For many women of reproductive age, the menstrual cycle includes at least a few days of uncomfortable symptoms -- including menstrual cramps. In fact, dysmenorrhea or painful menstruation is severe enough to interfere with work or other daily activities in up to 20 percent of women, according to an article published in the February 2012 issue of “American Family Physician.” While cramps have physical causes, limiting or avoiding caffeine is a common recommendation to help thwart this pain. However, surprisingly little evidence supports this recommendation.
Menstrual bleeding is a sign the uterus is shedding its lining, something that occurs monthly for many women of reproductive age. The contractions that help this process are responsible for the pain of menstrual cramps. Hormones called prostaglandins trigger the contractions and the resulting discomfort. Sometimes menstrual pain and cramps are caused by other conditions, such as infections, cysts or endometriosis -- an inflammation of the uterine lining. While pain relievers can be effective at preventing or managing the pain from menstrual cramps, lifestyle influences such as caffeine intake are an ongoing subject of research.
Caffeine and Menstrual Cramps
Caffeine has been suspected of contributing to menstrual pain and cramping because it can act as a vasoconstrictor -- mildly constricting blood flow which can lead to pain. But this effect is temporary and not common in habitual caffeine consumers. In addition, caffeine primarily acts as a vasodilator, which means it improves blood flow. While caffeine avoidance is a common recommendation to curtail menstrual discomfort, little research supports this restriction. A study published in the July-August 2007 issue of “Journal of Women’s Health” linked caffeine to premenstrual anxiety and mood changes, but not to menstrual cramps. Of interest, some over-the-counter medications for premenstrual syndrome and multi-symptom menstrual relief contain caffeine to enhance the action of the primary ingredient.
Caffeine and Other Menstrual Symptoms
Coffee, tea, chocolate and certain soft drinks and energy drinks contain caffeine, and this substance has long been presumed to worsen certain symptoms of menstruation. Specifically, caffeine has been thought to worsen premenstrual symptoms of anxiety, insomnia or irritability, according to a review in the March 2016 issue of “Today’s Dietitian.” However, a study published in the July 2016 issue of “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” reviewed caffeine and coffee intake in over 3600 women, and found no link between these dietary components and symptoms of breast pain, irritability and fatigue, even in women drinking 4 or more cups of coffee daily.
While caffeine may not contribute to menstrual cramps in most women, some people are sensitive to the effects of caffeine and may need to avoid caffeinated beverages. In addition, excess caffeine can cause symptoms such as sleep disruptions, headaches, anxiety and palpitations -- strong or rapid heartbeats. If you need advice on ways to prevent or manage menstrual cramps, see your doctor. Menstrual cramps are sometimes a symptom of a more serious medical problem, so also see your doctor if the pain is severe or if the discomfort interferes with your ability to participate in your daily activities.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD
- American Family Physician: Dysmenorrhea
- Office on Women's Health: US Department of Health and Human Services: Menstruation and the Menstrual Cycle Fact Sheet
- Today's Dietitian: Nutrition's Role in Premenstrual Syndrome — Learn About This Disorder and the Role Genetics, Environment, and Diet May Play in Its Onset
- Journal of Women's Health: Diet and Lifestyle Factors Associated with Premenstrual Symptoms in a Racially Diverse Community Sample: Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN)
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: A Prospective Study of Caffeine and Coffee Intake and Premenstrual Syndrome