A diet high in processed meats, oils, and other inflammation-promoting foods can lead to severe menstrual cramps. Eating more of other foods can help tame period pain.
Adolescent girls and other women suffering from intense cramps may want to look at something basic in their life: their diet.
That’s the finding of a literature review presented October 12, 2022, at the annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) in Atlanta.
“Severe menstrual pain is the leading cause of school absenteeism in adolescents and college-age women. Making changes in their diet can significantly improve their quality of life,” says Serah Sannoh, who presented the research she conducted before getting her bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University, and is now a first-year medical student at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
Period Pain Can Debilitate Some Women and Girls
Roughly 90 percent of adolescent girls experience menstrual pain, according to NAMS. In some cases, the pain is so severe it interferes with daily living.
That was the case for Sannoh, who undertook the research in part to find natural remedies that she might use to help herself.
Sannoh’s periods had been uneventful until her senior year of high school and into college, when her cramps suddenly became unbearable. “It was painful to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed. It felt like my stomach was twisted, and I would throw up,” she says.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — like ibuprofen — commonly recommended to help with cramps did not sufficiently ease the pain, which began at the first sign of blood and sometimes continued up to four days.
Avoiding Inflammatory Foods Is Key to Quelling Cramps
For this study, Sannoh conducted an extensive review of the literature, ultimately finding some 20 articles on the topic. They were comprised of questionnaires, randomized trials, and nested control case studies.
Her conclusion: Diet can indeed have a large effect on menstrual cramps. Foods high in omega-6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation in the body, seem to be especially troublesome.
That’s especially a problem for teens, Sannoh says. “The American diet eaten by girls this age tends to be very high in these fats, which are generally found in processed oils and meats. The fast food places and college food halls where these girls eat serve a lot of these foods,” she says.
Sugar, salt, and coffee are other inflammatory foods found to worsen cramps. The reason all these foods affect menstrual cramps has to do with basic biology.
“Inflammatory foods increase the release of prostaglandins, which increase vasoconstriction that leads to pain,” explains Monica Christmas, MD, director of the Center for Women’s Integrated Health at the University of Chicago and a board trustee for NAMS, who was not involved with the study. “Specifically, these prostaglandins constrict blood vessels in the walls of the uterus, causing cramping,” she says.
Women and girls with high levels of prostaglandins tend to have more severe menstrual cramping, Sannoh observes.
Some Foods Are Good for Preventing Cramps
Sannoh also found that some foods have the opposite effect, working to prevent cramps. This category includes foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, known to reduce inflammation.
Omega-3s are found in seafood such as salmon, tuna, anchovies, and sardines. Walnuts, chia, and flax seeds, along with their oils and other plant oils (such as canola), are also good sources of the nutrient. In addition, many foods on the market, including eggs, milk, and yogurt, have been fortified with omega-3s.
“Since menstrual pain results from inflammation, it is important to have a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet or have more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet,” her study’s abstract concludes.
Plant-Based Diets Are Anti-Inflammatory Diets
Eating a plant-based diet that excludes or curtails meat can reduce cramps long term, Sannoh found. Her research cites a study published in Nutrition Research, where participants were randomized to follow several different diets, from vegan to carnivorous. Those on the vegan, vegetarian, or pesco-vegetarian (plants and fish) eating plans all had significant reductions in bodily inflammation, although menstrual cramps we not measured directly.
Eating This Way Helped the Study’s Lead Author
Sannoh hopes that better understanding the science behind foods and cramps will inspire young women to make the dietary changes that can improve their life.
It has done this for her. “I’m West African and my culture’s diet is high in cow meat, but I reduced my intake. I also decreased sugary foods — like my favorite chocolate bars — and coffee,” she says.
She still sometimes eats these foods, but not as much, and not around the time of her cycle.
This has made a big difference.
“The pain is less, the cramping is less, and more often I can now take and ibuprofen and go about my day,” she says.
The more permanent your dietary changes, the more effect it will likely have, Dr. Christmas says.
“If you eat fewer inflammatory foods during the month, you will probably notice some benefits,” she says. But “in the same way that people don’t become obese overnight and then diet a few days and lose all the weight, you can’t expect to reverse the effects of a poor diet in a matter of a few days.”
Improving your diet in these ways can also do more than improve cramps, Christmas says. “It’s great that this study promotes the idea of making healthy choices at a young age. Eating right from an early age is highly beneficial and will improve longevity and overall health, reducing high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol, among other things.”