What to Eat on Your Period Foods to Focus On vs Avoid vs Helpful Herbs
Edited by Jasmin, Eng, Maria Quinney
Cramps, bloating, fatigue, breast tenderness, headaches, diarrhea, constipation, back pain, mood swings, and a general irritability; if you're a person with a menstrual cycle you knew immediately what this list of symptoms was referring to. Ah, our periods. What a fun 5-7 days that is every month. We have to deal with all of the above (and perhaps more) while still attending to all of life's responsibilities. It can be the actual worst but unfortunately, it's just a fact of life. The best we can do is learn to understand what's happening in our bodies and try to manage it as best we can.
Without diving too deep into reproductive biology, here are a few reasons why we experience these unfavorable symptoms. A lot of it has to do with monthly hormonal changes, which affect our neurotransmitters (the chemicals that send messages between nerve cells.) In particular, we see a decrease in serotonin, a chemical high in antidepressant qualities. This leads to mood swings and cravings for the sweetest of carbohydrates. Another major hormonal shift that occurs is with the imbalanced levels of estrogen and progesterone. Progesterone has a diuretic quality, so when its levels are diminished the body experiences water retention and a swelling of the breasts. There's also the release of prostaglandins (chemicals formed from fat stores) that cause inflammation and lead to cramps and headaches.
And that's really only scratching the surface, but understanding those common issues can help you to apply the dietary suggestions below. Even though you may feel like eating the saltiest, sweetest, or most nutrient deficient foods in sight (because let's face it, they taste even better during that time of the month) following the recommendations below can make for a much happier period.
Method 1: Foods to Focus On
- 1Green vegetables, in general, are pretty essential to overall health but their high levels of iron are what make them a great choice during your period. Since blood is full of iron we tend to lose quite a bit of the body's stores during this part of our cycle. A lack of iron can cause fatigue, headaches, and anxiety so be sure to fill up on greens in order to replace what's lost. Leafy greens are versatile; add them to smoothies, salads, soups, and Stir Fry's. Try to combine the greens with other foods high in vitamin C as it helps to improve the absorption rates of iron; a fruit smoothie with greens is a perfect example.Leafy Greens.
- 2These foods all contain varying levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are highly anti-inflammatory. This means they can reduce the inflammation from the prostaglandins that are partly to blame for cramping and headaches. A balance of healthy fat will also be beneficial to those who suffer from cravings for sweet and sugary foods. Typically these cravings come from an imbalance of fat and protein in the diet but are further heightened just before and during menstruation because of hormonal shifts. Walnuts, in particular, make for a very balanced snack that can help curb those cravings. You may also want to consider a year-round DHA supplement.Walnuts, flaxseed, and avocados.
- 3Yes, you can have chocolate but remember the key word here is dark. It's important you look for something that has at least 70% cacao if not higher and avoid products with milk and added sugar. Pure, raw cacao nibs would be even better as they'll have the highest levels of magnesium, which is what's vital here. Magnesium is a muscle relaxant that can help ease the tension from cramping and bloating. Dark chocolate is always a much healthier way to feed those pesky cravings; just try not to overdo it.Dark chocolate.
- 4This suggestion may seem either redundant or confusing. Redundant because you know how important water is at any time during your cycle, or confusing because you're experiencing water retention and don't wish to exacerbate the issue. However, water retention is occurring because your body is worried it's not getting enough fluids, so it's hanging on to everything it can. The more water you drink, the more fluids your body will be able to eliminate. Herbal teas are also a great way to stay hydrated and below you'll find suggestions for specific herbs that can help with water retention.Water.
- 5Vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils. Complex carbs are much higher in fiber, which slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream, curbing cravings and keeping you energized. They also promote the release of serotonin. Black beans and quinoa also contain high amounts of magnesium so they work to reduce symptoms in two ways.Complex carbohydrates.
- 6Seems like a strange combination but these three foods all have good levels of vitamin B6, which help the body manufacture neurotransmitters. As mentioned above serotonin is important for mood stabilization, but it also helps to manage your perception of pain and can reduce migraines. Always opt for raw sunflower seeds, as roasting them causes their fat to become rancid and inflammation causing.Sunflower seeds, bananas, and chickpeas.
- 7With all the bloating, cramping, and fatigue, your appetite is likely much smaller than usual. Listen to your body and eat smaller meals throughout the day instead of the typical 3. This will diminish the strain on your digestive system and help reduce bloating. It's also a great way to keep energy levels up because as long as you're focusing on the right foods you'll be regulating your blood sugar levels all throughout the day.Smaller meals.
- 8Speak with your nutritionist or other health care professional about certain supplements that might be right for your individual needs.As always, everyone's body is different and you may need a higher dosage of one or more of these nutrients to truly find relief during your period.
Method 2: Foods to Avoid
- 1These foods contain the unhealthy fats that cause inflammation. Be especially wary of trans fats and hydrogenated oils.Fried foods and added oils.
- 2This includes coffee, tea (herbal is OK,) energy drinks, and soft drinks. The caffeine will exacerbate an already irritable stomach and the carbonation will contribute to bloating. Most of these drinks also tend to be sugary, which can lead to inflammation but also cause further cravings because of the way it spikes your blood sugar levels.Caffeinated drinks.
- 3These foods promote hormonal imbalance. They typically increase estrogen, which in turn leaves progesterone far too low.Red meat and dairy.
- 4While eating foods that contain a ton of preservatives and all around shady ingredients is typically never great for digestion, it's an even worse idea during your period. Our bodies are super sensitive and basically working overtime, so putting any extra stressors on it is not helpful.Processed and packaged goods.
- 5Our bodies are constantly trying to maintain a proper balance between sodium and water in the fluid between cells. When we consume too much salt it forces the body to retain water in order to keep the ratio in check. So, eating too many salty foods is only going to lead to water retention and bloating.Excess salt.
- 6Cookies, cakes, candies, and anything with refined sugars will temporarily lift your mood but they also come with the eventual crash. These simple sugars break down very rapidly in the bloodstream, causing hormones to work quicker than what's ideal in order to get the spike in sugar levels back to balance. Since our hormones are already out of whack, sugar is only putting exacerbating the issue. Plus, these spikes in blood sugar might feel good at the moment but they're only making mood swings worse. This one can be particularly hard to remember when you're feeling especially down but stay strong; don't forget about your best friend dark chocolate!Excess sugar.
Method 3: Helpful Herbs
You can find the following herb suggestions in either tincture form (a concentrated liquid that can be added to water or juice) or in loose-leaf form to make teas and body compresses.
- 1These herbs are known as antispasmodics and can be used to help alleviate menstrual cramping. Wild yam is also a source of natural progesterone so it can also help to balance hormones.Cramp bark, red raspberry, and wild yam.
Knowing when to have these foods and herbs available is almost as important as incorporating them into your diet. If you can plan ahead and ensure your fridge is stocked with healthy choices before your period arrives, you'll have a better chance at avoiding cravings and making poor decisions out of convenience (or depressed emotions.) Check out this VisiHow article for a list of iPhone and Android apps that make tracking your period easy.