy food cravings, headaches … need I say more? Besides some Midol and hot compresses, there’s not much we can do to minimize period pain; but what if our diet, no matter where we’re at in our cycle, could curb some of these unwelcome symptoms? Today, we’ll discuss just that—nutrition tips to promote balance and well-being throughout a woman’s monthly cycle.
Let it be known I think the female body is one of the most amazing things in existence. No, I don’t rejoice when Aunt Flo arrives, but when you stop to consider the complexities that occur inside your body leading to menstruation, it can be quite eye-opening.
What Causes Menstrual Cramps
Before a period begins, the cells that form the lining of the uterus, also called endometrial cells, begin to break down during menstruation and release large amounts of inflammatory prostaglandins. These chemicals constrict the blood vessels in the uterus and make the muscle layer contract, causing painful cramps. Some of the prostaglandins enter the bloodstream, causing headache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Researchers have measured the number of prostaglandins produced by cells of the uterus and found that it is higher in women with menstrual pain than for women who have little or no pain. This helps explain why nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work for menstrual pain. Ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and other NSAIDs reduce the production of prostaglandins. NSAIDs have been found to decrease menstrual flow, which may reduce menstrual pain.
A Closer Look at Estrogen
There may be a more fundamental approach. Rather than focusing on the prostaglandins themselves, it may help to look at the cellular “factories” that make them. Oral contraceptives, or birth control pills, lower the production of prostaglandins by slowing the growth of the uterus lining. As a result, 90% of women who take birth control pills experience reduced menstrual pain. However, diet changes may lead to similar results.
Estrogens are female sex hormones, a sort of hormonal fertilizer that makes the cells of the body grow. In every monthly menstrual cycle, the estrogen levels in a woman’s body rises and falls. These hormones are responsible for breast development at puberty, and each month they cause the lining of the uterus to thicken in anticipation of pregnancy.
Estrogen gradually rises as a woman’s period ends and falls again at the start of a new cycle. Then, for about two weeks, the hormone rises toward a peak and falls quickly around the time of ovulation. It rises again in the second half of the month and then falls just before the next period for a total of two rises and falls throughout the cycle. The uterus sheds its lining in a menstrual flow, accompanied by crampy pain.
The Best Nutrients for Period Cramps
Now that you know what causes cramps, let’s dive into dietary remedies! Here’s a look the best foods to reduce cramps, plus how exactly their benefits kick in.
This plant is a member of the carrot family and has been widely studied for its ability to ease cramps.
The literature suggests that fennel works to lessen prostaglandin-induced blood vessel constrictions. One study reports that women who consumed 30 milligrams of fennel extract four times daily experienced significantly less pain versus a placebo.
However, fennel can be a hit or miss with most people on account of its strong licorice flavor. Conversely, fennel fans enjoy its crisp texture in salads, pasta, and seafood dishes.
For those who dislike the taste of fennel, I recommend taking it in supplement form during the first three days of your period.
Magnesium Rich Foods
Magnesium-rich foods like dark leafy greens, nuts, nut butter, avocados, and even dark chocolate are all great choices for menstrual cramps. You can think of magnesium as our calming and relaxing mineral. It helps to loosen tight muscles and ease anxiety due to its role in helping to balance our stress response.
The natural anti-inflammatory action of omega-3 found in fish and other foods can relieve menstrual pain. Foods like flax seeds, chia seeds, olive oil, avocados, salmon, and sardines all contain omega 3.
Potassium Rich Foods
According to a 2013 study, low potassium intake can correlate with the severity of PMS symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to aim for 2.3 grams of potassium daily. For most people, five servings of fruit per day should do the trick.
The best potassium-rich fruits that can provide cramp relief include:
Many of these fruits are also loaded with fiber, which helps tackle both cramps and that occasional PMS constipation
Last but not least, don’t underestimate the power of hydration! It’s always important to drink water. But when it comes to PMS, H2O can help ease factors that contribute to cramps, gas, and bloating.
For optimal hydration, I suggest drinking half your body weight in ounces, especially during your period.
Foods to Avoid
It’s recommended that women decrease or eliminate their intake of caffeine, sugar, salt, and alcohol, particularly during the luteal phase. All have been associated with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and a decrease in serotonin. Sodium restriction is recommended to help minimize bloating, fluid retention, and breast swelling or tenderness. Caffeine restriction is recommended primarily due to its association with an increase in irritability, anxiety, and insomnia. Alcohol can exacerbate PMS symptoms and also may deplete the body’s vitamin B stores which can lead to fatigue and depression.
Teens and preteens who experience chronic PMS can benefit by enrolling in one of our many online courses in nutrition that is taught by a dietitian. Offering education on the benefits of nutrients in relieving PMS symptoms can help women make optimal food choices providing the continued benefits of a healthful, balanced diet.