Reactively, I have always turned to my trusty heating pad and a quick cardio session, but I had never explored the idea that a proactive edit to my diet could help ease the period pain that merciless plagues my lower abdomen.
Certain foods can reportedly amplify PMS symptoms, while others are noted to help dim the discomfort. So, in an effort to make my fridge a little more friendly, I started my research and contacted Krista King, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in women's health and menstrual health.
"Food can absolutely have an impact on period pain or cramps," King says.
That's in positive and negative ways, by the way. . .
Before getting into what snacks to rely on (and what to avoid) she gave me a helpful refresher on the science of period cramps. The pain-causing culprit? Prostaglandins, which King explains as "inflammatory hormone-like substances that the body releases around menstruation that cause the uterus to contract and shed the lining."
She adds that high levels of prostaglandins — which are involved in pain and inflammation — could mean more severe pain.
So, when it comes to food, since inflammation is involved in period cramps and pain, King suggests staying away from foods that could contribute to inflammation — she notes certain vegetable oils like corn, safflower, canola, soy, and peanut oil as examples. Reducing excess caffeine might also be helpful, as well as salty foods that could make bloating worse.
If you're like me, you use this time to indulge in anything sweet — donuts, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream. Unfortunately, my sweet tooth might be working against me.
"It's important to keep blood sugar balanced for overall hormone balance," King notes. "Fluctuations in blood sugar can impact our cortisol levels and have a downstream effect on our other hormones. A study found that consuming foods high in sugar content is associated with the prevalence of PMS."
So what should you eat?
For period cramps, King suggests an anti-inflammatory whole food diet "that incorporates variety and hormone supportive nutrients like magnesium, vitamin B6, phytoestrogens, selenium, fiber, omega-3s, iron, calcium, complex carbohydrates, and food-based probiotics."
In terms of overall hormone health, she focuses on blood sugar balance and recommends including protein, healthy fat, fiber, and slow carbs into meals and snacks, as well as eating consistency to prevent blood sugar swings.
It's important to understand that these diet swaps might not eliminate pain immediately. Just one healthy meal won't cut it.
"It can take at least one to three cycles for certain nutrition and lifestyle changes to reflect in your menstrual cycle; however, when focusing on blood sugar balance, you can often feel results pretty quickly," King says.
"For managing cramps in the moment, lifestyle measures like going easy on high intensity exercise, taking rest days, getting good sleep, and incorporating calming teas like ginger or peppermint can all be helpful."
If you do want to start eating to ease period cramps, give these five snacks a bite.
Nuts or Nut Butters
King says almonds, pecans, and walnuts are all great choices for menstrual cramps. Nuts and nut butters in general, she says, are solid sources of magnesium and zinc, which are both essential for hormone processes.
"You can think of magnesium as our calming and relaxing mineral," she adds. "It helps to loosen tight muscles and ease anxiety due to its role in helping to balance our stress response. Zinc has been shown to help prevent menstrual cramping."
But make that 70 percent cacao, King says.
"Cacao or dark chocolate are actually rich sources of magnesium, which has muscle relaxing effects in the body," King adds. "Dark chocolate has also been shown to buffer the stress response. Since stress is often at the root of hormone imbalances, including cacao can help ease this response in the body. In addition, dark chocolate has been shown to help tame inflammation."
"Salmon is one of my favorite foods for menstrual cramps as it is one of the best sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids," King says. "You can pair smoked salmon with avocado and cucumber to make quick snack bites!"
High in magnesium and a source of vitamin B6, King says that avocado can be beneficial for menstrual cramps.
"Magnesium and vitamin B6 together can help to prevent PMS symptoms, like menstrual cramps. Make a simple avocado mash or guacamole and dip your favorite veggies like carrots, cucumbers, or bell peppers."
Stash a package of pumpkin seeds in your desk drawer.
"Pumpkin seeds are one of my favorite foods for menstrual cramps as they contain magnesium, zinc, and essential fatty acids to help with overall hormonal balance," King says.