Can Certain Foods Help Menstrual Cramps?

A piece of grilled salmon on a plate.
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Menstrual pain affects most women to some extent. If you're part of the up to 15 percent of women who experience severe pain, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, it interferes with work or other activities for one or more days per month. The pain derives from chemicals called prostaglandins, which promote inflammation and play a role in blood vessel constriction and muscle contraction. They break down during menstruation, constricting blood vessels in the uterus and causing painful muscle contractions known as cramps. As part of a healthy diet, certain foods may help manage your symptoms. You should still see a doctor about severe cramps, however.

Fatty Fish and Flaxseeds for Omega-3s

Fish and flaxseeds are prime sources of essential anti-inflammatory fats called omega-3 fatty acids. In a study published in the "International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics" in April 2012, young women prone to menstrual cramps consumed an omega-3 fat capsule or a placebo for three months. Researchers found that the women who consumed the omega-3s experienced significantly less intense pain than the placebo group. For potentially similar benefits, incorporate fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and lake trout, or ground flaxseeds, into your diet routinely. For added inflammation-reducing perks, swap out protein sources high in saturated fat, such as fatty steaks and cheeseburgers, in your diet for grilled or baked fish. Ground flaxseeds make healthy additions to smoothies, yogurt and baked goods.


Soy Milk for Isoflavones and Calcium

Some women find that drinking soy milk helps reduce menstrual pain, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. It contains natural plant chemicals called isoflavones, which can act like estrogen in the body. Fortified soy milk also provides about 300 milligrams of calcium, which fulfills one-third of the daily value for calcium and reflects the amount in fortified cow's milk. Calcium-rich foods may also help minimize menstrual cramp symptoms. As a lean protein source, soy milk and other soy products, such as tofu and soy-based yogurt, provide noninflammatory alternatives to fatty meats.


Legumes for Protein and Fiber

Legumes, such as beans and lentils, provide rich amounts of fiber and protein, minus the saturated fat prevalent in animal-derived protein sources. Relying on plants for protein limits your saturated fat intake to reduce inflammation. A high-fiber diet that limits animal fats can significantly improve your estrogen levels, reports the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, leading to reduced menstrual pain. One cup of cooked lentils provides over 10 grams of fiber and 19 grams of protein. One-half cup of cooked kidney beans supplies about 8 grams of fiber and 3.5 grams of protein. Women usually require about 46 grams of protein per day, as well as 25 to 35 grams of fiber. If you're currently eating a low-fiber diet, gradually increase your intake to avoid digestive upset as your body adjusts.


Fruits and Vegetables for Antioxidants

Eating more antioxidant-rich foods and less processed fare is also important to manage menstrual cramps, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. While antioxidants work against inflammation, processed foods, such as sugary sweets, promote it. Colorful fruits and vegetables, such as berries, tomatoes, bell peppers and citrus fruits, are chock-full of antioxidants and provide naturally sweet alternatives to conventional desserts. Many fruits and vegetables, including asparagus, brussels sprouts, apricots and raspberries, are also fiber-rich. When dessert cravings strike, have a baked pear or sliced strawberries drizzled with dark chocolate instead of chocolate cake. In place of sugary ice cream, have with a bowl of fresh fruit topped with yogurt.