Everyone with a uterus knows the pain of the period: That special time of the month can mean bloating, cramps, nausea, fatigue, and other exhausting, painful symptoms. And while many of us rely on home remedies or a trusty dose of painkillers to see us through, a study published in Oct. 2022 by The North American Menopause Society is bringing to light exciting findings about how different foods can affect period pain—for better and for worse.
Read on to discover which foods you may want to steer clear of next time your period comes calling.
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Coffee is a go-to for so many of us; it can be hard to imagine starting the day without a mug of this magic brew to give us the caffeine jolt we need to get moving. But according to Flo Health, "Caffeine blocks a hormone that can make blood vessels (which are present in the uterus) smaller, slowing the flow of blood. Coffee can also cause inflammation and bloating, adding to tummy pain. So, drinking coffee can make cramps worse."
A juicy burger can be a real comfort food for some of us when we're not feeling our best. But omega-6 fatty acids are "pro-inflammatory, and they trigger the painful menstruation cascade,"
Serah Sannoh, Rutgers University student and one of the researchers who worked on the new study, told Medical News Today. Can you guess what food is high in those particular acids? That's right, red meat. "The American diet is very high in omega-6 fatty acids," Sannoh said. Cutting back while menstruating might help you find relief.
Refined sugar is also highly inflammatory, Monica Christmas, MD, told Medical News Today. The inflammation occurs when your body digests free fatty acids, which are produced in the liver and stimulated by eating refined sugar. Cutting added sugars from your diet can also help your overall liver health, doctors say.
Oils and fats
Certain oils and fats can be good for you, but they may also make period pain worse. Christmas says common cooking oils and trans fats "cause an increased release of prostaglandins. Elevated prostaglandin release is associated with dysmenorrhea due to increased vasoconstriction of the blood vessels feeding the uterine musculature, resulting in uterine cramping due to decreased blood flow to the uterus."
Salt is another culprit here, perhaps unsurprisingly. It's common knowledge that high salt levels can increase your body's water retention, causing bloating and discomfort. Sodium (a key element in salt) can also hurt your heart and worsen aging skin. Cutting back on this known inflammatory ingredient could go a long way in reducing menstrual cramps.
"During your period, your body is particularly susceptible to inflammation," according to Flo Health. "The saturated fats in dairy products can trigger inflammation, which can worsen your menstrual pain." Full fat milk and dairy products are high in saturated fats, explains Healthline. "While saturated fats don't necessarily cause inflammation, they may worsen inflammation that's already present by increasing the absorption of inflammatory molecules called lipopolysaccharides."
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These foods may help decrease pain.
The study isn't all bad news; plenty of foods can help ease pain and lessen inflammation during periods of menstrual cramping (and in general!).
"It has long been known that some foods cause inflammation and others relieve it," Katherine Lang, BSc, told Medical News Today. "This latest research has shown that foods that relieve inflammation may also alleviate menstrual cramps." According to Lang's overview of an exciting new study from NAMS, "foods containing omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and may alleviate [cramps]."
Those who wish for a "more holistic approach to their menstrual health" may want to try incorporating foods like flaxseeds, nuts, salmon, sardines, and other oily fish into their meals. "Fresh fruit and vegetables are a key part of an anti-inflammatory diet," Lang explained. "The [new research] review found that people following a vegan or plant-based diet had lower levels of inflammation and were less likely to experience menstrual pain."