Did you know that the food you eat can influence your menstrual pain? Singapore based clinical naturopath and nutritionist, Christina Franco, shares what foods you should look to eat, and what to avoid, in order to soothe your menstrual cramps.
Primary dysmenorrhea, also known as painful periods, is a common occurrence and can be so painful that it limits a woman’s involvement in normal day to day activities. The chief cause of cramping pelvic pain is an imbalance of prostaglandins (complex hormone-like substances). A few days before menstruation, prostaglandins naturally start to accumulate in the uterine muscle where they will eventually lead to smooth muscle contraction and the shedding of the endometrium. Period pain will occur when these prostaglandins are imbalanced in the favor of those that increase muscular spasm.
Some foods exert pro-inflammatory effects and therefore can exacerbate menstrual cramping, while others are known to exhibit anti-inflammatory effects. We’re going to look at what foods to eat and what foods to avoid in order to help relieve your menstrual pain! Take care of yourself with these dietary tips.
WHAT TO EAT
- Fish Due to its high content of omega-3 fatty acids, fish is a well-known anti-inflammatory food. The dietary intake of fish and fish oil supplements have been shown to lead to a noticeable reduction in menstrual pain in a number of cases of women with primary dysmenorrhoea (1, 2 & 3). Try adding salmon, mackerel and sardines to your diet two to three times a week.
- Good Fats A balance of the Omega-3 & Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) is integral to producing anti-inflammatory effects within the body (4). Omega-3s can be found in fish, nuts & seeds (in particular pepitas, chia seeds and walnuts) while Omega-6s can be found in flaxseed oil, sunflower seeds & avocado. You can dress your salads with flaxseed oil and add a sprinkle of pepitas or walnuts to boost your EFA intake.
- Fruits and Vegetables Oxidative stress can aggravate inflammation in the body. Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants & phytonutrients and can help to reduce oxidative stress and therefore inflammation and pain. A few studies have shown that women who consumed a higher intake of green vegetables and fruit reduced their period pain and also their risk of developing endometriosis (5 & 7). A great way to ensure you’re getting as many antioxidants as you can is to eat different coloured fruits and vegetables each day. Different colours of produce contain different types of antioxidants and phytonutrients – this is why it’s important to ‘eat the rainbow’!
- Ginger Ginger is a strong anti-inflammatory herb, that has known analgesic (painkilling) effects. Ginger has shown to be effective in treating painful periods in a study where a group of 150 women diagnosed with dysmenorrhoea, were separated into 3 groups: one that took ginger, one that took mefenamic acid and one that took ibuprofen. More women in the ginger group became completely pain-free versus the other two groups (6). You can add fresh or powdered ginger to your stir-fries, curries, salad dressings or you can have 2-3x cups of ginger tea daily.
- Magnesium Magnesium is a mineral involved in hundreds of enzymatic processes in the body, it is also involved in relaxing smooth muscle tissue and thus is known to help relieve period pain. Dietary sources of magnesium can be found in dark green leafy vegetables, especially spinach, whole grains, quinoa, nuts, especially almonds and seeds.
- Sugar Although it may provide short-term relief mentally, refined sugar causes inflammation in the body and can exacerbate our pain response (8). Natural sugars found in fruit are okay in moderation, however, it’s best to completely avoid refined sugars and processed foods, such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, lollipops and ice-creams, especially in the week leading up to your period.
- Saturated Fats When the diet is low in good fats and high in saturated fats, the levels of the prostaglandins that are associated with muscle spasm are more inclined to increase (4 & 5). To help reduce your period pain, steer clear of deep-fried foods, biscuits, cakes, pastries and products containing palm oil.
- Alcohol Alcohol not only causes inflammation in the body, it also acts as a diuretic which can worsen menstrual cramping. Better to reduce your alcohol intake to one serve per day, and consume no alcohol in the week leading up to your period.
- Processed Meats Meat contains arachidonic acid, a precursor for pro-inflammatory prostaglandins which exacerbate muscle spasm (2 & 3). You do not have to cut out meat altogether, you can reduce your meat intake the week before your period and swap for plant-based protein instead. Processed meats such as ham, salami, pastrami and hot dogs contain nitrates and nitrites which are now classified as carcinogens (9) by many health organizations– an even better reason to avoid them!
- Dairy Products Dairy products high in protein such a s milk, cheese, yoghurt and some ice creams contain the A1 casein protein which has been shown to exhibit a pro-inflammatory action (10). Avoid overconsumption of dairy products in the week leading up to your period to reduce menstrual cramping.
- Dyspareunia (pain during sex)
- Heavy bleeding after sex
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Bleeding in between periods
- Malodourous discharge
- Hansen, S.O., Knudsen, U.B. (2013). Endometriosis, dysmenorrhoea and diet. European Journal of Gynaecology & Reproductive Biology, 169(2), 162-71.
- Harzel, Z., Biro, F.M., Kottenhahn, R.K., Rosenthal, S.L. (1996). Supplementation with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the management of dysmenorrhoea in adolescents. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 174(4), 1335-8.
- Rahbar, N., Asgharzadeh, N., & Ghorban, R. (2012). Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on intensity of primary dysmenorrhoea. International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 117, 45-47.
- Erasmus, U. (1993). Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill, Alive Books, Burnaby, BC, Canada, pp. 258–65.
- Parazzini, F., Chiaffarino, F., Surace, M., Chatenoud, L., Cipriani, S., Chiantera, V., Benzi, G., & Fedele, L. (2004). Selected food intake and risk of endometriosis. Human Reproduction, 19(8),1755-1759.
- Ozgoli, G., Goli, M., & Moattar, F. (2009). Comparison of effects of ginger, mefanamic acid & ibuprofen on pain in women with primary dysmenorrhoea. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 15(2), 129-132.
- Sesti, F., Pietropolli, A., Capozzolo, T.,, Broccoli, P., Pierangeli, F., Bollea, M.R., & Piccinone, E. (2007). Hormonal suppression treatment or dietary therapy versus placebo in the control of painful symptoms after conservative therapy for endometriosis stage III-IV. A randomized comparative trial. Fertility & Sterility, 88(6), 1541-1547.
- DiNicolantonio, J.J., Mehta, V., Onkaramurthy, N., & O’Keefe, J.H. (2017). Fructose-induced inflammation and increased cortisol: A new mechanism for how sugar induces visceral adiposity. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 17, 162-7.
- Espejo-Herrera, N., Gràcia-Laveda, E., Boldo, E., Aragonés, N., Pérez-Gómez, B., Pollán, M., Molina, A.J., Fernández, T., Martín, V., La Vecchia, C., Bosetti, C., Tavani, A., Polesel, J., Serraino, D., Gómez-Acebo, I., Altzibar, J. M., Ardanaz, E., Burgui, R., Pisa, F., Fernández-Tardón, G., Tardón, A., Peiró, R., Navarro, C., Castaño-Vinyals, G, Moreno, V., Righi, E., Aggazzotti, G., Basagaña, X., Nieuwenhuijsen, M., Kogevinas, M., & Villanueva, C. M. (2016). Colorectal cancer risk and nitrate exposure through drinking water and diet. International Journal of Cancer, 139(2), 334-46.
- Brooke-Taylor, S., Dwyer, K., Woodford, K., & Kost, N. (2017). Systematic review of the gastrointestinal effects of A1 compared with A2 β– casein. Advances in Nutrition, 8(5), 739-748.