Menstrual cramps are no joke; a third of women over the age of 18 take at least four sick days each year because of severe discomfort during their periods, according to a study that was conducted in the U.K.
Aside from popping ibuprofen and lying in bed with a heating pad on your tummy, you may be wondering what else you can do to get rid of cramps. It turns out that changing your diet can make a big difference in the amount of period pain you experience each month. In fact, nutritionists say that 80 percent of the battle against cramps and PMS can be won by eating the right foods.
The Diet / Cramps Connection
When you’re getting your period, your uterus contracts in order to shed its lining. Those contractions are triggered by hormone-like substances called prostaglandins that regulate the female reproductive system.
Not only do prostaglandins trigger the uterine contractions we experience as cramps during menstruation, but they’re also involved in the induction of labor that begins childbirth. In fact, man-made forms of prostaglandins can be used to induce labor.
So, make no mistake, prostaglandins have a powerful effect on our bodies, and the higher the levels of prostaglandins present, the more severe menstrual cramping will be.
A study in the British Medical Journal demonstrated that a diet that’s high in fiber, low in fat, and mostly plant-based can lower the production of prostaglandins, which will, in turn, decrease the level of pain we experience from cramps.
Decrease Fat and Increase Fiber
The body generates prostaglandins from essential fatty acids. The type of prostaglandins that are responsible for period cramps are synthesized mostly from the fatty acids that are found in animal fats, so by lowering your intake of animal fats, you can decrease your body’s production of cramp-inducing prostaglandins.
Decreasing the fat in your diet and increasing fiber will also lower your estrogen levels, another hormone that plays a role in cramps. Estrogen stimulates the lining of your uterus to thicken every month. Those cells of the uterine lining are little prostaglandin-producing factories. If you can inhibit the growth of the lining by lowering estrogen levels, you’ll also have fewer prostaglandins and less painful cramping.
What to Eat and What to Avoid
After changing your diet, you should expect to see effects within one or two cycles. Your diet has to be fairly strict in order to work.
Eat lots of:
- Whole grains, including oatmeal and brown rice.
- Vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli and spinach
- Beans, peas and lentils
Eliminate as much as possible (ideally, eliminate entirely):
- Meat, eggs and dairy
- Vegetable oils in salad dressing and margarine
- French fries, potato chips and other foods with a high fat content
- Caffeine. Caffeine can make period pain worse because it constricts blood vessels
- Sugar; it is a known cause of inflammation, which tends to amplify pain
This diet may sound too restrictive for you. If that’s the case, and you’re in search of relief for painful menstrual cramping, talk to your doctor about your options, including taking oral contraceptives.
Oral Contraceptives Can Help
Birth control pills work similar to the diet above. They reduce the growth of the endometrial cell layer, which lowers the amount of prostaglandins that are produced. The result is reduced menstrual cramps. In fact, 90 percent of women who take oral contraceptives report decreased pain during menstruation.
You can also help with menstrual cramps the same way you help improve your general health: drink plenty of water, exercise and get enough sleep. Never give up hope. There’s a lot you can do to fight bad period pain.