Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I experience such severe cramps during my period that I usually end up doubled over in pain and out of commission for at least two days. Can changing what I eat help? -Ciara S., Milwaukee, Wis.
A: Painful menstrual cramps are the most common gynecological condition among women of reproductive age. More than half of women report some pain from period cramps for a day or two each month, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Unfortunately, many women don’t seek treatment because they consider pain to be a normal part of the menstrual cycle. But it doesn’t have to be.
Studies have shown that women who experience higher levels of pain have higher levels of inflammatory prostaglandins or hormone-like substances in their bodies. High levels of prostaglandins can promote painful uterine contractions, decreased blood flow to the uterus, and pain. So in many cases, the solution for menstrual cramps is to avoid foods that increase inflammation, and emphasize foods that decrease inflammation.
Foods and Beverages to Avoid
Rid your diet of foods that raise levels of inflammatory prostaglandins in the body, including processed vegetable oils (e.g., soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, and grapeseed oils); fried foods; products that contain partially hydrogenated oils (e.g., margarine/shortening, many baked goods, and nondairy coffee creamers); processed meats; dairy products; alcohol; high-glycemic foods, such as refined flour; and sugar.
Too much sugar, or specifically eating too many carbs at once, is a strong inducer of inflammation, so it’s a definite no-no for many women. Sometimes cutting out sugar and reducing carbohydrate intake in general makes all the difference when it comes to menstrual pain.
For some women, staying away from gluten or grains is an important answer to alleviating pelvic pain. In one study, 75 percent of women who experienced endometriosis, a painful chronic pelvic disease in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside the uterus, reported a decrease in pain, including a decrease in menstrual cramps, along with increased physical functioning, vitality, and social functioning, after 12 months on a gluten-free diet.
Tips on What to Eat
To reduce menstrual pain, try these tips:
- Include good fats in your diet. The right oils will keep your hormones balanced and control prostaglandins. For cooking, use cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil, grass-fed butter, or high monounsaturated oils such as organic almond and peanut oils. For cold applications, use cold-pressed extra virgin olive or avocado oil.
- Get more omega-3s. Try adding raw ground flax, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds to salads, snacks, or entrées. Eat more cold-water fish (wild-caught salmon, sardines, anchovies, Atlantic mackerel) and sea vegetables. And try a high-quality daily omega-3 supplement.
- Seek out organic, pasture-raised eggs and meat. They supply higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional eggs and meats. Also consider homemade bone broths as easy-to-digest protein foods that help the body rebuild and reduce inflammation.
- Get adequate fiber. Fiber helps to maintain hormone balance by binding to estrogen and carrying it out of the body. Good sources include apples, coconut, citrus fruits, berries, beans, artichokes, asparagus, and broccoli.
- Eat your veggies. Research shows that women who don’t suffer from menstrual pain have a higher intake of zinc, beta-carotene, and vitamin E than those who do. Good sources of zinc include red meats and pumpkin seeds. For beta-carotene, try carrots, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens. Good food sources of vitamin E include nuts, seeds, and avocados.
Good fats-like those found in avocado oil-help keep hormones balanced and control inflammation.
Natural Remedies for Painful Periods
An anti-inflammatory diet is considered the most important nutrition strategy for alleviating menstrual cramps. But the following supplements also can provide much-needed relief.
A study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine compared ginger to mefenamic acid, the most commonly used drug for menstrual cramps. Ginger was found to be just as effective at relieving pain, yet much safer, than the drug. The study used dry ginger powder, but fresh ginger or ginger tea also can also be effective, especially if you experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea due to cramping.
This mineral helps relax muscle tissue. A 2001 Cochrane review showed that magnesium was more effective than placebo for menstrual pain relief, and reduced the need for additional medication. One six-month study of 50 women with menstrual pain found that treatment with magnesium significantly improved symptoms. Researchers reported evidence of reduced levels of prostaglandin F2 alpha, one of the prostaglandins involved in menstrual pain.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A 2012 study found a reduction in menstrual pain in women after 3 months of treatment with omega-3s from fish oil. They also needed less ibuprofen than women who received placebo.
Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus)
This traditional Native American remedy helps relax contractions of the uterus. Take as a tea or tincture. Women who take diuretics or lithium should ask their doctors before taking cramp bark.