I’ve been researching period pains lately, mainly because mine seem to have ramped up again. I don’t get them as badly as some people do – its not generally enough to put me out of action entirely. But they are bad enough. The most irritating part for me is that they tend to radiate into my arse, which makes standing still absolute hell for a couple of days. Walking is fine, lying down is fine, sitting is not great but manageable, standing… standing is achy, crampy horror.
Which would be fine, except I have kids.
And wow, do my kids like to take their time when we are walking anywhere. We seem to stop every ten steps so they can investigate a leaf, or examine an interesting wall, or throw a tantrum. All of which equals a lot of standing still.
I also find it hard to concentrate on work during the first couple of days of my period. It’s difficult to come up with brilliant writing ideas and pull together engaging copy when I’m distracted by cramps and trying to type with one hand clutching a hot water bottle to my abdomen.
Painkillers help a bit, but I don’t love having to take them regularly. And I’m resolute about not going back on the pill. It makes me angry and I don’t want to mess about with my hormones if I don’t have to.
So, diet and nutrition it is. Which, let’s face it, was always going to be my go-to.
Here’s what I’ve learnt so far…
Causes of period pains
There are conditions that cause bad menstrual pains, including endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and structural abnormalities of the uterus itself. Having an IUD inserted for birth control can also cause painful cramps.
None of these apply for me, so I’m just dealing with regular primary dysmenorrhea (period pains, to the rest of us), like about half of all people who menstruate.
This means the most likely cause of my monthly cramps is a high-level of prostaglandins. These are natural chemicals found in our bodies, which act like hormones and play a role in reproduction, as well as our bodies’ natural healing process.
During our periods, prostaglandins cause our uterus to contract to expel the lining, ready for a new cycle to begin. An imbalance in prostaglandins causes inflammation and painful menstrual cramps.
Combatting period pains with diet and nutrition
If you are experiencing period pains that are caused by an underlying condition, definitely seek medical advice on addressing the condition itself, as well as looking at dietary solutions. For those of us who are just battling higher prostaglandin levels, looking at our diet might be helpful in managing the symptoms.
Since cramps are caused by inflammation, Better Nutrition suggests eliminating foods that raise our levels of prostaglandins. These include:
- Processed vegetable oils – I cook a lot with sunflower oil, so need to address this one asap
- Fried foods – this one isn’t a major one for me, but I’ll keep it in mind
- Partially hydrogenated oils – apparently these are present in margarine, as well as many baked goods, so I suspect I’ve been eating quite a lot of them lately… colder weather always has me reaching for sweet, carby things
- Processed meats – I don’t eat much meat but will keep an eye on this
- Dairy products – huh. I don’t drink milk, but might need to look at my cheese intake…
- High-glycaemic foods – yep, doing terribly here. This includes things like white rice, white pasta, potatoes, couscous etc. See Harvard Health for a helpful list. Lately I’ve been eating a lot of these on a daily basis which I suspect is why my cramps have been worse than they were in the summer when I wasn’t eating as much
- Sugar – yep. See above re baked goods. Could do better here too
- Alcohol – ah. I’m generally pretty good about not drinking regularly these days (there’s a family history of alcoholism that I’m very conscious of). But my husband is currently on furlough and we’ve been sharing a bottle of wine several nights a week. Time to limit alcohol to Friday and Saturday night again
This list doesn’t surprise me in the least, because it seems anytime I start researching which foods to avoid for a given issue, most of these key culprits are on the list.
But if these are the foods we shouldn’t eat if we want to reduce menstrual cramps, what are the ones that we should be eating instead?
Here’s what I’ve discovered about the nutrients we should be looking out for to avoid painful cramps…
Dr Lara Briden, author of the Period Repair Manual, says that her favourite supplement for managing period pains is zinc. This is because studies have demonstrated that its anti-inflammatory properties are effective in reducing menstrual cramps. You can take zinc as a supplement and find it in foods such as pumpkin seeds, oats, red meat, oysters, almonds, and legumes.
I wrote a piece for a client not that long ago about the magic of fibre for our health, so I’m not at all surprised to find from this study that not getting enough fibre is associated with increased menstrual pain. Foods that are rich in fibre include legumes, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and collard greens, fruit, and whole-grains.
According to Nicole Jardim, author of Fix your Period, not having enough Omega-3 in your diet can make your period pains worse. This is because there are two main types of prostaglandins. One type, PGE2, causes inflammation, leading to pain. The other, PGE1, actually reduces inflammation instead. And PGE1 is derived from Omega-3.
So to get the benefits, we need more Omega-3 in our diets. Good sources include oily fish, flax and chia seeds, walnuts, avocados and, annoyingly, Brussel sprouts, which I hate. Fortunately, I love the rest of this list and am more than happy to eat more of them, especially since walnuts are also on my list of foods that boost brainpower.
Research has found that adolescents with higher levels of beta-carotene (and zinc and vitamin E) were less likely to experience painful periods. Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment found in vegetables such as carrots, squashes, and sweet potatoes.
5. Vitamin E
As explained above, vitamin E is one of the nutrients that has been found to reduce the likelihood of having menstrual cramps. Find it in almonds, sunflower seeds, avocados, spinach, broccoli, and olive oil.
Ginger tea is often suggested as a home-cure for menstrual cramps and with very good reason. Studies have found that ginger is as effective as painkillers like ibuprofen and mefenamic acid for controlling period pains. I’m not a fan of it in drinks, but love to use ginger in cooking. I’ve also found adding a few drops of ginger essential oil to a hot bath is good for relieving cramps.
It seems that magnesium is good for pain management generally, according to researchers who looked at the evidence for its effect on a range of different symptoms. The reason for this needs more research but one of the conditions that magnesium is thought to be helpful for is period pains.
You can find magnesium in foods such as dark chocolate (hurray!), legumes, avocados, almonds and cashews, and pumpkin seeds. I also have a magnesium supplement that is a gel you rub on your skin to relieve muscle cramps. I haven’t tried it yet for menstrual cramps but I’m going to the moment I finish typing this up!
Some of my favourite foods are on this list, so I’m excited to do an overhaul of my diet this month to see if it helps with my cramps. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Nagata C., K. Hirokawa, N. Shimizu, H. Shimizu (2005) Associations of menstrual pain with intakes of soy, fat and dietary fiber in Japanese women, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 59(1), pages 88-92, https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602042
Ozgoli, G., M. Goli, and F. Moattar (2009), Comparison of Effects of Ginger, Mefenamic Acid, and Ibuprofen on Pain in Women with Primary Dysmenorrhea, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 15 (2), pages 129-132, http://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2008.0311
Pramanik, P., S. Banerjee, and P. Saha, (2016), Primary dysmenorrhea in school-going adolescent girls – is it related to deficiency of antioxidant in diet? International Journal of Life Science and Pharma Research 5 (2), pages 54-63, http://www.ijlpr.com/admin/php/uploads/233_pdf.pdf
Shin, H.J., H.S. Na, and S.H. Do (2020) Magnesium and Pain, Nutrients 12(8), page 2184, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082184
Teimoori, B., M. Ghasemi, Z. S. A. Hoseini, M. Razavi (2016) The Efficacy of Zinc Administration in the Treatment of Primary Dysmenorrhea, Oman Medical Journal 31 (2), pages 107-111, https://doi.org/10.5001/omj.2016.21
Prostaglandins, the Society for Endocrinology, https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/prostaglandins.aspx, consulted 07/11/2020
Dietary solutions for menstrual cramps, Better Nutrition, https://www.betternutrition.com/conditions-and-wellness/menstrual-cramps-diet/, consulted 07/11/2020
Glycemic index for 60+ foods, Harvard Health, https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glycemic-index-and-glycemic-load-for-100-foods, consulted 07/11/2020
Why Zinc Is My Favorite Supplement for Period Health, Lara Briden, https://www.larabriden.com/7-ways-zinc-rescues-hormones/, consulted 07/11/2020
The top foods high in zinc, Medical News Today, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325916, consulted 07/11/220
Why Omega-3 oils can help relieve period pain, Nicole Jardim, https://nicolejardim.com/cause-of-painful-periods-1/, consulted 07/11/2020