Gaby Vaca-Flores, RDN, CLE, investigates what causes menstrual cramps and how common they are. Plus: how to experience natural relief with a list of what to eat for cramps.
Cramps are an unwelcome monthly experience for many of us. An estimated 80 percent of women experience dysmenorrhea, a fancy name for period cramps. Of those women experiencing cramps, half felt the need to seek medical care to alleviate the severity of their monthly pain.
With cramps among the most common PMS symptoms, it’s no wonder that we often reach for food as a form a comfort. But what if I told you that you could choose specific foods to relieve your cramps instead?
While it may feel like the only solution for cramps is taking OTC meds, there are certain foods that can help ease monthly pain.
Before discussing the best foods to reduce cramps, let’s start by understanding why we experience them in the first place.
What causes menstrual cramps?
Leading up to a period, the uterus sheds its lining of endometrial cells. These cells then release a group of lipids known as prostaglandins.
While we don’t like to point fingers, prostaglandins are pro-inflammatory. Simply put, they trigger the blood vessels in the uterus to constrict, which ultimately leads to cramps and other undesirable PMS symptoms. The number of prostaglandins produced has a direct correlation with the level of menstrual pain that women experience during their period.
Often overlooked however, is the important relationship between food and period-related pain and inflammation.
The 8 Best Foods for Cramps
Now that you know what causes cramps, let’s dive into dietary remedies! Here’s a look the best foods to reduce cramps, plus how exactly their benefits kick in.
This plant is a member of the carrot family and has been widely studied for its ability to ease cramps.
The literature suggests that fennel works to lessen prostaglandin-induced blood vessel constrictions. One study reports that women who consumed 30 milligrams of fennel extract four times daily experienced significantly less pain versus a placebo.
However, fennel can be a hit or miss with most people on account of its strong licorice flavor. Conversely, fennel fans enjoy its crisp texture in salads, pastas, and seafood dishes.
For those who dislike the taste of fennel, I recommend taking it in supplement form during the first three days of your period.
When it comes to treating cramps, ginger is surprisingly comparable to common OTC medications due to its anti-inflammatory compounds. A 2015 review suggests that there are over 25 studies supporting the claim that ginger is effective in reducing cramps when compared to placebos.
Incorporating ginger into your diet is fairly easy. I suggest drinking ginger tea, or using the root as a spice or zesty side dish.
The healthy fat in avocados contains magnesium and vitamin B6. This vitamin duo works to effectively relieve painful cramps. Bonus: The two also help relieve other PMS symptoms like bloating, cravings, and mood fluctuations.
Because avocados are calorie-dense, we recommend eating a third of a medium avocado per day or cooking with avocado oil.
4. potassium-Rich Fruits
According to a 2013 study, low potassium intake can correlate with the severity of PMS symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to aim for 2.3 grams of potassium daily. For most people, five servings of fruit per day should do the trick.
The best potassium-rich fruits that can provide cramp relief include:
Many of these fruits are also loaded with fiber, which help tackle both cramps and that occasional PMS constipation.
5. Dark Chocolate
Chocolate gets a bad rep as a period comfort food. But contrary to popular belief, the health community respects dark chocolate for its beneficial compounds like polyphenols and antioxidants.
We know that cramps occur when blood vessels constrict. Yet one study suggests that dark chocolate’s polyphenols may help dilate blood vessels. Subsequently, some believe that polyphenols may help lessen the occurrence of cramps. (Note: More research is needed to solidify this claim.)
Dark chocolate also contains magnesium, which as we learned above with avocado, can help ease pain from cramps.
To make it count as one of the best foods for cramps, opt for dark chocolate of at least 85 percent cacao content. Otherwise, high amounts of sugar can worsen cramps.
This herb is widely used to both flavor foods and serve as a medicinal aid. Dill can potentially help ease digestive issues, colds, and even sleep imbalances.
Regarding menstrual cramps, scientists suggest that dill can treat cramps just as effectively as mefenamic acid, a common NSAID drug for dysmenorrhea.
Further, dill is also a great plant-based source of calcium, an important mineral for stabilizing PMS-related mood swings.
I recommend adding dill to soups, vegetables sautés, and of course, pickles.
Cold-water fish, like salmon, are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Researchers believe that omegas help relieve pain by tackling inflammation.
Salmon is particularly recommended above other fish since it also boasts an impressive nutrient profile. It’s rich in vitamin D, a nutrient necessary for calcium absorption, which as we learned earlier is great for PMS mood regulation.
Salmon also contains vitamin B6, which we know is a cramp-fighting staple.
Last but not least, don’t underestimate the power of hydration! It’s always important to drink water. But when it comes to PMS, H2O can help ease factors that contribute to cramps, gas, and bloating.
For optimal hydration, I suggest drinking half your body weight in ounces, especially during your period.
On the flip side, avoid beverages like high-sodium drinks, caffeine, and alcohol, which can all cause dehydration.