For many, a monthly period comes with painful cramps. For some, those pangs feel minor, but for others, the pain feels quite intense. Those hoping to reduce their cramps can examine their diet to include foods that can reduce cramps — and skip those that might increase pain.
“We don’t have a lot of good data on this topic,” Dr. Taraneh Shirazian, director of the Center for Fibroid Care at NYU Langone Health in New York City, tells TODAY.com. “There are some anti-inflammatory foods and supplements that we think could … reduce local inflammation and reduce cramps.”
Foods rich in antioxidants, such as leafy greens and berries, and certain spices, such as turmeric and ginger, can lower inflammation, which hopefully lessens cramps, she adds. Many dietitians agree that some foods reduce inflammation and eating a diet rich in those can be useful during one’s period. Some foods can also improve vaginal health overall.
“The studies that I found (show) that people who consume a variety of fruits, berries, stone fruits, vegetables — both starchy and non-starchy — fermented dairy and liquid dairy and then foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, some of your seeds and seafood (feel better),” Dietitian Maya Feller and founder of Maya Feller Nutrition tells TODAY.com. “That’s basically what we refer to as a balanced pattern of eating.”
What research says about food and cramps
A study published in 2022 analyzed previous research and revealed what foods to avoid and what foods to enjoy to reduce cramps. 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 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,” says 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 says, that “as many as 90% of adolescent girls have menstrual pain.” She notes 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 says. 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 that worsen period cramps
On the list of foods likely to increase inflammation were:
- Red meat
- Processed foods
- Baked goods made with highly processed flour
Experts say they’re not surprised that these foods contribute to more pain. Many of them spark inflammation.
“Caffeine is a stimulant. It can exacerbate the sensation of cramping,” Abbey Sharp, dietician and founder of Abbey’s Kitchen, tells TODAY.com. “Another reason to cut back on caffeine is because caffeine is going to potentially exacerbate loose stools.”
She notes that foods with a higher glycemic index can also trigger inflammation and contribute to pain.
“We want to reduce our consumption of those higher glycemic index foods, like refined sugars, pastries ... because we want to reduce the inflammation in our body at a time when people are not feeling their best," Sharp says.
Foods that reduce period cramps
Foods that were likely to lessen inflammation included:
- Fatty fishes, such as salmon or anchovies
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Canola oil
- Flax seed oil
- Dark chocolate
- Leafy greens
When it comes to inflammation and painful periods, the research showed that the best diet is a vegan diet, Sannoh says. “People who consumed plant-based diets had less menstrual cramps,” she adds.
That makes sense to dietitians.
“We know that a general anti-inflammatory diet is going to include lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, healthy fats like omega 3 and mono-unsaturated fats, leafy greens," Sharp says.
Sannoh says she's tried changing her diet around the time she was expecting to get her period, and it did help but didn’t completely eliminate her pain. She suspects that for an anti-inflammatory diet to have more impact, it needs to be followed all the time.
The experts agree that regularly following an anti-inflammatory way of eating may have a bigger impact on people's menstrual cramps.
“We might want to increase those things in what we eat maybe even a couple days before the cycle or the week before,” Leslie Bonci, dietitian and owner of Active Eating Advice, tells TODAY.com. “Maybe we make a smoothie, putting in berries, putting in pomegranate juice, putting in a little bit of ginger and turmeric … maybe throwing in some greens, and indeed if that results in a little bit less discomfort, then it would have been well worth that.”
Period pain and diet
Painful period cramping is “a big problem,” Dr. Hoosna Haque, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, tells TODAY.com. “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 says. That’s why medications, like NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can help with menstrual cramping, she adds.
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 says.
A Mediterranean-type diet, which tends to be higher in whole grains, is more plant-based, and includes healthy oil, may also work to minimize period cramps, Haque says. She also recommends avoiding foods with added sugars, like high-fructose corn syrup.
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 says. “A low-sugar and relatively low-carbohydrate diet that includes fruits and vegetables, and is supplemented with things like turmeric can help.”