According to the World Bank, on any given day, approximately 300 million women worldwide are menstruating. As many as three in four women say that they experience PMS at some point during their reproductive years. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can affect daily activities and interfere with everyday, normal life. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a severe type of PMS that affects between 2–5% of menstruating women and starts with mood alterations, leading to clinically marked distress. PMDD shares similar symptoms with PMS, such as food cravings, irritability, and fatigue, however PMDD symptoms can often be debilitating.
Cramping that can range from mild to severe and debilitating pain is one of the most difficult PMS symptoms that many women experience. Painful cramps come from inflammation that is triggered by hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are naturally found in the lining of the uterus and cause the muscles and blood vessels in the uterus to contract. Some prostaglandins are normal and necessary for the contraction during menses. However, when the body is inflamed, excess prostaglandins can be produced, causing more severe cramping.
While there is limited research on PMDD, there is evidence showing that what you eat may help ease PMS symptoms. Research supports that plant-based eating reduces inflammation, including inflammation associated with PMS. Plant-based diets are high in anti-inflammatory nutrients such as fiber and phytonutrients, as well as other nutrients that may reduce PMS symptoms. Here’s a look into how plant-based eating may help ease symptoms of PMS and PMDD.
Fun fiber fact: It's only found in plant-based foods and less than 5% of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber each day (okay, those were two fun facts!).
Fiber may support balanced hormones in several ways. First, fiber helps to delay blood sugar and insulin spikes (the hormone that regulates blood sugar), which helps to mitigate sugar "highs" and "lows." Second, fiber may help to trigger hormones that indicate you're full, minimizing false hunger cues.
Women may crave starchy, carbohydrate-rich, and sweet foods during PMS. One study showed that increased levels of estrogen and progesterone are the culprits leading to food cravings. Carbohydrate-rich foods also boost serotonin levels, which is your feel-good hormone. It may be a combination of increased levels of these hormones and the natural desire to boost mood that leads to these carbohydrate cravings. By consuming fiber-rich carbohydrate foods, like whole grains, lentils, beans, fruits, and vegetables, you can satisfy those carbohydrate cravings while keeping blood sugar levels in check and supporting production of serotonin, your feel-good neurotransmitter. Try corn tacos with black beans, avocado and salsa; legume pasta with veggies; or chia pudding with berries to cure those cravings while balancing hormones.
Estrogen is an important hormone in a woman's reproductive system as it regulates the menstrual cycle and affects the reproductive tract, the urinary tract, the cardiovascular system, breasts, skin, and hair, just to name a few. However, a buildup of too much estrogen can result in symptoms such as worsening PMS. Another study, looking at fiber's effect on hormones in women, showed that fiber plays a role in hormone regulation by excreting excess estrogen from the body (in your poo!). If moderate to severe PMS is an issue for you and you're constipated, consider your fiber intake. Are you getting enough fiber each day (at least 30 grams a day)? Are you drinking enough water throughout the day to help the fiber move through your body and excrete excess estrogen?
Adding more fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to your plate can boost your fiber and possibly ease symptoms of PMS. Learn more about fiber and how to easily increase fiber intake here and here.
Just so it's not feeling left out, here's a fun fact about magnesium: Up to 50% of the American population is magnesium deficient. That's the not-so-great news. The good news is that magnesium is abundant in plenty of plant-based foods! Magnesium is found in nuts, seeds, leafy greens, beans, lentils, avocados, dark chocolate, bananas, tofu, tempeh, and whole grains.
A study looking at women who suffer from menstrual migraines found that magnesium supplements helped to reduce their migraine symptoms and pain. Another study found that magnesium supplementation was effective in reducing depression, anxiety, and cravings. Other studies have shown significant decreases in water retention and pain associated with PMS when magnesium supplementation was given.
Many of these studies administered a magnesium supplement (200 mg to 320 mg a day), however, taking a food first approach is always preferred as whole foods can provide so much more than just that single nutrient (such as fiber!).
Finally, studies also show that a combination of magnesium and B6 supplementation may be even more effective than magnesium alone. The great news is that many of the foods high in magnesium are also high in vitamin B6, like bananas, beans, lentils, and leafy greens. Try magnesium-rich Warm Tempeh and Kale Salad, Moroccan Baked Chickpeas, or Hearty Grilled Lentil Burgers.
Iron is an essential mineral, important for everyone, but especially for women of childbearing age. Women who have normal menses lose up to one mg of iron per cycle. That number can increase five to sixfold in women who experience heavy menses. This is why women of menstruating age need 18 mg iron a day and post-menopausal women who no longer menstruate need only 8 mg iron per day. Incorporating iron-rich plant foods may help prevent unwanted PMS symptoms such as fatigue and cramps. There is a misconception that when you eat plant based you may be lacking iron, but here's another fun fact for you (can't leave anyone out!): You can get plenty of iron on a plant-based diet. In fact, plant foods that naturally go together, like bean tacos and salsa or legume pasta and tomato sauce or oatmeal and berries, naturally enhance iron's absorption. Why? Because plant-based foods rich in vitamin C (salsa, tomato sauce, and berries) can boost iron's availability in iron-rich plants (beans, chickpea pasta, and oats) by five-fold. Get more information on boosting iron intake here.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are naturally anti-inflammatory. Studies show that they may exhibit their anti-inflammatory effects on women who experience PMS. One recent meta-analysis (a review looking at multiple research studies) showed that omega 3 intake may reduce symptoms of PMS, including pain as well as psychological symptoms associated with menses. Plant-based foods high in omega 3 fatty acids include chia seeds, flax meal, hemp seeds, and walnuts. Try this PB + J Sandwich with Berry Chia Spread or Chia Blueberry Oat Crumble.
Foods That May Worsen PMS
Foods that can worsen symptoms of PMS are the same foods that contribute to overall inflammation including excess salt, alcohol, processed foods, meat, and dairy.
Overall, to alleviate symptoms of PMS try to:
Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Choose whole grains over processed carbohydrates (for the reasons mentioned above).
Minimize salt and salty snacks to possibly reduce swelling and water retention.
Minimize caffeine since it's been shown to increase menstrual flow and discomfort.
Minimize alcohol, which has been shown to worsen PMS symptoms.
Minimize meat and dairy intake, which have both been shown to increase estrogen levels and inflammation.
If you experience PMS or PMDD, just know that you don't have to go through agonizing pain and discomfort during that time. Consider adding more plant-based foods to your plate by swapping out beef burgers for bean burgers, adding berries, nuts or seeds to oatmeal, substituting whole grain bread or pasta for white bread or pasta, or trying eating fully plant-based or plant-forward to see if it helps with your symptoms. If you need help getting started, try one of our plant-based courses that simplify plant-based eating or reach out with any questions!