These foods can reduce pain from period cramps, new study finds

If you are one of the many girls and women who experience painful menstrual cramps, a diet change may bring some relief, a new study suggests.

The analysis of previous research revealed that certain foods — such as coffee, red meat, highly processed foods and those high in omega-6 fatty acids, like nuts — seemed to increase pain. Meanwhile, other foods — such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and those that were high in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish — seemed to lessen cramping, according to the report presented at the annual meeting of The North American Menopause Society.

“This started out as a search for something to remedy my own pain,” said study author Serah Sannoh, who was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University when working on the study and now is a first-year medical student at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. “I knew I was not the only one with this pain.

It turns out, Sannoh said, that “as many as 90% of adolescent girls have menstrual pain.” She noted that college students often consume the types of foods likely to worsen menstrual cramping. Among girls this age, “there is high coffee intake, and processed foods are easily available on campus.”

For her study, Sannoh combed through the medical literature searching for studies that explored the impact of diet on menstrual pain and eventually found five that met her criteria.

Those studies suggested that certain foods were likely to raise inflammation, which has been shown to increase menstrual pain, Sannoh said. Foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids contain nutrients we need, so it’s best to balance them out with foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Foods for cramps

On the list of foods likely to increase inflammation were:

  • Red meat
  • Processed foods
  • Coffee
  • Sugar
  • Baked goods made with highly processed flour

Foods that were likely to lessen inflammation included:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Canola oil
  • Flax seed oil

When it comes to inflammation and painful periods, the research showed that the best diet is a vegan one, Sannoh said. “People who consumed plant-based diets had less menstrual cramps,” she added.

Sannoh said she’s tried changing her diet around the time she was expecting to get her period, and it did help but didn’t completely banish her pain. She suspects that for a non-inflammatory diet to have more impact, it needs to be followed all the time.

Painful period cramping is “a big problem,” said Dr. Hoosna Haque, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. “Anywhere from 60 to 90% of women experience pain with their cycles, though most have relatively mild pain. But up to 15% can have severe menstrual cramps that can lead to missed school and sports and other activities, as well as decreasing their quality of life.”

It’s thought that menstrual cramps are related to the body’s release of a compound called prostaglandin, which promotes inflammation, Haque said. That’s why medications, like NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can help with menstrual cramping, she added.

Research has shown that women with painful periods tend to have higher levels of prostaglandins, especially at the most painful point in their cycle, which is why an anti-inflammatory diet might help, Haque said.

“A Mediterranean-type diet, which tends to be higher in whole grains, is more plant based, and includes healthy oil, may work for this, Haque said. She also recommends avoiding foods with added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup.

Dr. Taraneh Shirazian wasn’t surprised by the results of the new study.

“Certainly, food and supplements can impact painful periods,” said Shirazian, director for the Center for Fibroid Care at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

Shirazian notes that fibroids can contribute to menstrual pain, but women and girls without fibroids can also have pain during menses.

“We think inflammation from ovulation and menstruation can cause pain,” she said. “A low-sugar and relatively low-carbohydrate diet that includes fruits and vegetables, and is supplemented with things like turmeric can help.”

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