Fact-Checked By : Dr. Tara Scott, OB-GYN
Have you ever heard the saying “You are what you eat?” While we can’t take this phrase literally, there is some truth to it. Years of research, countless “I tried this” experiments, and elimination diets prove that our eating habits have the potential to alleviate or trigger pain related to chronic illness. So why wouldn’t we use this same way of thinking when it comes to our menstrual cycle?
While more research still needs to be done, there’s no doubt that what we eat can affect the severity of our period cramps. If you experience abdominal bloating, cramps, headaches, fatigue, or mood swings during your period, adding or removing certain foods from your diet may help.
Best Foods to Eat While You’re On Your Period
Eating healthily can do wonders for your mental, emotional, and physical health. (Food truly is medicine.) Here’s a list of foods to eat when you’re on your period.
OK, so you can’t exactly “eat” water, but you should definitely stay hydrated whenever you’re on (or off) your period. Not only is dehydration dangerous, but it can also cause a variety of issues, from fatigue to brain impairment.
“Stay hydrated,” says Anna Cabeca, DO, FACOG, an author and triple board-certified doctor in Brunswick GA. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more water you drink, the better you stave off water retention.”
According to The Cleveland Clinic, the average woman should drink at least 64 ounces of water per day to promote digestion and reduce bloating, among other things. Drinking water could also reduce your chances of getting a dehydration headache — a common symptom of menstruation.
“Your kidneys need a constant supply of water to properly eliminate fluids and waste products from your body,” Cabeca adds. “If water is in short supply, the kidneys tend to hoard water, and bloat can set in.”
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The term “Omega-3” isn’t just a trendy buzzword. Omega-3 fatty acids provide a variety of health benefits for your brain and body, especially when menstruating. Why? Because Omega-3s, such as fish oil, help reduce inflammation.
“Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild salmon and walnuts, help to lower inflammation and improve feelings of depression and anxiety that are often tied with premenstrual syndrome (PMS),” says Jasmine Talei, ND, of Beverly Hills Natural Medicine.
Foods that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Fish (Mackerel, Salmon, Herring, Tuna, Sardines, Anchovies)
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
“Being aware of the specific foods our body creates an inflammatory response to is key as our bodies can create antibodies against them,” Talei continues.“Antibodies are part of our immune response to foreign proteins that don’t belong in our bodies. As a result, inflammation occurs to help get rid of this foreign invader. When this inflammatory response occurs, not only is our immune system affected, but we also see a variety of effects on our hormones, skin health, mood, and pain perception.”
Talei also recommends adding ginger, fennel, and freshly ground flax seeds to your list of period-friendly foods.
“Eating freshly ground flax seeds throughout the month can help to support hormones, limit the buildup of excess estrogen, and regulate the menstrual cycle,” says Talei.
During your period, your body may experience a dip in its iron levels, especially if you have a heavy flow. Low iron levels can lead to pain, fatigue, and dizziness. Eating iron-rich foods, however, may help to combat these symptoms.
According to a 2018 study conducted on 258 female students from the Ciudad Real Faculty of Nursing, following a diet that was loaded with fruits and veggies led to fewer menstrual cramps. (Eating this way, did not, however, improve symptoms in individuals with endometriosis.)
Leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, swiss chard, and collard and beet greens, for example, are high in iron. If you’re just not into veggies, you’ll need to get creative. You can easily include kale or spinach into a salad or smoothie.
While it may sound too good to be true, dark chocolate is a totally OK food to eat while on your period. This is because it’s filled with antioxidants and magnesium, which helps to regulate mood swings and your serotonin levels (AKA the “happy hormone”).
“Dark chocolate can be your best friend during your period,” says Colette Widrin, DAOM, and founder of Balance Blends. “Packed with plenty of magnesium and antioxidants, it can help lighten your mood. Also, dig into some watermelon and cucumbers to help keep your body hydrated.”
Foods to Avoid When You’re On Your Period
It may be tempting to load up on junk food during your period, but eating chips, fried chicken, and sugary cereal isn’t doing you any favors. Here’s a list of what not to eat on your period.
This probably goes without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway: Processed foods are a definite NO while on your period. Sure, a bag of potato chips may seem like a great idea while cruising the snack section at the grocery store, but you’ll most likely regret it later.
This is because processed foods contain sodium and a lot of it. Sodium causes water retention, which leads to bloating. Avoiding highly processed foods and refraining from adding salt to your food will keep your bloating at bay.
“Stay away from refined carbs,” says Cabeca. “Eating sugary and processed carbs such as candy, sweets, white flour, bread, chips, cakes, and so forth leads to spikes in insulin levels. High insulin levels cause your body to hold on to more sodium — which in turn increases the fluid volume inside your body.”
Coffee & Alcohol
Coffee and alcohol kind of go hand-in-hand when it comes to your period, as both beverages can cause bloating, dehydration, and in some cases, digestive issues such as diarrhea and nausea.
“While it may seem like adding insult to injury, that morning cup of coffee isn't doing you any favors, either,” says Widrin. “You see, coffee can cause your blood vessels to narrow which, in turn, worsen your cramps.”
A gnarly hangover can also bring on similar symptoms you may experience during your period, like:
If you’re a meat-eater, you may want to tweak your diet during your period. This is because red meat produces prostaglandins — a hormone-like substance that causes the uterine muscle to contract.
According to the Mayo Clinic, high levels of prostaglandins could cause severe menstrual cramps (also known as dysmenorrhea). Other reasons for severe menstrual cramps include:
- Uterine Fibroids
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
- Cervical Stenosis
So if you find yourself craving a burger, consider trying a veggie or fish patty instead.