Cramps, mood swings, crappy food cravings, headaches … need I say more? Besides some Midol and hot compresses, there’s not much we can do to minimize period pain; but what if our diet, no matter where we’re at in our cycle, could curb some of these unwelcome symptoms? Today, we’ll discuss just that—nutrition tips to promote balance and well-being throughout a woman’s monthly cycle.
Let it be known I think the female body is one of the most amazing things in existence. No, I don’t rejoice when Aunt Flo arrives, but when you stop to consider the complexities that occur inside your body leading menstruation, it can be quite eye-opening. Below you’ll find a review of each phase of the menstrual cycle, as summarized by the Cleveland Clinic, with nutrition tips to follow along the way. (Days are based on an average 28-day cycle).
Follicular Phase (days 1-12):
The follicular phase starts on the first day of your period (some call the actual period portion the “menstrual phase,” but technically menstruation marks the beginning of the follicular phase). Throughout the follicular phase, your brain releases hormones that both stimulate the production of eggs in your ovaries while also increasing estrogen production.
With period-related blood loss, it’s important to up the iron, vitamin C and B vitamins to help promote blood cell production and prevent anemia. Low levels of vitamin B12 can contribute to fatigue, dizziness and nervousness. If you happen to take the pill, I’d recommend adding B complex to your daily regimen as these contraceptives have been shown to deplete vitamins B1, B2 & B6 (3).
Iron – beef, chicken, turkey, dried beans, leafy greens, egg yolks, fortified cereals
Vitamin C – citrus fruits, kiwi, pineapple, cantaloupe, kale, yellow peppers, broccoli
B12 – clams, salmon, tuna, fortified cereals, fortified plant-milks and some fortified soy products
B6 – turkey, fish, potatoes, starchy vegetables, non-citrus fruits
Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices – ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cilantro, garlic parsley … incorporate these herbs into fresh, plant-based meals to help combat cramping and inflammation.
Ovulatory Phase (days 12-14):
Eggs are released from the ovary (aka ovulation) into the fallopian tube. You’ll notice a change or increase in your cervical mucus, which would eventually help to capture and nourish sperm for fertilization.
Some people notice a heightened sense of smell or breast tenderness around this time. Many women also experience increased energy (and libido, heyy-o) so make sure you’re not countering all that extra energy expenditure with junk food. Hormone shifts around ovulation have been known to increase sugar cravings so prepare yourself and keep plenty of healthy, easy-to-grab sweet snacks at hand. Make sure you’re getting plenty of fiber to prevent bloating and ensure bowel regularity (gals, we recommend 25 grams of fiber a day). Fermented foods can also help promote gut health, bowel regularity and fluid balance, so consider incorporating kombucha, kefir, yogurt or raw apple cider vinegar into your daily regimen.
Fiber – fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans (real foods are always preferred over fiber-supplements).
Healthy sweet fixes – dark chocolate, fresh, in-season fruits, greek yogurts, dates, apple chips … or check out any of the RD approved weekday recipes in Weekday Weekend.
Luteal Phase (days 14-28):
This phase begins right after ovulation. Estrogen and progesterone levels increase which prepare the egg for implantation. A non-fertilized egg will pass through the uterus until the uterine lining sheds and … voila, you have a period and find yourself back at day 1 of the follicular phase.
Ladies, this is the time to really up your game in preparation for your monthly stay at the Red Roof Inn. Research reveals women who experience greater pain during periods have higher levels of prostaglandins (a chemical released to stimulate contraction and breakdown of the uterine lining). This prostaglandin production is directly related to the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in one’s body—in other words, the more omega-3 rich foods you eat (in conjunction with a decrease in omega-6 rich foods) will theoretically lower prostaglandin production, in turn, improving period cramps. You may want to consider taking a fish oil supplement if you consistently battle PMS-related cramping (shoot for at least 1500 mg DHA/EPA per day).
Omega-3 fatty acids – coconut oils, olive oils, grass-fed butter and beef, salmon, leafy greens, avocados, walnuts
Omega-6 fatty acids – vegetable oils, processed foods, mayonnaise, salad dressings
Ancient Ayurvedic medicine believes your period acts similarly to a built-in detox system. So if you’ve had a stressful month of junk food, boozing and little exercise, the thought is that your period will be pretty brutal. On the contrary, if you’ve taken good care of yourself, chances are your period will be much lighter. (2) Speaking of booze, consider avoiding alcohol if you’re experiencing PMS symptoms. Sources say drinking alcohol can actually worsen symptoms of headaches, breast tenderness and mood swings. Of course moderation throughout the rest of your cycle is generally okay, but I would suggest avoiding alcohol altogether towards the start of your period.
Concerning caffeine, great news! No need to pass on your morning cup of joe when experiencing PMS, as if anyone ever thought that was a good idea?! A 2016 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found “caffeine intake is not associated with PMS, and that current recommendations for women to reduce caffeine intake may not help prevent the development of PMS.” Remember, caffeine is a diuretic so make sure you’re still drinking enough water—which leads me to my next point. Water.
Bloating is common during the follicular and luteal phases, as are food cravings, thanks to fluctuations in hormones like estradiol and leptin. Besides avoiding salty, processed foods, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water to help combat the bloat and stay hydrated. Read more about how much water you should be drinking here or, in a pinch, try to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day! Fruit- or herb-infused waters are a great way to add some pizzazz to plain old water.
As a reminder, menstruation in and of itself is an inflammatory process. I recommend trying to follow the anti-inflammatory as consistently as possible throughout your entire cycle. Luckily, Lindsey just covered this topic in depth, and I highly recommend you check out her post if you haven’t yet. In conclusion, try to keep your meals plant-based with lots of healthy fats, lean protein, fresh fiber sources and plenty of H2O.
A note from Lindsey:
Great stuff, Sarah! Full disclosure, PMS gets me down from time to time. I always seem to notice I have more energy and am less emotional in the few days before my cycle if I’m getting regular exercise. Turns out, it may not just all be in my head. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists touts aerobic exercise as a way to relieve PMS symptoms and it may even help relieve pain from period cramps. Whether you hop on a bike, go for a swim, or take a jog–get your heart pumping for at least 30 minutes most days. Although no judgment if you spend the first few days of your cycle getting reacquainted with your couch.