Foods that minimize menstrual cramps?

Dear Alice,

What kinds of foods are good to eat during the menstrual cycle? For example, are there any kinds of foods that can reduce cramps?

— Curious

Dear Curious,  

Menstrual cramps can be a real pain! They’re considered the most common gynecological condition all over the world, regardless of age or nationality. In fact, for up to 15 percent of people who menstruate, cramps can interfere with work or other activities for at least one day per month. Fortunately, there are many dietary adjustments that can potentially prevent and treat cramping, but they may take weeks or months to have measurable effects. However, because these changes can contribute to other aspects of your health, they may be a supplement to help manage the pain. In any case, it’s a good idea to talk with your health care provider before making any big decisions about how to reduce cramps.  

To begin, it might be helpful to understand what goes on in the body during menstruation, also known as a period. A period designates the start of a new menstrual cycle and is the result of the body shedding the uterine lining if fertilization doesn’t occur. In order to achieve this shedding, the body releases prostaglandins, which are hormone-like compounds that cause smooth muscle contractions. While this causes the lining to shed, this can also result in pain, cramping, swelling, and stiffness that are often characteristic of periods. If you want to dive deeper into menstruation and cramping, you can check out Phases of the menstrual cycle and What causes menstrual cramps? in the Go Ask Alice! Sexual & Reproductive Health archives.  

Because cramps are so dependent on internal body processes, there are a few general guidelines that may be beneficial. First, caffeine and alcohol have been found to exacerbate menstrual cramp pain. Cutting out coffee, caffeinated tea, other caffeinated beverages and alcohol immediately before and during menstruation and opting for herbal teas and water instead may be helpful. Excess salt can lead to bloating and water retention, which can worsen menstrual pain. To alleviate these symptoms, you might also find it helpful to steer clear of excessive salt intake (trying to stay under 2000 milligrams of salt per day) and focus on drinking plenty of water during your period. Physical activity can also relieve stress and tension throughout the month, but it also promotes blood circulation and can reduce menstrual cramp pain during your cycle. Finally, focusing on foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds can help decrease inflammation in the body and reduce cramps. Eating low-fat, vegetarian, or primarily plant-based foods supplies your body with a rich supply of antioxidants, may reduce inflammation, and may diminish excessive levels of estrogen.  

Aside from a generally balanced diet, you may want to intentionally add in certain nutrients. The following may help you fight menstrual cramps, but they may also help you meet recommended dietary guidelines and promote your overall health.  

  • Calcium may help to relieve muscle tension, which triggers menstrual cramps. Dark, leafy greens (such as kale and broccoli), low-fat milk, and low-fat yogurts can be great sources of calcium.   
  • High fiber vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and other plant foods can reduce menstrual pain because they help to absorb and eliminate prostaglandins. Acting as a sponge, fiber soaks up these substances in the liver and carries them out with other waste. Good sources of fiber include brown rice, whole-grain bread, broccoli, spinach, carrots, kidney beans, peas, lentils, and assorted fruits.  
  • Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish (salmon, cod, and halibut), flaxseed, and walnuts help to reduce the production of prostaglandins.   
  • Vitamin E may inhibit prostaglandin synthesis, thereby preventing inflammation and cramping. Good sources of Vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, and peanut butter.  
  • Vitamin B6 helps to reduce pain and is found in high concentrations in bananas, lentils, chickpeas, oatmeal, lean beef, and chicken breast.  
  • Zinc has been shown to reduce premenstrual pain and bloating and is found in oysters, red meat, poultry, chickpeas, and nuts.  
  • Magnesium deficiency can worsen menstrual cramps. The severity and duration of menstrual cramps can be reduced by restoring magnesium to normal levels via the consumption of cashews, wheat germ, and pinto beans.  
  • Vitamin B3, also known as niacin, was cited in one study as responsible for cramp reduction in 90 percent of participants by reducing uterine artery spasms. Good sources of niacin include bran, tuna, paprika, and sundried tomatoes.  

Of course, everybody has different needs and tastes. For various people, some of the strategies listed provide more relief than others. Before deciding to try any supplements or a make any major dietary changes, it’s wise to talk with a health care provider or a registered dietitian to help prevent any adverse interactions with other medications (including oral contraceptives). A gynecological examination can also help to determine if the reason for cramps may be due to another medical condition.  

Here's to feeding the mind, feeding the body, and not letting menstrual cramps cramp anyone's style! 

Last updated Jun 04, 2021
Originally published May 10, 2002