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Menstruation and Nutrition: 5+1 dietary tips for more painless symptoms

by Maria Kirmanidou, Dietitian & Sport Nutritionist

16 May 2024 • 0 min read

Let's start with the basics!

What is menstruation and what is its purpose?
The creation and continuation of life is due to the ability of the female body to be able to support the process of conception, pregnancy and childbirth. The female body, each month, is designed to get ready for the possibility of pregnancy and because of that, it "takes the appropriate steps" to ensure that the environment, in which the fertilized egg will begin to develop, is the most suitable.

Every month, an egg is being matured and begins its 'journey' from the ovaries to the uterus in order to be fertilized. If it is not fertilized, it will be expelled along with the inner wall of the uterus, the endometrium, which is created to 'prepare the environement - as mentioned above - for a possible pregnancy. This process takes place every 28-35 days and is called the menstrual cycle. The period (or menstruation) is part of the menstrual cycle - day 1 of the period represents day 1 of the cycle - and represents the period of time when the endometrium and unfertilized egg is expelled from the vagina.

The menstrual cycle is characterized by successive hormonal changes and every woman’s experience vary greatly. The last week and the first week of the cycle - the week when we expect our period as well as the week of our period - are accompanied by a multitude of symptoms due to the hormonal changes, with each woman experiencing different symptoms and with different severity. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain (mild to severe)
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Increased appetite and strong desire for sweets
  • Breast Tenderness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Severe fatigue
  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Reduced productivity
As we understand, such symptoms for 5-7 days of the month may reduce the quality of life of women. The majority of women of reproductive age experience moderate to severe symptoms during menstruation. The good news is that we can help our bodies make menstruation more enjoyable, by incorporating balanced habits throughout the month, not just during menstruation. Regular exercise, getting good quality sleep and adopting balanced eating habits seem to be able to reduce the intensity of period symptoms and help us get through those days with reduced pain severity.

Nutrients. Where should we focus on?

And yet, there are some nutritional components that seem to play a key role in the smooth functioning of the cycle and in reducing the severity of symptoms. Let's get to know 5+1 nutritional practices worth incorporating into our dietary routine that will make these days more enjoyable and productive.

  • HYDRATION: Hydration is very important, especially during menstruation, when fluid losses increase. It has been shown that dehydration can intensify period pain, leading to increased feelings of fatigue. Coffee, various teas - without added sugar - fruits, vegetables, smoothies, milk and yoghurt, all contribute to an adequately hydrated body.
  • Disclaimer: While coffee contributes to overall hydration, caffeine has been associated with increased symptom severity. So, during menstruation, you can go for caffeine-free coffee & teas. Prefer teas with ginger, saffron and/or peppermint, which seem to contribute to reduced muscle cramp severity.

    Extra tip: Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink water. Drink small sips, at regular intervals. Don't forget that we are 70% water!

  • Magnesium. Enrich your diet with magnesium-rich foods. How? Add nuts to your yogurt or seeds to your salad, while banana, avocado and dark chocolate are additional allies. If you're magnesium deficient, period pain can get worse, as magnesium is a key component of muscle, while also playing a key role in the smooth functioning of the nervous system. Two of the most commonly reported pre-menstrual symptoms are muscle cramps and mood swings. I don't think we need to say more!
  • Fruits & Vegetables. You're tired of hearing that you need to eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables. We know! But they are very important for almost all body functions, and menstruation days require nutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well as good hydration. Fruits and vegetables come to help with both of these needs!
Extra tip: If you experience severe bloating these days or suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, go for more easily digestible fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, dates, cucumber, carrots!

  • Iron. One of the most important nutrients during menstrual days is iron, due to increased blood loss. Needs are increased even more if there is heavy flow, low ferritin levels (i.e. low iron stores) and if we follow a vegan diet. If you eat meat, prefer eating red meat 1-2 times a week, while rich plant sources include legumes, soy products, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds and green leafy vegetables.
Extra tip: Avoid consuming iron with calcium-rich foods and avoid drinking coffee or tea at the same time. Combine iron along with foods, rich in vitamin C & A.

  • Vitamin D. The "sunshine vitamin", which we cannot easily get from our diet. It has been noted that vitamin D deficiency has been associated with increased symptom severity in the days before and during menstruation. Keep in mind to check your vitamin D levels often. Taking a supplement, in case of a deficiency, is a safe option to correct any low levels and further help the menstrual cycle function smoothly.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. The ubiquitous omega-3 fatty acids come to offer their benefits to the smooth functioning of the cycle as well. Enrich your diet with oily fish at least once a week and add nuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds to your snacks. Finally, fish oil supplementation seems to be a very good choice, especially if you don't often consume the above foods. A recent 2023 systematic review shows that supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids for at least 3 months contributed to a reduction in the severity of menstrual pain as well as reduced use of analgesics.
The tools we have that we can use to have a better life with greater quality are many, even on the difficult days of menstruation. Holland & Barrett is next to every woman to support her in the most natural way possible, not only during the days of menstruation, but also the entire menstrual cycle.

Because we have to take care of ourselves every day and every moment!

Scientific References

Chen, Y. C., Chiang, Y. F., Lin, Y. J., Huang, K. C., Chen, H. Y., Hamdy, N. M., ... & Hsia, S. M. (2023). Effect of vitamin D supplementation on primary dysmenorrhea: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Nutrients, 15(13), 2830.

Fathizadeh, N., Ebrahimi, E., Valiani, M., Tavakoli, N., & Yar, M. H. (2010). Evaluating the effect of magnesium and magnesium plus vitamin B6 supplement on the severity of premenstrual syndrome. Iranian journal of nursing and midwifery research, 15(Suppl1), 401.

Rahbar, N., Asgharzadeh, N., & Ghorbani, R. (2012). Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on intensity of primary dysmenorrhea. International Journal of Gynaecology & Obstetrics, 117(1), 45-47.

Torkan, B., Mousavi, M., Dehghani, S., Hajipour, L., Sadeghi, N., Ziaei Rad, M., & Montazeri, A. (2021). The role of water intake in the severity of pain and menstrual distress among females suffering from primary dysmenorrhea: a semi-experimental study. BMC Women’s Health, 21(1), 1-9.