What to eat when you've got your period

For millions of women around the world, ‘that time of the month’ can signal physical and emotional mayhem as they experience the pain and discomfort commonly associated with a menstrual disorder.

From fatigue to headaches and migraines, PMS to painful cramps and bloating, the impact of menstruation on your body can be extremely disturbing.

But are these health concerns signs of what is going on in the body as we go through our regular cycle of fertility, or are they symptoms of a nutritional deficiency that we may be able to curb with food or supplements?

 

Every woman is different
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Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Milly Smith, tells SBS that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Every woman is different so everyone’s individual state of health will vary at the time of their period or just before.

“One person might get an increase in appetite, mood swings and headaches during or before menstruation,” says Smith. “Another person might get reoccurring symptoms diagnosed as PMS.”

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It's believed that most of these symptoms are associated with the hormonal fluctuations of the menstrual cycle, along with various genetic factors.

Good nutrition can play a strong part in relieving these symptoms. Overall, a healthy balanced diet is recommended. More specifically, there are a few key foods females should be eating on a regular basis to ensure that they are feeling as healthy as they possibly can during their cycle.

Iron
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Smith says the main nutrient women need and lose during menstruation is iron. This is especially true for women with heavy flows who lose a lot of blood during menstruation, depleting the body’s iron stores. Studies suggest that iron deficiency is associated with a decreased general health and well-being and increased fatigue.

“Women need around 18 milligrams of iron per day, on average, compared to men who only require eight milligrams of iron a day,” says Smith. 

“Yet women don’t have enough iron – around two out of every five women aren’t getting enough iron in their diet. I just don’t think that a lot of people know that women need to have so much.”

“Women need around 18 milligrams of iron per day, on average, compared to men who only require eight milligrams of iron a day."

She explains that one 100 grams serve of beef contains around 3.1 milligrams of iron. “So if we need 18 milligrams of iron a day, one serve of beef in the day is not going to be adequate.” This is why we need to eat a wide variety of iron-rich foods to ensure we have enough non-red meat based iron each day.

There are two food sources of iron: heme iron, found in animal products like meat and dairy, and non-heme iron which is found in plant-based sources like seeds and leafy green vegetables.

“If we aren’t consuming enough iron, we will put ourselves at risk of anaemia. And the fatigue we feel as a result could exacerbate those symptoms we get during menstruation."

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Vitamin C
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Smith says our body absorbs heme iron much easier than it does non-heme iron. However, you can help your body to absorb non-heme iron more efficiently if you have vitamin C with iron-rich foods.

“Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron so that when we consume vitamin C in conjunction with an iron-rich food, it improves our absorption in our body.”

Women can take a regular vitamin C supplement or include green vegetables and citrus fruits rich in vitamin C into their diet.

Calcium
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Smith suggests that calcium can lesson the symptoms of menstruation. “It’s due to the relationship between calcium and the female hormone, oestrogen.”

Low oestrogen levels may negatively impact calcium absorption while Smith says the link may also work the other way around as well – where low calcium levels can impact the amount of oestrogen available in the body.

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Calcium may also have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help relieve many symptoms like headaches, cramps bloating and more.

Foods rich in calcium include dairy foods like cheese, cow’s milk and yoghurt, leafy green vegetables, almonds, sardines, canned salmon, seeds, beans and lentils.

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Omega-3
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A study, published in 2013, tested the power of omega-3 fatty acids on women with PMS. The results showed that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the psychiatric symptoms of PMS including depression, nervousness, anxiety, and lack of concentration. It might also be able to reduce other symptoms of PMS like bloating, headache and breast tenderness. The study also noted that the positive effects of taking omega-3 on PMS increased the longer the women took the treatment.

Smith reasons that omega-3 may also help to reduce the symptoms associated with PMS due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Omega-3 is available as a supplement and naturally occurs in oily fish, nuts and seeds.

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Vitamin B6
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Vitamin B6 is also said to help with the symptoms of PMS. A study published in the BMJ looked at the impact of the vitamin in women with PMS in a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials.

The results showed that vitamin B6 relieves overall premenstrual and depressive symptoms. However, the jury is still out because “most of the studies fail to meet some methodologic criteria”.

Vitamin B6 is found naturally in protein-rich foods including seafood, lean meats, eggs legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products.

Magnesium
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Magnesium levels may fluctuate during your cycle due to varying levels of oestrogen or progesterone. When magnesium declines as the two hormones increase, symptoms you may notice include PMS, cramps, depression, headaches or migraines.

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“There is some evidence that magnesium helps to relieve muscle cramps,” she says. “But in saying that, it depends on the symptoms you are getting.”

Research published in 2010 also shows that magnesium, when taken with vitamin B6, can reduce the severity of PMS.

Foods that are rich in magnesium include beans and pumpkin seeds, bananas, wholegrains and green leafy vegetables.

Low GI diet for women with PCOS
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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that can negatively impact menstruation and fertility. Most women with PCOS will experience different (and often severe) symptoms around their periods like weight gain, high blood pressure or poor blood glucose control.

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Studies show that even a five-to-10 per cent loss of initial body weight (or a total weight loss of five to 10 kilos) can reduce insulin resistance that is associated with PCOS by 50 per cent.

Smith advises women with PCOS to lose weight if they can by following a low-GI diet. “Maintaining a healthy weight by trying to consume a low-GI diet will be beneficial for stabilising blood sugar levels and insulin.”

Always consult a doctor if a medical condition persists and to find out the best way to lose weight for you. 

Low FODMAP diet for women with IBS and endometriosis
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A diet low in certain sugars and carbohydrates can help relieve symptoms for women suffering from both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and endometriosis, according to research from New Zealand.

One of the symptoms of endometriosis is experiencing very painful periods and bowel symptoms of IBS may be exacerbated by menstruation.

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The 2017 study looked at the common occurrence of endometriosis in women with IBS. Using data from a specialised clinic in Christchurch, it found that over 70 per cent of the women observed had improved symptoms after a month on the low FODMAP diet.

Balance your diet
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There are quite a few other natural remedies touted for treating the symptoms of menstruation. For example, evening primrose oil is typically associated with easing the symptoms of PMS, while St John’s wort is considered to be a natural treatment for depression.  

However, Smith remains sceptical of both supplements for this specific purpose. She says as there’s not enough conclusive evidence available to state a cause and effect relationship on our bodies in relation to menstruation. 

“But I don’t think we have to over-complicate things," she says.

"Just eat a balanced diet with a good variety of the core food groups. That’s the best thing you can do to ensure you reduce your risk of chronic disease and stay healthy, and potentially lower the symptoms of menstruation as well.”

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