Even if you aren’t one of the 1.8 billion people in the world who currently menstruates, chances are you have in the past or know someone who does. Some cultures discriminate against people who menstruate or equate being moody with PMS-ing. Others celebrate its arrival, marking the occasion with parties or ceremonies. But no matter how it’s approached, the ways it can affect someone’s body are widely shared.
While the monthly arrival of menses can be a joyous occasion for some, having a period isn’t always a positive experience. Many people who menstruate struggle with period symptoms that are uncomfortable, and in some cases debilitating, for multiple days every month.
One US survey found that 85% of girls and women experienced painful periods. And two in five surveyed said they used painkillers to relieve their symptoms. Similar results have been seen in other high-income countries like Japan and Canada as well as in the Middle East.
But what if someone doesn’t want to rely on pharmaceuticals for pain relief? Are there more natural ways to deal with period pain and other menstrual symptoms, possibly even stopping them before they start?
Why Do Periods Hurt?
Period pain is thought to be the result of uterine contractions and is medically referred to as dysmenorrhea or primary dysmenorrhea. Pelvic and period pain is also sometimes caused and made worse by underlying medical conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis, or fibroids, in which case it’s known as secondary dysmenorrhea.
Aside from pain, symptoms of dysmenorrhea can include nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, and diarrhea.
What causes these uterine contractions and uncomfortable physical symptoms?
Prostaglandins, chemicals found naturally in the lining of the uterus, have a hormone-like effect that causes the muscles and blood vessels in the uterus to contract. Prostaglandin levels are higher at the start of a period and gradually decrease through the duration of menstruation.
The production of prostaglandins is intricately connected to your body’s inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses. As inflammation builds it triggers prostaglandin synthesis, causing increased levels of pain.
One important way to manage inflammation, and therefore the type and amount of prostaglandins in the body, is through diet. When the body is getting proper nutrition, baseline levels of prostaglandins are produced and can help fight inflammation. In theory, lower overall levels of prostaglandins in the body translate to lower instances of dysmenorrhea. In other words, an anti-inflammatory diet translates to fewer and less intense menstrual cramps.
Foods to Avoid on Your Period
Given that diet is one of the top lifestyle adjustments that can help control inflammation and balance hormones, it’s important to look at what to include (more on this below) and what to leave out when it comes to minimizing dysmenorrhea.
Especially leading up to and during your period, it’s a good idea to consider avoiding foods that trigger inflammation and interfere with the balance and production of hormones. These kinds of foods can make period symptoms more uncomfortable and last longer.
Some of the foods and beverages you might want to avoid before and during your period are:
- Processed foods that contain preservatives, hydrogenated oils, flavorings, and refined carbohydrates. (Eating refined carbs before your period can make symptoms of dysmenorrhea worse).
- Fried and fast foods increase menstrual irregularity and are more likely to be associated with negative PMS symptoms.
- Caffeine has been linked to an increase in period flow and an increase in dysmenorrhea.
- Alcohol may increase the risk of negative PMS symptoms.
- Red meat has been linked with an indicator of inflammation, breast and prostate cancers, heart disease, and myriad other diseases, as well as having been shown to promote insulin resistance linked to type 2 diabetes.
- Dairy and meat can lead to an increase in estrogen levels, a contributor to a thicker uterine lining and higher prostaglandin levels.
What to Eat on Your Period
Luckily, there are plenty of delicious and satisfying foods that help fight inflammation, lower prostaglandin levels, and ease period symptoms.
Some of the top nutrients and foods that help fight pain and inflammation during menstruation are:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While not foods in themselves, omega-3s are found in a variety of healthful foods. Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid considered to be essential — something our bodies can’t produce on their own. These fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and algae — as well as in seafood. (See our article on fish for more on the pros and cons of eating seafood.)
Diets rich in omega-3s, and especially with an optimal balance of omega-3s to omega-6s, are anti-inflammatory. Yet, people eating a modern, industrial diet are more likely to consume too many omega-6s relative to omega-3s, which leads to more prostaglandins and more severe dysmenorrhea. So, what’s the ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s? Research shows your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1.
In addition to eating a diet rich in omega-3s, you might want to consider supplementation. Complement Essential is a complete multivitamin for people eating a vegan diet. It has eight critical vitamins, minerals, and sustainably-sourced plant-based omega-3s in a convenient capsule.
See our article on omega-3 fatty acids for more about these essential fats.
An essential nutrient, magnesium has many benefits that help us maintain normal blood pressure, regulate heartbeat, and maintain bone strength. And a lack of magnesium can make dysmenorrhea worse.
How does magnesium help with period pain? Magnesium blocks calcium, helping blood vessels relax and stay open, thus keeping uterine muscles relaxed. Magnesium is actually used as a natural muscle relaxer and not only helps with cramping but may also help with menstrual and non-menstrual migraines, back pain, foot pain, depression, irritability, and abdominal pain.
Luckily, there are lots of different plant-based foods that contain magnesium — nuts and seeds, spinach, plant-based milks, beans and legumes, avocado, potatoes, whole grains, tofu and tempeh, bananas, and cauliflower — just to name a few.
And, if you’ve ever craved chocolate during your period, magnesium may be part of the reason: Dark chocolate is a very good source of the mineral. One square of dark chocolate (80% or higher) has about 15% of your recommended daily dose of magnesium. Nichole Dandrea-Russert, RDN, Food Revolution Network’s lead Dietitian and Recipe Developer — and former chocolate company entrepreneur — encourages people to try eating dark chocolate regularly as a support for brain and hormone health.
Those looking for an extra boost of magnesium can check out Magnesium Breakthrough, a vegan capsule that contains seven forms of supplemental magnesium.
You can read more about this important mineral in our article all about magnesium.
This group of eight different vitamins is sometimes referred to as the “B-complex.” They help convert food to energy, create new blood cells, and maintain skin cells, brain cells, and other body tissues.
B vitamins help regulate hormones naturally and can help manage dysmenorrhea. In fact, many of the B vitamins play different supportive roles for hormones and menstruation. It has also been shown that they influence the metabolism of neurotransmitters which may affect mood. For example, Vitamin B1, or thiamin, is particularly important as it may reduce both physical and mental symptoms of PMS. Similarly, adding B2, or riboflavin, primarily from food sources was found to mitigate the risk for PMS symptoms. And B6 has been shown to be effective at reducing depression symptoms related to PMS.
Not sure where to start with incorporating foods rich in B vitamins into your diet? Many different kinds of food, including nuts, seeds, tofu, whole grains, mushrooms, avocado, leafy greens, oranges, and bananas contain B vitamins. A diet rich in fresh, whole foods will help to ensure you’re getting adequate levels of most B vitamins.
If you’re having trouble getting (or absorbing) enough B vitamins from the food you’re eating, Purality Health’s Micelle Liposomal Active-B Complex could help you to absorb the optimal levels of essential B vitamins.
For more information, see our article on B vitamin benefits and the best vegan sources.
Anti-Inflammatory Herbs and Spices
Some of the best ingredients for fighting period pain may be sitting in your spice cabinet right now.
What’s the best of the best when it comes to anti-inflammatory herbs? Try fenugreek, fennel, and chamomile, which have been shown to have a positive effect on painful periods. And ginger, a member of the turmeric family, may also be an especially effective food to ease heavy periods.
Like ginger, regular consumption of cinnamon can help with the pain and reduce the amount of bleeding during menstruation. Plus, cinnamon works quickly to bring pain relief. One study found that supplemental cinnamon during the first 72 hours of menstruation worked better than a placebo in reducing pain.
Turmeric is also a potent anti-inflammatory food that, when consumed regularly, can relieve inflammatory concerns. This is largely due to curcumin, which modulates gene expression and prevents a host of diseases. Combine turmeric with black pepper to maximize the benefits of the antioxidant curcumin.
If you’re interested in an anti-inflammatory supplement, Purality Health’s Curcumin Gold, which contains curcumin, ginger, and the DHA form of omega-3, is our top pick.
And for more anti-inflammatory herbs, spices, and other foods, check out our article on eating an anti-inflammatory diet.
Period Food Recipes to Try This Month
Balance your hormones with ease (and enjoyment) as you dive into these culinary delights. Whether you choose sweet or savory, each recipe has a good variety of colors and nutrients to support you from day one of your cycle! Get ready to crush cravings and make period symptoms more manageable the plant-based way.
1. Apple Walnut Oatmeal Bake
This comforting dish is full of healthful, anti-inflammatory ingredients to help soothe during menstruation. Walnuts and chia seeds are excellent sources of omega-3s and are also chock-full of B vitamins and magnesium. Warming spices like cinnamon pack a tasty punch of pain-reducing, anti-inflammatory tasty delight.
2. Barley Salad with Tofu, Mushrooms, and Pineapple
With a tasty blend of earthy, savory, and tart flavors, this hearty salad is rich in B vitamins and healthy fats to support hormones and mood. Ginger — which reduces symptoms of nausea and pain — complements the sweet pineapple with a pleasant, warming kick.
3. Energizing Kale and White Bean Soup
Made to satisfy, this dish is colorful, flavorful, and full of nutrition to help keep your hormones happy all month long. Iron from the beans will help combat tiredness during your bleeding. Kale and tomatoes supply important B vitamins and antioxidant vitamin C. Balanced spices and just enough comforting carbohydrates will energize and warm you to your bones. Grab a spoon and dig in!
4. Cherry Chia Cacao Pudding Parfait
Craving chocolate? This parfait will be your new best friend. Full of anti-inflammatory omega-3s from chia seeds, antioxidants from cherries, and brimming with delicious, magnesium-rich cocoa, a few bites of this sweet treat and you’ll be saying “goodbye” to low mood and painful cramps.
5. Ginger Turmeric Pineapple Lemonade
Craving something refreshing? Try this healing lemonade. A great source of anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea ginger and turmeric, this drink may soothe your tummy, relieve bloating, and calm cramps and inflammation. A bit of black pepper enhances the warming quality of this drink and boosts the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin in turmeric. When possible, use fresh ginger and turmeric for extra zip and pep. Not a fan of cold beverages during your period? Try it as a warm, comforting tea!
Diet Matters for Period Relief
Painful and even debilitating periods are something that many individuals have to deal with. Period pain can come from an excess of prostaglandins, a natural chemical that’s part of the body’s inflammatory response, which causes the necessary contraction of the muscles in the uterus.
While NSAIDs help with the pain, they bring cardiovascular and gastrointestinal downsides. Fortunately, there are natural options to not only treat the pain but also to prevent it. Lifestyle changes, including changes in diet to incorporate anti-inflammatory and period-healthy foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, and omega-3-rich nuts and seeds, can help to balance hormones and minimize negative symptoms.
By making sure you’re avoiding problematic foods and eating anti-inflammatory ones, you can help reduce period pain and inflammation — and support your overall health.
Tell us in the comments:
- Did you know there were so many pantry-staple herbs and spices with anti-inflammatory properties?
- How do you best manage your period pain?
- What are your favorite sources of omega-3 fatty acids?
Featured Image: iStock.com/urbazon
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