As a women’s health nutritionist, the most common question I get asked is, “What foods can I eat to relieve my painful period cramps?”
Cramping a few days before or the first few days of bleeding is common, but I want to emphasize that severe period pain isn’t biologically normal.
Near the end of cycle, the lining of the uterus, or endometrium, begins to release prostaglandins. These compounds cause the uterus to contract (necessary for the lining to shed) and too many prostaglandins cause inflammation, pain, and cramping.
Check out this article I wrote for Moon Cycle Bakery for more info on how inflammation impacts our menstrual cycle.
Turmeric is all the rage these days with golden milk lattes, turmeric poached eggs, and its appearance in skincare lines. Before you brush it off as a silly fad, let’s take a look at how turmeric can help you when it comes to your period cramps.
This vibrant, golden yellow spice comes from the rhizome Curcuma longa and is touted with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. It contains the active compound curcumin, which helps decrease free radical damage and supports detox pathways (1).
Turmeric can help decrease the formation of prostaglandins and give your liver a boost in eliminating excess estrogen, which can cause other PMS symptoms (2).
Go ahead, give in to the yellow-stained trend and throw turmeric in everything! My favorite way to incorporate it is by adding it to baked goods, curry, sauces, and smoothies.
Over the past few years, ginger has become a staple in my kitchen. The little nub, also a rhizome like turmeric, offers so much flavor, versatility, and nutrition benefits. I basically throw it in everything.
Ginger has warming properties and is well-known as a blood mover. This means ginger can help reduce painful period cramps by moving stagnant blood in the muscles of the uterus (3). The compound gingerol found in ginger is also anti-inflammatory and through a series of complex events, prevents prostaglandin production (4).
I recommend consuming ginger throughout your entire cycle by adding it to smoothies, sauces, soups, stir frys, or oatmeal. When battling cramps, brew a cup of ginger tea. Chop up a small piece of fresh ginger (a 1-2 inch piece will do) and steep it in hot water. This should help relax your cramps and soothe any nausea or digestion issues. Win-win.
I think one of the biggest dietary contributors to chronic inflammation and period cramps is an imbalance of omega fatty acids. You may have heard me or another nutritionist talking about the importance of balancing your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. The ratio I’d love to see everyone at is around 4:1.
Why is this ratio so important? We need both types of fat, but many Americans are consuming way too many omega-6 fatty acids (which mostly come from vegetable oils). Too much of these and not enough omega-3 fatty acids causes increased inflammation.
One way to balance this out is to reduce the amount of processed food in your diet and reach for foods rich in omega-3’s instead! Walnuts are one of the best and most accessible sources, plus they are delicious.
Add walnuts to your homemade trail mix, on top of yogurt, toasted with brussels sprouts, or in a salad. With each crunch remember that you’re on your way to a happier period!
Maybe it’s because I’m still on a high from Portland’s summer berry season, but these little gems are one of my go-to recommendations for gals with period cramps.
Berries are rich in vitamin C (antioxidant to reduce inflammation), fiber (helps eliminate toxins and excess hormones), and has little effect on blood sugar.
Blood sugar balance is key in preventing PMS symptoms, including cramps. When our blood sugar is all over the place, this puts the body is a stressful state to straighten out. In turn, this increases levels of cortisol (stress hormone), which negatively impacts our reproductive hormones.
When craving something sweet, I encourage you to reach for fresh berries instead of a candy bar. Small choices like this over the course of your cycle will help decrease inflammation, stabilize blood sugar, and relieve your period cramps.
The chocolate + period stereotype may be a bit overplayed, but there is actually some science behind why we might be craving it around that time of the month.
Chocolate is a rich source of magnesium, an essential mineral needed for more than 300 metabolic functions. Some of these include stress reduction, blood sugar balance, healthy sleep, and hormone production (5,6). Let’s just say it’s one of those nutrients you definitely don’t want to be without.
As for period cramps, magnesium also helps to prevent prostaglandin production and can relieve acute pain by relaxing the uterus (7).
As if you needed any more reasons to reach for the dark chocolate, might I add it is also rich in antioxidants, iron, copper, and zinc, which all contribute to hormonal health as well.
Remember though, I’m talking about dark chocolate here (I recommend at least 70% cacao). Or better yet, reach for raw cacao powder which will give you the benefits without added sugars or fillers. Add it to oatmeal, smoothies, baked goods, and morning elixirs.
Need some chocolate inspiration? My recipe for these peanut butter chocolate energy bites can be found here.
1. Biswas SK, McClure D, Jimenez LA, Megson IL, Rahman I. Curcumin Induces Glutathione Biosynthesis and Inhibits NF-κB Activation and Interleukin-8 Release in Alveolar Epithelial Cells: Mechanism of Free Radical Scavenging Activity. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2004;7(1-2):32-41. doi:10.1089/ars.2005.7.32.
2. Kim S-W, Ha K-C, Choi E-K, et al. The effectiveness of fermented turmeric powder in subjects with elevated alanine transaminase levels: a randomised controlled study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013;13:58. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-13-58.
3. de la Forêt R. Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. Hay House Inc.; 2017.
4. Khayat S, Kheirkhah M, Moghadam Z, Fanaei H, Kasaeian A, Javadimehr M. Effect of Treatment with GInger on the Severity of Premenstrual Syndrome Symptoms. Hindawi Publ Corp. 2014;2014:5.
5. Sartori SB, Whittle N, Hetzenauer A, Singewald N. Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: Modulation by therapeutic drug treatment. Neuropharmacology. 2012;62(1):304-312. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.
6. Rodríguez-Morán M, Guerrero-Romero F. Oral Magnesium Supplementation Improves Insulin Sensitivity and Metabolic Control in Type 2 Diabetic Subjects: A randomized double-blind controlled trial. Diabetes Care. 2003;26(4):1147-1152. doi:10.2337/diacare.26.4.1147
7. Briden, L. Period Repair Manual: Natural Treatment for Better Hormones and Better Periods.; 2015.