Whether you experience the pain before, during, or after your menstrual period, the cramps surely suck. And as most of you would agree, a quick and easy solution would be to take Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen. What if we told you a simple diet change during your period can also work to relieve menstrual cramps?
Certain foods might help alleviate period cramps using anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity that may reduce the number of inflammatory prostaglandins released during your period which cause uterine contractility and muscle spasms. Read about the food and drinks that could help with period cramps and the foods you should avoid as well.
Fruits such as bananas, oranges, lemons, pineapples, mangoes, and apples contain vitamins and minerals that can possibly help alleviate period pain. For example, bananas are rich in vitamin B6 and potassium, which are said to help relieve menstrual cramps and reduce bloating.
Pineapples contain bromelain, a group of enzymes that may be helpful for many ailments, including digestive problems, muscle soreness, pain and swelling, and osteoarthritis. More importantly, bromelain may be an anti-inflammatory that could potentially reduce the number of inflammatory prostaglandins released during menstruation (3).
Kiwi contains yet another rich enzyme called anticidin. This soluble fruit protein might alleviate bloating in your gastrointestinal tract and help you digest protein and perhaps minimize period symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation (1).
Another great thing about consuming fruits during your period is the water content in the fruits. Most fruits like watermelon, cucumbers, and the many varieties of berries contain high contents water which can also help alleviate period pains.
A study on the role of water intake in the severity of pain and menstrual distress revealed that water might have a modifying role in reducing the menstrual bleeding duration and pain intensity (23). Additionally, hydration can help increase blood flow in the body or relax muscle tension.
Leafy Green Vegetables
Vegetables like lettuce and celery contain high water content; hence they can also be excellent foods to alleviate pain. However, that’s not the only reason vegetables are great foods for painful periods.
A study on the intake of different foods during menstruation revealed that daily and consistent intake of vegetables could reduce dysmenorrhea because vegetables like dark leafy greens contain high levels of carotenoids, flavonoids, and plant polyphenols which have anti-inflammatory properties. Being an anti-inflammatory, they may reduce the inflammatory activity of prostaglandins which cause pain and uterine contractility (19).
Additionally, vegetables contain high serum activity, especially the sex-hormone-binding globulin, which studies show can reduce dysmenorrhea intensity and duration and premenstrual syndrome symptom duration (8).
Lastly, vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, and beet greens are rich in fiber which also helps with period pain. Therefore, this concludes that an intake of a vegetable diet before, during, and after can minimize dysmenorrhea pain and discomfort, making vegetables an excellent choice if you experience cramps after periods.
Seafood, in general, contains high levels of iron, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Iron helps boost blood formation in the body, increasing blood flow and circulation, while omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce period pain (20).
Salmon, for example, is a potent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which act as anti-inflammatory and aid to reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and other pro-inflammatory proteins that may increase menstrual cramps.
Other omega-3 rich kinds of sea foods that help with cramps, period discomfort, or soreness include tuna, sardines, trout, and mackerel.
Whole-grain foods like brown rice, whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, and bran are also excellent foods that help with period cramps. For example, oats are high in zinc and magnesium, which have anti-apoptotic properties that may help alleviate period pain. Additionally, whole grains are rich in dietary fibers, vitamin B and E, which are also great foods for period pain.
Therefore, consuming whole grains helps with menstrual pain by allowing for the assimilation of minerals, vitamins, and dietary supplements that can help relieve pain and other PMS symptoms both physically and psychologically (10).
Dark chocolate is sweet, tasty, and rich in vitamins and minerals like A, B1, C, D, E, calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium, which are said to help with period pain. Dark chocolate also contains flavonoids and phenols, which have antioxidant properties that can help alleviate period cramps and premenstrual symptoms (7).
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Nuts And Seeds
Nuts and seeds are rich sources of omega-three fatty acids, protein, and multiple vitamins and minerals. A good example is peanuts which contain high levels of vitamin B6 and magnesium. While magnesium has its excellent benefits of pain reduction, magnesium can also balance serotonin, the feel-good hormone that can help with mood swings which is a PMS symptom.
Pumpkin seeds or pepitas are also nutritional powerhouses that are also excellent sources of magnesium and can help with mood and water retention. Remember hydration plays a crucial role in pain severity during menstruation.
You can consume these nuts and seeds in multiple ways, including taking raw Flax seeds, chia seeds, or pumpkin seeds. Or, you can make jars of butter like peanut butter or oils like flaxseed oil, algal oil, soybean oil, canola oil, and almond oil.
Herbs And Spices
Ideally, too much spice can offset the tummy causing digestive issues, but many herbs and spices can help with painful periods (9).
Turmeric contains a natural chemical called curcumin, which can help with pain and premenstrual symptoms. A study on the effects of curcumin on the severity of PMS symptoms revealed that curcumin has a therapeutic effect on the body and can significantly reduce the severity of PMS either psychologically, behaviorally, or physically (6).
Chamomile is a herbal powerhouse with extracts rich in flavonoids and terpenoids, which have medicinal and anti-inflammatory properties. Chamomile is believed to help with many human ailments, including body inflammation, ulcers, gastrointestinal disturbances, hemorrhoids, menstrual distress, and muscle spasms.
Chamomile is an anti-inflammatory agent that may have applications in many different ailments (4).
Additionally, chamomile as an extract can act as a mild sedative that calms the nerve and reduces anxiety. It can also be a digestive relaxant that alleviates many gastrointestinal disturbances, including bloating, nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, and vomiting.
Lastly, chamomile can help to soothe and relax muscle spasms hence may be beneficial to reducing menstrual pain. You can use chamomile as an extract, drink (chamomile tea), or essential oil.
A study on the effectiveness of ginger in alleviating menstrual cramps found that ginger was excellent at relieving primary dysmenorrhea. However, the efficacy, the safety of doses, and the duration of treatment may require further studies (5).
Dill is such a vibrant herb to add to your meals, either soup, salads, or proteins, but what’s great about dill is that it’s an excellent source of calcium which helps with period cramps.
Furthermore, dill contains two crucial compounds: tannin and anethol, which have soothing properties. Acting as a sedative, dill may decrease uterus contractions, whereas anethol can also help with anxiety, pains, and gastrointestinal discomforts. In high doses, the anethol in the dill can help relax blood vessels (11).
Pycnogenol, also known as the French maritime pine bark extract, can soothe menstrual pain from primary dysmenorrhea. It is a chemical extract from the European pine tree native to France. The pine tree bark has plenty of flavonoids with antioxidant properties that can dominate the intensity of menstrual cramps and PMS symptoms.
A study on the effect of Pycnogenol on menstrual pain revealed that the bark tree could significantly reduce the severity of dysmenorrhea in oral contraceptive users during the 4-day hormone-free interval. Moreover, its use didn’t require any additional drugs or painkillers (15, 21).
Mint leaves are aromatic herbal supplements that are also said to have pain-relieving benefits. Precisely, studies show that peppermint can be effective in treating dysmenorrhea symptoms (14).
Another herbal remedy straight from the bark of a tree is cinnamon. The spice contains anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties that may help alleviate inflammatory prostaglandins from being released in the body and also help to relieve involuntary muscle spasms, consequently helping with period pain.
Vitamins And Mineral Supplements
The last types of food that can help with cramps, period symptoms, and muscle aches are vitamin and mineral supplements.
Note that for all the supplements we shall discuss below, you can find food sources for them. For example, for vitamin B6 and B1, whole grains like brown rice is an excellent source. Also, nuts are rich in manganese, broccoli is rich in vitamin E, and bananas and avocados are rich in boron. Do not start taking supplements without first discussing with your doctor.
Vitamin D And E
Vitamin D supplements contain a hormonally active form called calcitriol, an anti-cancer agent with anti-apoptotic, anti-proliferative, and anti-inflammatory properties. Calcitriol, with its anti-inflammatory effects, can suppress prostaglandin (PG) action and inhibit the signaling of p38 stress kinase. Doing so will reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and inhibit NF-κB signaling, which contributes to menstrual cramps (13, 17, 22).
Boron is a mineral present in peanuts, chickpeas, prunes, avocados, and bananas. Boron has anti-inflammatory effects, and may also play an indirect role in minimizing period cramps by helping your body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which can reduce menstrual pain (12).
Calcium is among the most potent mineral supplements that can help with period cramps. A study on the effects of calcium in the menstrual cycle revealed that calcium levels are often low during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, which is the period before your menses. As the levels are low, your body experiences intense PMS symptoms and cramps.
Calcium supplementation can increase the serum levels of calcium in the body, possibly reducing the severity of PMS symptoms. Additionally, calcium can also help with reducing bloating and water retention (2).
Excellent food sources of calcium include dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy green vegetables, almonds, sesame seeds, fish, and soy.
Magnesium can primarily help with PMS symptoms such as headaches and nausea. However, magnesium supplements can also help with period cramps, mainly if used alongside vitamin supplements like vitamin B6, B1, and vitamin E (16).
The last mineral supplement that can help with period symptoms is zinc. Zinc can inhibit the metabolism of prostaglandins in the body, preventing menstrual cramps. Additionally, zinc contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can help with micro-vessel circulation in the uterus, ultimately helping to prevent primary dysmenorrhea (24).
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Foods To Avoid
Now that we have looked at the power foods that help with period cramps let’s look at foods to avoid during menstruation.
The process of menstrual cramping starts when the endometrial cells in the lining of the uterus begin to break down. As they disintegrate, large amounts of inflammatory prostaglandins are released by the body as the uterus hypersecretes the prostaglandins, dysmenorrhea begins, followed by increased uterine contractility.
While the foods above help reduce inflammation in the body, you should avoid increasing inflammation, making the pain worse.
Red meat as an animal product lacks fiber. Ultimately, this could contribute to bloating that worsens PMS symptoms. Additionally, red meat is high in saturated fat, which can cause inflammation in the body worsening the cramps.
Lastly, red meat can increase the rate of estrogen production in the body, which not only attenuates the severity of PMS but can also lead your dysmenorrhea to upgrade to secondary dysmenorrhoea, also known as endometriosis. Therefore, avoid red meats and other processed meats during menstruation.
Fatty foods which are very high in saturated fats can increase the prostaglandins in your body. As the inflammatory agent increases, it also causes your blood vessels to constrict and muscles contract leading to more period pain.
A study on menstrual abnormalities and their association to lifestyle patterns among adolescent girls revealed that dysmenorrhea could be considerably higher for adolescents who take fast foods/ junk foods as they’re relatively high in saturated fatty acids, which affects the metabolism of progesterone. Moreover, these fatty foods lacked micronutrients which could trigger menstrual abnormalities, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual symptoms (18).
Among the foods and drinks discussed above, you will note that the foods that help with period cramps are those high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water, along with some dietary and herbal supplements. The vitamins like vitamin B6 and E, minerals like magnesium, zinc, potassium, and magnesium, herbs like chamomile, dill, mint, spices like cinnamon and ginger, and omega-3 food supplements contain essential properties that can reduce inflammation.
While there’s no precise dosage of how much or how little you should consume, adding these foods to your diet can surely help you during menstruation. Always talk to your doctor before taking any supplements or making any major diet changes.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for the diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Actinidin (2013, sciencedirect.com)
- A systematic review of the role of vitamin D and calcium in premenstrual syndrome (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Bromelain (2020, nccih.nih.gov)
- Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future (2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Comparison of effects of ginger, mefenamic acid, and ibuprofen on pain in women with primary dysmenorrhea (2009, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Curcumin attenuates the severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms (2015, sciencedirect.com)
- Dark chocolate for period pain (ijop.net)
- Diet and sex-hormone binding globulin, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual symptoms (2000, sciencedirect.com)
- Dietary supplements for dysmenorrhoea (2016, pubmed.Nih.gov)
- Diets enriched with whole grains reduce premenstrual syndrome scores in nurses (2019, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Effect of Dill (Anethum graveolens) on the severity of primary dysmenorrhea in comparison with mefenamic acid (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Effects of boron supplementation on the severity and duration of pain in primary dysmenorrhea (2015, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Evaluating the effects of vitamin D and vitamin E supplement on premenstrual syndrome (2016, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Evaluation of mint efficacy regarding dysmenorrhea in comparison with mefenamic acid (2016, pubmed.Nih.gov)
- French maritime pine bark extract significantly lowers the requirement for analgesic medication in dysmenorrhea (2008, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Herbal and dietary therapies for primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea (2001, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Mechanisms of the anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory actions of vitamin D (2011, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Menstrual abnormalities and their association with lifestyle pattern in adolescent girls of Garhwal, India (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Nutritional modulation of blood pressure and vascular changes during severe menstrual cramps (2020, sciencedirect.com)
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammatory Processes (2010, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The effect of Pycnogenol on patients with dysmenorrhea (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Effect of Vitamin E on Ameliorating Primary Dysmenorrhea (2014, scholargoogle.com)
- The role of water intake in the severity of pain and menstrual distress among females suffering from primary dysmenorrhea (2021, biomedcentral.com)
- Zinc treatment prevents dysmenorrhea (2007, pubmed.nih.gov)