Can what you eat affect menstrual cramps? A new analysis of studies related to menstrual pain (also called dysmenorrhea) suggests that diet may be a key contributor. The research shows that while diets high in inflammatory foods such as meat, oil, sugar, salt, and coffee can make the pain worse, eating vegan has been shown to tame the pain by reducing the inflammation that contributes to it. The results of the research were recently presented at the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) annual meeting in Atlanta, GA.
This research was designed to study the effect of diet on menstrual pain and identify which foods contribute to it and which can reduce it. Research was conducted through a literature review that found approximately 20 studies that examined dietary patterns that resulted in menstrual pain. They were comprised of questionnaires, randomized trials, and nested control studies.
In general terms, these studies found that diets high in omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids reduce it. Additionally, other inflammatory foods such as meat, sugar, salt, and coffee worsen cramps by increasing the prostaglandins, which constrict blood vessels in the walls of the uterus, causing cramping.
The research also shows that some foods have the opposite effect. Notably, it was found that those on a vegan diet had the lowest rates of inflammation, and eating a plant-based diet can reduce cramps long term.
The research cites a study published in scientific journal Nutrition Research, where participants were randomized to follow several different diets, from vegan to omnivore. Those on the vegan, vegetarian, or pesco-vegetarian (a vegetarian diet that includes fish) diets all had significant reductions in bodily inflammation compared to omnivore diets that include meat, although menstrual cramps were not measured directly.
Vegan diet reduces period pain
Lead researcher Serah Sannoh of Rutgers University says she undertook this research in part because she wanted to find natural remedies for her own period pain. During her senior year in high school and into college, Sannoh experienced unbearable cramps during her period.
“Researching the effects of diet on menstrual pain started as a search to remedy the pain I personally experienced; I wanted to understand the science behind the association,” Sannoh, lead author of the research from Rutgers University, said in a statement.
“Learning about different foods that increase and decrease inflammation, which subsequently increase or reduce menstrual pain, revealed that diet is one of the many contributors to health outcomes that is often overlooked,” Sannoh said.
According to NAMS, approximately 90 percent of adolescent girls experience menstrual pain and cramping. In some cases, the pain can be so severe that it interferes with daily life. “Since menstrual pain is a leading cause of school absenteeism for adolescent girls, it’s important to explore options that can minimize the pain,” Stephanie Faubion, MD, NAMS medical director, said in a statement. “Something like diet modification could be a relatively simple solution that could provide substantial relief for them.”
Sannoh hopes the research results will inspire women of all ages to make dietary changes to improve their life, especially during their menstrual cycle. “I am hopeful that this research can help those who menstruate reduce the pain they experience and shed light on the importance of holistic treatment options,” she said.
Which vegan foods reduce inflammation?
In addition to the potential to reduce monthly menstrual cramps, tuning into the foods that reduce inflammation can move you closer to optimal health. These foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Further research has shown that both a vegetarian and plant-based eating pattern work to decrease inflammation in the body, likely because of the high number of antioxidants found in plant foods.
Another study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology and led by Neal Barnard, MD, found that a low-fat, vegan diet significantly reduced pain and PMS for many women. The study included 33 women who followed either a low-fat vegan diet or their regular diet and then switched treatments. The diet change was designed to do two things: it eliminated all animal fats and nearly all vegetable oils, and its emphasis on plant-based foods increased the fiber in the diet.
While study participants followed the low-fat vegan diet, the intensity of their pain was significantly lower than during their regular diet. They also noticed less water retention and fewer mood swings.