Updated 8th August 2022

Can foods help you manage period pain?

All women experience their period differently, but painful cramping is very common. There isn’t a lot of good quality research to back up individual foods as cramp-relieving remedies, so we'll review what evidence there is so you can decide if you want to try these foods.

Let’s start with why cramps happen.

Between 80 and 90% of women report painful period cramps. They happen when your uterine muscles contract to shed tissue. 

This muscle contraction temporarily blocks the oxygen supply to your uterus, releasing chemicals that trigger pain. 

The release of prostaglandins also plays a role in the pain. These are hormones involved in inflammation, contraction strength, and blood flow during your period. 

Short-term inflammation is essential to your body’s healing process, but it can make your periods very uncomfortable. 

At ZOE, we know that eating the right foods is important for a healthy life. Since we are all unique, we know our nutrition should be, too. 

The ZOE program provides nutrition advice tailored to your specific body and long-term health goals. Take our free quiz to get started today.

Foods for managing period pain

In general, eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins may help alleviate cramping

When it comes to specific foods, the evidence is less clear. 

Many food claims reference studies using supplements, which don’t necessarily translate to actual food sources.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at some of the foods and drinks that researchers have suggested can help with period cramps, and we'll see what the research says.

1. Water

Hydration is vital for your overall health and may help you feel less period pain.

In one study with 140 women, half increased their water intake, while the other half didn’t. The women who drank more water used fewer pain killers and reported less severe cramps than the group that didn’t change their water intake.

If you're looking for ways to increase your fluid intake, try:

  • drinking a glass of water after you get up

  • flavoring water with fruit, herbs, or spices

And remember that water isn’t the only way to hydrate; coffee, tea, dairy or plant-based milks, soup, and juicy fruits like oranges all count toward your fluid intake. 

2. Herbs and spices

Research suggests that certain herbs and herbal teas may help with period-related discomfort. These include:

  • fennel: may relieve pain and decrease bleeding length

  • cinnamon: may lessen cramping and flow

  • sage: may relieve cramps

  • cumin: may relieve cramps

  • ginger: may relieve menstrual pain, nausea, and bloating

  • chamomile: may relieve cramps and improve mood

  • turmeric: may help with PMS symptoms

The evidence for these isn’t stellar because the studies were very small. But you could try these herbs and spices as teas, in food, or as extracts to see if they help with your period cramps.  

3. Oranges

Oranges are a tasty source of vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant. Some researchers believe that antioxidants may help alleviate menstrual cramps, but the evidence is mixed. 

In a recent literature review, some of the studies that the scientists assessed found a link between antioxidant supplements and period pain, but the evidence wasn’t very high quality. 

There are many types of antioxidants, however, and this research doesn’t address oranges specifically. 

Oranges do have a high water content though, so they are a good fruit for hydration. 

4. Strawberries

One cup of strawberries contains more than a day’s worth of vitamin C and about 3 grams of fiber. But can strawberries help with period cramps?

One study involving over 300 women reported that women who ate strawberries daily experienced fewer period cramps than those who did not eat them daily. However, the researchers added that this finding was not statistically significant. 

The jury on strawberries and period cramps is therefore still out. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying them as part of a healthy, varied diet. 

5. Milk and milk products

Most milk and milk products, such as yogurt and cheese, are great sources of calcium. 

Some evidence suggests that calcium supplements may be able to help with menstrual symptoms like period cramps, as well as mood changes and fatigue. 

However, most studies didn’t investigate the effect of calcium from foods, so it’s unclear whether milk products can help relieve pain in the same manner. 

Most milks, including many plant-based ones, also contain vitamins D, E, and magnesium. And there is some evidence to suggest these nutrients may provide pain relief during menstruation when taken as supplements. 

Whether that means that drinking milk will have the same effect isn’t clear. But dairy and plant-based milks can also help you stay hydrated. 

6. Oats

Oats can benefit your health in many ways, and that might include helping with period pain.

Eating oats can be a delicious way to add fiber to your diet. Oats are also a source of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B1. 

Results from a meta-analysis indicated that, in supplement form, these nutrients may be beneficial for managing period pain. 

However, the researchers were careful not to make any conclusions, given the lack of good quality research. 

7. Anchovies

Anchovies — small, cold-water fish — are a common addition to salads, pasta dishes, and pizza. 

They are rich in vitamins and minerals that might help with period cramps, including calcium and vitamin E. They are also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids

In one small study, women who took omega-3 supplements experienced less period pain and used fewer over-the-counter painkillers. The combination of omega-3 and vitamin E supplements may be particularly beneficial for relieving period pain. 

Plant oils, nuts, and seeds are good sources of vitamin E. 

There is no specific evidence to say that throwing some oil-drizzled anchovies into your lunch would have the same effect. But eating omega-3 and vitamin E-rich foods is great for your overall health. 

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8. Extra virgin olive oil

Results from animal studies indicate that the health-promoting compounds in extra virgin olive oil may also help reduce cramps. 

Extra virgin olive oil retains more nutrients and antioxidants than processed olive oils, so it’s typically the best option.

Animal studies are an important tool in scientific discovery, but the results aren’t always the same for humans. 

At the moment, there aren’t any studies involving humans that back up the claims that extra virgin olive oil can help reduce period pain.

However, extra virgin olive oil can be part of a healthy, varied diet, which is great for your overall health. 

9. Dark chocolate

If you find yourself craving chocolate before or during your period, enjoy it. 

Dark chocolate — containing at least 70% cocoa — is full of antioxidants, fiber, and essential nutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium, and potassium. 

In one small study that included 90 students, those who ate 120 grams of dark chocolate per day experienced less period pain. 

More research is needed to see if these results hold up in larger studies, though. 

10. Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli

Broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and other cruciferous vegetables are good sources of fiber, calcium, and magnesium.

These vegetables are also high in iron. Blood loss during your period can significantly lower your overall iron levels, so it’s important to get it in your diet.

Whether this will help with cramps specifically isn’t clear at this point. 

11. Beans

Eating beans, lentils, and other legumes can benefit your health in a variety of ways, including when you’re on your period. 

Legumes are good sources of fiber, iron, healthy fats, magnesium, and other period-friendly minerals. 

They’re also good plant-based sources of protein. Protein can help you feel fuller for longer, which may help you avoid snacking on foods that make period cramps worse.

12. Prunes

Prunes, or dried plums, are rich in fiber and many other beneficial vitamins and minerals. They’re also a great source of boron

In one study of 113 students, those who took boron supplements experienced shorter and less severe period cramps than the control group. 

However, the supplements used in this study contained about the same amount of boron as you would expect in about 1 kilogram of prunes. 

13. Avocados

Whether you eat them blended in a smoothie, spread on toast, or mashed into guacamole, avocados are high in boron, magnesium, fiber, and antioxidants

Research suggests that these nutrients can help with period cramps, although there are no studies yet that have specifically tested if increasing your avocado consumption will lessen your cramps. 

Foods to avoid during your period

While some foods might be helpful to eat during your period, you may want to limit foods high in saturated fats, processed sugar, and salt. 

Evidence suggests that these foods may worsen cramps and other period-related discomforts. 

Foods to limit include: 

  • prepackaged snacks 

  • sweets

  • fast food 

  • fried foods 

  • alcohol 

You could also consider limiting your caffeine intake. For some people, caffeine can lead to gastrointestinal discomforts, such as bloating or diarrhea. 

Summary

Painful cramps are an uncomfortable part of menstruation for many women. 

Some foods may help relieve pain and other period-related discomforts, while others can make them worse. 

Ultimately, there isn’t much good quality research about the effects of specific foods on period cramps to make many solid claims. 

There is some evidence that staying hydrated and certain herbs and spices can ease your period pain.

Eating a high-quality, balanced diet with plenty of diverse whole foods may also help with your period cramps. And eating this way is great for your overall health.

Limiting your intake of foods high in saturated fats, processed sugars, and salt may help you avoid period cramps.

At ZOE, we believe nutrition is one of the best tools for achieving your healthiest self. 

The ZOE at-home test analyzes your personal responses to food and your gut microbiome. Using this information, we can provide you with nutrition advice tailored to your body. 

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