How an Anti Inflammatory Diet Can Help Period Pain

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Nicole Honeywill

Ït’s one of the longest standing injustices of our time that we’ve been led to believe that menstruation should equal pain. Over dramatic? We think not."

 

By staff writer, Marissa Cohen

Growing up, we were taught that each month we are supposed to endure a week of pure pain from menstruation. We’ve been inundated with images of women hunched over crying on the couch in sheer agony with only a box of chocolate as solice. While it is typical to experience some minor discomfort in the days leading up to and during menstruation, the symptoms should be moderate (if present at all) and very manageable. Here at Boosty, we believe it’s one of the longest standing injustices of our time that we’ve been led to believe that menstruation should equal pain. Over dramatic? We think not.

Why do we experience period pain in the first place?

For those of us that do experience period pain, it largely boils down to inflammation. Chemicals called prostaglandins are made from traces of fat stores in cell membranes. Prostaglandins promote inflammation, controlling muscle contractions, blood vessel contraction, blood clotting and ultimately pain.

Leading up to a bleed, endometrial cells in the uterine lining produce a large number of prostaglandins. During menstruation, the cells break down and chemicals are released. Cramps, along with other symptoms such as headaches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, are a result of prostaglandins causing constriction of the blood vessels and contraction of muscles in the uterus. Painful periods are often categorized as dysmenorrhea. However, those diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition in which the endometrial cells that line the uterus migrate throughout the body, often experience heightened menstrual pain amongst other symptoms If your suffering is severe, please consult your health care physician to be tested for endometriosis or other forms of secondary dysmenorrhea.

Eating your way to Ease

Managing period pain is a matter of managing your body’s inflammatory response. Since prostaglandins are naturally occurring fatty acids derived from what we eat, it can be possible to manage symptoms through diet. It is important to understand that there are “good” and “bad” prostaglandins, in a similar vein to “good and” bad” cholesterol. Through proper nutrition, we can increase the good prostaglandins and decrease the bad, thus reducing contractions that lead to pain.

The Estrogen Connection

Estrogen is referred to as the “female” sex hormone. Typically we think of estrogen as responsible for bountiful breasts and vivacious curves, but on the flip side, excess estrogen is associated with heavy period symptoms. An imbalance between progesterone and estrogen is often called called estrogen dominance. Fortunately, like prostaglandins, excess estrogen can be reduced through nutrition. Fiber is the broom that sweeps your insides clean. Estrogen travels through the bloodstream from the liver to the intestinal tract, where fiber absorbs and removes excess estrogen through the digestive system. Consuming an adequate amount of fiber through fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, helps regulate the body’s natural elimination process.

….But all I Want to Eat is Cake and Ice Cream

Cravings come in all different forms - cake, cookies, french fries, chips, and, of course, chocolate. Although going through a sleeve of Oreos may sound like a good idea in the moment, consuming high amounts of processed foods, unhealthy fats, and sugar will only contribute to inflammation, making your symptoms worse in the long run. Deprivation is not the answer, though. Instead, opt to flood your body with the nutrients that it is really craving. If you want sweet, go for a big roasted sweet potato in coconut oil with some cinnamon. If you want salty, reach for a handful of raw nuts or seeds that you have toasted with some sea salt. Keep a stock of good quality dark chocolate on hand. Bonus points if it is sweetened with a natural substitute to cane sugar, such as honey, maple syrup, or even stevia. Finally, if only baked goods will do, explore your favorite cookbooks and recipe blogs for healthy alternatives. One of my favorite companies is Moon Cycle Bakery, a monthly subscriptions service of high-quality, hormone-friendly treats designed to support your cycle.

Stress and your Symptoms

Although it is important to focus on eating well for hormonal health, succumbing to stress has the ability to erase all of our efforts. You can eat all of the kale in the world, but if you can’t calm your mind, your body will feel the effects. Stress in any form, whether emotional or physical, causes inflammation in the body. So negative thoughts and anxiety have just as much of an impact on our menstrual cycles as do trans fats. In fact, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that “women who reported feeling stressed two weeks before the beginning of menstruation were two to four times more likely to report moderate to severe symptoms than were women who did not feel stressed.[6]” This is why it is important to consider a holistic method to treating heavy period pain. Fill your plates with leafy greens, but also fill your heart with love and your mind with positivity. Spend time doing things that bring you joy. Meditation, taking a bath, cozying up on the couch for a movie, dancing, spending time with loved ones, and laughter are also forms of nourishment.

According to Dr. Mary Hediger, Ph.D “future studies may show that stress reduction techniques can prevent or reduce the severity of premenstrual syndrome, which might provide a cost effective alternative to medications for some women."

What to Fill Up on and What to Avoid

Below is a chart outlining foods that are anti-inflammatory, to consume in abundance, and those that are inflammatory, to be minimized or avoided.

Foods to include

Why?

Legumes including beans, almonds, dark leafy vegetables like kale.

Rich in calcium; contain indole-3 carbinol

which helps to alleviate cramps and maintain hormonal regulation

Chickpeas, lentils, seafood, cooked spinach, pumpkin seeds

High in iron which may be low due to blood loss during menstruation

Fruits such as bananas

High in magnesium which is a natural cramp reliever and reduce PMS

Lean meats and protein such as chicken, tofu or beans

High in protein which helps energy levels and keeps cravings at bay

Celery and parsley

Natural diuretics can help with digestive issues and menstrual bloating

Herbal teas: Ginger and chamomile

Natural anti-inflammatory which can reduce cramping.

Research shows that glycine, which can be found in chamomile tea is effective in reducing muscle spasms and relaxing the nerves

Sweet potato

Rich in vitamin A, they will also help your liver break down excess estrogen, balance out your blood sugar levels, and balance your mood.

Omega 3 (Fish oil) supplements

Studies have shown that young women and adults taking omega-3 supplements experience far less stomach cramping, due to a decrease in prostaglandin levels. In addition to less frequent cramping, if and when cramping did occur, it was found to be less painful and for a shorter period of time.

 

 

Foods to avoid

Why?

Fatty meats and fried foods

High in saturated fats which can worsen period pain

Caffeine

Can cause blood vessels to constrict making cramps more severe

> Try turmeric lattes, matcha lattes with nut-based milks or decaf coffee if you must.

Alcohol

Causes inflammation and fluctuating blood sugar level which worsens cramps

Sugar and white carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread

Causes inflammation and fluctuating blood sugar level which worsens cramps

Dairy

May contain Omega 6 fatty acids which can increase inflammation, increasing cramping and bloating.

> Try coconut yoghurt or dairy-free milk alternatives

 

Consistency Throughout your Cycle

As with all natural interventions, the goal of incorporating anti-inflammatory foods is to to tackle the root cause of period pain, so this is a long term strategy and shouldn’t be approached as a quick fix. Eating broccoli once won’t make your dysmenorrhea disappear. Furthermore, implementing dietary changes should not be reactive. It differs from taking a pill in the sense that it should not just be done only after we feel negative symptoms. The goal is to maintain a consistent, balanced diet that minimizes inflammation, rather than just minimizing its effects.

It takes time for the body to come back to equilibrium especially when it has experienced chronic stress over an extended period of time. Anti-inflammatory diets should be followed for at least three months for best results. However, the most important time to follow this strictly is in the week leading up to and during your cycle before prostaglandins are released.

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