Best and worst foods for your period cramps
If you suffer from PMS symptoms every month, keep reading to see which foods you should eat, and which ones to avoid, according to a dietician and a gynaecologist.
Do you tend to curl up on the bed with Netflix during that time of the month? If so, you're not alone. According to a 2016 study, 91% of Indian women who menstruate have faced at least one of these premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms — backache, fatigue, bloating, irritability, and cramps. While you might not be able to completely avoid all the less-than-pleasant symptoms that come with having your period, there are certain things you can do, and avoid, to possibly feel a bit better. If you've always turned to your trusty heating pad or over-the-counter meds to manage your menstrual pain, and never explored the idea that a proactive edit to your diet could help ease your period cramps, Mumbai-based gynaecologist Dr Shilpa Bansal says certain foods can amplify PMS symptoms, while others are noted to help dim the discomfort. "Food can absolutely have an impact on period pain or cramps," she says.
Before getting into what foods to rely on, and what to avoid, Dr Bansal gives us a helpful refresher on the science of period cramps. The pain-causing culprit? Prostaglandins, which she explains as "inflammatory hormone-like substances that the body releases around menstruation that cause the uterus to contract and shed the lining." She adds that high levels of prostaglandins — which are involved in pain and inflammation — could mean more severe pain.
What foods make PMS worse?
So, when it comes to food, since inflammation is involved in period cramps and pain, Dr Bansal suggests staying away from foods that could contribute to inflammation — she notes certain vegetable oils, like canola, soy, and peanut oil as examples. She also says that alcohol can cause bloating, dehydration, and blood sugar imbalances, which have the potential to make menstrual cramps or PMS symptoms worse. Reducing excess caffeine might also be helpful, as well as salty foods that could make bloating worse. If you use this time to indulge in anything sweet — brownies, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream — unfortunately, your sweet tooth might be working against you. "It's important to keep blood sugar balanced for overall hormone balance," Dr Bansal says. "Fluctuations in blood sugar can impact your cortisol levels and have a downstream effect on your other hormones. A study found that consuming foods high in sugar content is associated with the prevalence of PMS," she adds.
So what should you eat?
For period cramps, Mumbai-based dietician and clinical nutritionist Geetanjali Shah, like Dr Bansal, also suggests an anti-inflammatory whole food diet "that incorporates hormone supportive nutrients, like magnesium, vitamin B6, phytoestrogens, selenium, fibre, omega-3s, iron, calcium, complex carbohydrates, and food-based probiotics." In terms of overall hormone health, she also focuses on blood sugar balance. "Include protein, healthy fat, fibre, and slow carbs into meals and snacks, as well as eat consistently to prevent blood sugar swings," Shah recommends.
It's important to understand that these diet swaps might not eliminate pain immediately. "Just one healthy meal won't cut it. It can take at least one to three cycles for certain nutrition and lifestyle changes to reflect in your menstrual cycle; however, when focusing on blood sugar balance, you can often feel results pretty quickly," says Dr Bansal. "For managing cramps in the moment, lifestyle measures, like going easy on high-intensity exercise, taking rest days, getting good sleep, and incorporating calming teas, like ginger or peppermint can all be helpful," she adds.
If you do want to start eating to ease period cramps, give these snacks a try:
Shah says almonds and walnuts are great choices for menstrual cramps. Nuts and nut butters in general, she says, are solid sources of magnesium and zinc, which are both essential for hormone processes. "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. Zinc has been shown to help prevent menstrual cramping," she says.
But make that 70 per cent cacao, Shah says. "Cacao or dark chocolate is lower in sugar than milk and white chocolate, and is actually a rich source of magnesium, which has muscle-relaxing effects in the body," she explains. "Dark chocolate has also been shown to buffer the stress response. Since stress is often at the root of hormone imbalances, including cacao can help ease this response in the body. In addition, dark chocolate has been shown to help tame inflammation," she adds.
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
Stash a package of sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds in your desk drawer. "Pumpkin seeds are one of my favourite foods for menstrual cramps as they contain magnesium, zinc, and essential fatty acids to help with overall hormonal balance," Shah says. Sunflower seeds are one of the richest sources of vitamin E, which is beneficial for helping to ease sore breasts and period cramps, she adds. "Avocado and eggs are also rich in vitamin E, so up your intake of these foods in the lead up to your period," she suggests.
Green leafy vegetables
They might not be on your cravings list during your period, but spinach and broccoli are both high in the anti-cramping mineral magnesium, which incidentally, also helps to relax you. "They also contain vitamins A, C, B6 and E, calcium and potassium - nutrients that have all been shown to help alleviate PMS symptoms," says Shah.
A natural probiotic, yoghurt is full of calcium, which has been found to help ease menstrual cramps, says Shah. Not only that, one study found that a diet with calcium-rich dairy products lowered the risk of developing PMS by as much as 40%. "Probiotic yoghurt contains friendly bacteria which supports a healthy digestive system and may help to ease persistent bloating," says Shah.
Sipping on fresh ginger tea may also help to ease painful abdominal cramping, notes Shah. In a study, 150 women were instructed to take 1g of ginger powder per day, for the first three days of their period. Ginger managed to reduce pain as effectively as the drugs mefenamic acid (an anti-inflammatory painkiller) and ibuprofen.