From bone-aching fatigue to excruciating cramps, so many women put up with period symptoms that hugely impact their lives every month, but the key to improving things could be as simple as a few diet tweaks.
Many of us turn to our favorite comfort food to perk up our energy levels and mood, and while this certainly won’t do you any favours, overhauling what you eat at all times of the month could help drastically improve period symptoms.
Cornwall-based Nutritional Therapist Grace Kingswell told FEMAIL: ‘I have so many clients with PCOS, painful and heavy periods, cloth periods, mood swings – the works!
‘I always start with diet because nine times out of ten these clients are also largely undernourished, or have been vegetarian or vegan for many years. They aren’t eating a quality source of protein at every meal, snacking on date bars and granola and whatever else they’ve seen on instagram.
‘Food is a complicated space these days, but we strip it back to basics and remind ourselves what real nourishment looks like.’
From eating foods that decrease inflammation in the body, such as nuts and seeds, to increasing your protein intake to stave off cravings in the run up to your period, these diet hacks will help to make your menstrual cycle a lot less painful in every sense.
If you suffer from very painful periods, the solution could be to eat a healthier diet at all times of the month (stock image)
Up your intake of anti-inflammatory foods
Eating foods that decrease inflammation in the body will help to tame menstrual cramps, according to experts.
These foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. which are packed with antioxidants that have a powerful and anti-inflammatory effects on the endometrium and reduce prostaglandins which cause painful periods.
How to eat at ANY time of the month for a more comfortable period
Nutritional therapist Grace Kingswell said that simple carbohydrates should be eliminated from your diet as a first step.
‘Diets too high in carbohydrates, ie sugars, and lacking in adequate protein and fat will lead to cravings because of the very real blood sugar rollercoaster that we can go on when we don’t have the regulatory effect of protein, fat and fiber at hand,’ she said.
‘Start your day with porridge and fruit, for example, and you’ll likely crave something sweet or some caffeine by 11am.
‘Start your day with eggs, avocado, veggies, some fermented foods, leafy greens and olive oil and you’ll be full until lunch time and not crave anything.
‘We experience this rollercoaster when we don’t have the regulatory effect of protein, fat and fiber at hand.’
She said that fat and protein are both macronutrients, which trigger our satiety hormone, leptin.
Carbohydrates don’t trigger leptin, she expands, that’s why you can eat a whole bowl of pasta and then still go in for seconds!
Grace advises loading your plate with a good balance of fat, protein and carbohydrates then you’re likely to feel fuller and more satisfied.
‘Eat good quality proteins, healthy fats both saturated and unsaturated, and loads and loads of color from the vegetables.’
Think deep green broccoli and kale, bright red apples and pears and yellow peppers – there is a whole rainbow out there.’
Before a period beings, the cells that form the lining of the uterus, the endometrial cells, begin to break down during menstruation and release large amounts of inflammatory prostaglandins. These chemicals constrict the blood vessels in the uterus and make the muscle layer contract, causing painful cramps.
Animal products can increase these chemical reactions whereas the antioxidants found in plant foods such as vitamin D, magnesium, B vitamins, iron and zinc, counter the inflammatory effects of prostaglandins.
Lola Biggs, dietician and nutritionist at natural and vegan supplement brand Together Health says: ‘Oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel) are all rich in omega-3 fats and are known to decrease inflammation, so eating these twice a week may help relieve period pain.’
Balance your estrogen levels with fiber
Nutritional Therapist Grace Kingswell says in her Podcast State of Mind: ‘Oestrogen makes us feel great and as women it is crucial. But we victimize it as the problem of “oestrogen dominance” in our earlier years as being responsible for those PMS symptoms, heavier cycles and pain with periods.
‘However, oestrogen dominance comes from foods, products and pollution; when these external factors bind to estrogen cells.’
She adds: ‘The hormone pictures is one hell of a delicate game. The interplay of hormones is so important.’
Too much oestrogen can cause painful periods because s the hormone thickens the wall of the uterus and when it begins to break down during the menstrual cycle it creates more prostaglandins, resulting in higher levels of pain.
Grace says that to aid this pain, you need to remember that estrogen is balanced with progesterone, the hormone released by the corpus luteum in the ovary. It plays important roles in the menstrual cycle and in maintaining the early stages of pregnancy.
If oestrogen levels are too high and progesterone levels are too low symptoms including ovarian fibroids, cellulite, weight gain, painful periods, mood swings and bloating can occur.
Grace says that fiber is essential for maintaining healthy progesterone levels and the best kind you can eat is those that can easily digested, such as overripe fruit and well-cooked vegetables.
Both women agree that during your cycle there should be fiber in every meal.
Abbey explains that fiber can help reduce estrogen levels which in turn can help progesterone work more effectively. Your body absorbs estrogen from foods such as eggs, flaxseeds, and berries and the longer they take to get through your digestive system the more estrogen is absorbed.
Fiber helps improve your bowel movements and makes sure that there is less time for estrogen to be absorbed into your system, which in theory helps to balance your hormones and reduces PMS symptoms such as cramping.
The digestive tract can be more active and erratic during your period.
Some women find having fewer raw foods and more slow-cooked stew and soups can take the pressure off the gut and lessen any indigestion.
Opt for wholegrain carbs
We often seen an increase in appetite a few days before our period, which occur as hormone levels change and cause a drop in blood sugar levels.
The feel good chemical in your brain, serotonin, tends to be lower during your period also and when this happens the body craves sugar, especially carbohydrates because it uses this to make to serotonin
Lola said: ‘Although it can be tempting to tuck into high sugar snacks and sweets these can often make you feel worse. They only provide a brief high and a tumbling crash, resulting in tiredness, irritability and sleep issues.
‘Eat wholegrain carbohydrates like brown rice and quinoa and protein-rich food such as eggs, chicken, and Greek yogurt because these can help us feel fuller for longer and fight off cravings.
‘I’d also suggest fiber rich nuts and fruits like apples, pears, dates, and almonds as well as zinc rich sesame seeds and vitamin E packed sunflower seeds to support your body in its progesterone production.
‘Throw nuts and seeds onto salads and stir fries, into smoothies and on top of porridge and yogurt.’
Eat dark chocolate if you need a treat
Grace said: ‘If you really need to satisfy the chocolate craving, the advice is to opt for dark chocolate over 70 percent cocoa solids.
Good quality, dark chocolate contains antioxidants and nutrients such as zinc and iron and magnesium, plus you find you only need a smaller amount.’
Hormones are balanced by our diet and so when we reach for cake and sugar during the run up to our periods, we may be causing more uncomfortable symptoms (stock image)
Increase your zinc intake
Dietician Lola Biggs said that ‘energy levels will be zapped’ during your period, and to beat tiredness, she recommends upping your intake of vitamin B12, which can be found in legumes, chickpeas, cheese, salmon, milk and red meat.
Fatigue before a period is also due to hormonal fluctuations – estrogen usually acts as a stimulant, but its levels drop significantly after you ovulate, depriving you of its energy.
At the same time, your levels of feel-good serotonin also dip, leaving you without its mood-boosting effects as well.
Meanwhile, the calming effects of progesterone begin to kick in, which makes you feel more mellow.
Lola explains: ‘Foods’s high in omega-3 like fatty fish, flax seed, and nuts (brazil and almonds in particular) can also help reduce anxiety and increase our ability to focus.
‘Sources rich in zinc such as shellfish could also help reduce pain, while smashed avocado fans can rejoice – full of healthy fats, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins E and B6 to balance out hormones, it will give you energy and may even help ease cramps.
Replenish your iron levels
She goes on to say that women can lose a lot of blood during their period and there are some who might need to replenish their iron levels.
Normally women lose about 30-80ml of blood and 15-25ml of iron during each menstruation.
She advised: ‘Eating more iron-rich foods include dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, and broccoli), nuts, seeds and dried fruits, red meat, quinoa, beans and lentils, egg yolks and fortified milks can help, but this must be consistent because iron stores take a long time to replenish.
‘Foods containing vitamin C, like citrus fruits, pineapple, mango, and red peppers, help iron to be absorbed when eaten alongside plant-based iron-rich foods like spinach, achieve optimum bioavailability here by squeezing some lemon over some steamed greens.’
Lola says that it is also worth avoiding coffee and tea when taking iron supplements, because they can prevent optimal absorption.