By Anna Herby
Most women are familiar with that dull, tight feeling in their lower abdomen, and they come to dread that time of the month. Menstrual cramps are an ailment that 90 percent of women report suffering from (1). Some are even incapacitated for at least a day every time they have a period.
Common treatments for menstrual pain include anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen, synthetic hormones such as birth control or surgeries such as hysterectomy. But what if there’s a safer way, without risking the side effects of drugs or surgery?
Research shows that what you eat can have an effect on menstrual pain. Since cramps are generally due to inflammation of the uterus, an anti-inflammatory diet was put to the test. In an article published by the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, thirty-two women were put on a vegan diet for two of their menstrual cycles. During that time, the women reported significant decrease in menstrual pain – both in duration and intensity – meaning menstrual cramps did not last as long and did not hurt as badly. Other symptoms such as PMS bloating were also reported to be improved.
As this was a cross-over type study, the women were asked to return to their normal diet when the vegan trial period was over. Several of the women experienced such relief through the vegan diet that they refused to return to their normal diet, even though the contract of the study required it. Not only was this treatment free of negative side effects, but it provided other health-promoting side effects. These included weight loss, improved digestion, improved sleep and increased energy levels (2).
Researchers suggest the vegan diet relieved menstrual symptoms due to the dietary effects of the food on estrogen levels. This way of eating involves lots of legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, all of which contain high amounts of fiber. Fiber helps to carry excess toxins, such as estrogen, out of the body on a regular basis. Secondly, a plant-based diet excludes foods such as milk and dairy products. These foods serve as exogenous (outside-the-body) sources of estrogen, which increase estrogen already circulating in the blood stream. By eliminating these foods, the body is able to keep hormone levels at a healthy balance.
In addition to this anti-inflammatory diet, certain foods/herbs have been shown to work medicinally to decrease menstrual pain. Fennel seeds are traditionally used by women in the Mediterranean to reduce menstrual cramping (3). When put to the test, a trial that included fennel extract worked just as well as a common prescription drug (4). Researchers speculate fennel causes muscle relaxation. However, due to the muscle relaxing in the uterus, fennel also increased menstrual bleeding (5).
One treatment that both relieved pain and decreased menstrual bleeding was ginger. Participants who took 1/8th of a teaspoon of ginger three times daily reported improvement in menstrual symptoms (6). This also worked for premenstrual symptoms, improving PMS mood, physical and behavioral symptoms on a regimen of 1/8th teaspoon of ginger twice daily for the week before the period (7).
Through simple dietary changes and herbal supplementation, many of the most painful side effects of menstruation can be lessened. To reap the benefits of a plant-based diet, simply increase the amount of beans, grains, fruits and vegetables on your plate. Check out some great recipes here and here try adding extra ginger or fennel to your favorite dish!
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Anna is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist living and working in Seattle, Washington. She has been a vegetarian since the age of 12 and was drawn to study nutrition from of this early interest in an alternate way of eating. She’s received a Master of Science in Nutrition through Bastyr University and completed a Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. Anna has also worked with John McDougall’s 10-day program and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. When she’s not working as a Dietitian, she enjoys hiking through the mountains of the west coast, having completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014 and planning to tackle the Continental Divide Trail within the next few years. Click here to schedule an online nutrition consultation with Anna, or click here to read her nutrition and hiking blog.
The health section on SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com is sponsored by Sky Island Organics. You can visit their natural foods store at 54423 Village Center Drive, Idyllwild. To read about recipes and other health information, visit their blog at http://skyislandorganics.com/
References for this article:
1. D J Jamieson, J F Steege. The prevalence of dysmenorrhea, dyspareunia, pelvic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome in primary care practices. Obstet Gynecol. 1996 Jan;87(1):55-8.
2. N. D. Barnard, A. R. Scialli, D. Hurlock, P. Bertron. Diet and sex-hormone binding globulin, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual symptoms. Obstet Gynecol 2000 95(2):245 – 250
3. S Omidvar, S Esmailzadeh, M Baradaran, Z Basirat. Effect of fennel on pain intensity in dysmenorrhoea: A placebo-controlled trial. Ayu. 2012 Apr;33(2):311-3.
4. V Modaress Nejad, M Asadipour. Comparison of the effectiveness of fennel and mefenamic acid on pain intensity in dysmenorrhoea. East Mediterr Health J. 2006 May-Jul;12(3-4):423-7.
5. K Nahidi, N Seyed Nasser Ostad, M Mahmoud, S Malihe. Clinical Effects of Fennel Essential oil on Primary Dysmenorrhea. Publish in jourlib Journal ISSN: 2333-9721.
6. F Kashefi, M Khajehei, M Alavinia, E Golmakani, J Asili. Effect of ginger (Zingiber officinale) on heavy menstrual bleeding: a placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. Phytother Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):114-9.
7. S Khayat, M Kheirkhah, Z Behboodi Moghadam, H Fanaei, A Kasaeian, M Javadimehr. Effect of treatment with ginger on the severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms. ISRN Obstet Gynecol. 2014 May 4;2014:792708.