Recently, a British company created a “period policy” -- otherwise known as menstrual leave -- that allows women to take days off work during their period. This has women across America thinking, “Hey, I didn’t throw any damn tea in the harbor. I’m totally OK with the British ruling.”
While we’re left deciding whether we’re green with envy or proud to be Americans who can bleed while on the clock, our menstrual cycles continue on. For many women, their period can make their lives a living hell. Conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, PMS and even being subjected to lousy jokes can have a significant impact on our lives.
Thankfully, there is a lot nutrition can do to make your period suck less. It’s not quite time to become an expat yet. Here are nine things that will help alleviate the unpleasant side effects of menstruation:
1. Raspberry Leaf Tea
Raspberries are great for female reproductive health, and it turns out, so are the leaves. Raspberry leaf tea doesn’t taste awesome, but it does contain a compound called fragrine that tones the muscles lining the uterus. By making your uterus Rocky-Balboa-strong, you can knock out long cycles, painful cramps and heavy blood loss.
Drink two cups daily on a regular basis. If that is too much for you to commit to (or if you don’t like the taste), steep two tea bags in one cup and slam it down. You can also steep it with a delicious, fruity, herbal tea. You’ve got options.
The first signs of dehydration are impaired cognitive function (thinking) and irritability. If you’re feeling cranky, a glass of water may help. Dehydration also exaggerates pain, decreases energy and slows bodily processes. All of these things will make your period even more unbearable.
Menstrual flow thickens as a result of dehydration, and thus, it takes longer to exit your body. It's a slightly traumatic example of optimal health coming down to logistics.
Drinking more water helps ease the flow and decreases bloating. Being hydrated all month long will help flush the toxins that could be potentially affecting your cycle, and it will also keep all your bodily functions running smoothly.
Aim for a minimum of 10 to 12 (8-ounce) cups of fluid a day. All fluids count for fluid consumption, but not all are equal. Water is always boss.
Water is the Beyoncé of fluids. Raspberry leaf tea counts for fluid consumption. Avoid drinks containing high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, dyes, sweeteners and carrageenan.
3. Iron And Vitamin C
For the most part, our bodies are miraculous. But every now and again, they do some seriously messed up things.
A prime example: When a woman is deficient in iron, she can have longer, heavier periods. This, in turn, causes even more iron loss.
When you’re iron deficient, your body creates more iron-binding receptors on the cell membranes in order to increase iron absorption. Because of this (with only a few exceptions), iron deficiency anemia is not a permanent condition. Iron from foods comes in two forms: heme (meat) and non-heme (not-meat).
Discussions about personal beliefs and environmental sustainability aside, scientifically speaking, meat sources contain more iron than plant sources, in a form more readily absorbed by our bodies. But there is no need to go buck wild on bovine. One or two servings (3 to 4 ounces) a week of lean, iron-rich meat is enough to keep iron levels optimal. Eating too much meat can actually make your cycle worse.
You can see the iron in the meat you're choosing to consume. The animal you’re eating needed iron in the same way you do, in order to get oxygen into the muscles.
Compare duck breasts to chicken breasts. Ducks fly great distances and use their chest muscles extensively. Hence, they have dark, iron-rich breast meat. Chickens don’t fly, and their breast meat is light in color and low in iron.
If you choose to eat meat, choose organic meat to avoid the artificial hormones and nasty antibiotics that are found in non-organic meat. Both of these are disastrous on your cycle.
You can skip meat altogether and still have an iron-rich diet, thanks to non-heme iron. Once again, you have options. Vegetarians and vegans can have perfect iron levels. Non-heme sources of iron include lentils, beans, olives, spices and herbs such as cinnamon, turmeric and parsley.
Non-heme iron does have lower bioavailability (absorption rate from food). It needs vitamin C for absorption.
Fortunately, iron-rich black beans and vitamin-C-loaded salsa make a delicious pairing. There are infinite pairings of non-heme iron-rich foods and vitamin-C-rich foods, but for the purpose of this article, it seemed best to list the most delicious example.
In addition to iron absorption, vitamin C is needed for the proper formation and structure of proteins in the human body. Eating foods rich in vitamin C on a regular basis will help you create a healthier uterine lining. Great sources of vitamin C include tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and citrus.
The legends are true: Cooking in a cast-iron skillet fortifies your food with iron. Recently, a new option was added to the table. It is called the Lucky Iron Fish. A charitable organization created an adorable, little iron fish that you drop in your food while you're cooking, and it fortifies the food with iron.
4. Vitamin A
Vitamin A helps with the absorption and utilization of iron. It is needed in cellular repair, and it keeps the skin healthy, thus decreasing period breakouts. It does all of this because its primary job is keeping the epithelial cells healthy.
Epithelial cells are the cells that outline the body, and they make up the majority of the cells that are sloughed off during menstruation. Healthy cells are happy cells, and happy cells go with the flow.
It’s unsafe to supplement your diet with pure vitamin A. Instead, get it from foods rich in carotenoids.
This is produce that is fall-foliage-colored: yellow, orange, red and dark green. These are the same produce items you’ll find vitamin C in. Dairy products also contain vitamin A.
Sleep is detoxifying, slimming, mood-boosting, beautifying and restorative. If it was sold at the beauty counter, women would spend millions on it.
If you sleep more, you'll cramp and bleed less. If your body has the chance to repair from the day before and prepare for the day ahead on a regular basis, your hormones will be better aligned. Therefore, your lady bits will be healthier.
Magnesium is required for over 300 functions in the human body. The mighty mineral does a lot for the female reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system. It’s a big freaking deal in Uterusville.
Magnesium supplements can cause nausea and severe diarrhea. Unless your health care provider recommends supplementation, avoid that route. Again, there are more options, and they're delicious options.
There is a variety of foods containing magnesium, but it is most readily found in “baby plants.” “Baby plants” refer to anything you can plant in the ground: seeds, nuts and beans.
Pumpkin seeds (all squash seeds, really) are perhaps the most concentrated source, as ¼ cup yields roughly half the magnesium a person needs. If you already have a magnesium deficiency or have an inflammatory condition like PCOS, endometriosis, arthritis, etc, you’re going to need more magnesium than that.
Make seeds, nuts and beans staples in your diet, and you’ll be golden. Get creative with seeds. Cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries and zucchini all have seeds we should eat.
Dark green, leafy vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, spinach and mustard greens also contain magnesium. They’re the golden children of the vegetable family, and they have it all.
7. Vitamin D
If your period, sleep, mood and overall health have been awful lately, you may have a vitamin D deficiency. To absorb all that awesome magnesium and keep hormone production running smoothly, you need the D. Vitamin D can be a topic all on its own, but the key here is to regularly take a vitamin D supplement and get your levels tested.
Call your doctor to see where you can find a testing lab that will run your vitamin D levels sans appointment or high costs. You may be able to score your vitamin D levels for as little as $20 to $35.
8. Healthy Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation. When they're teamed with vitamin D and magnesium, these three nutrients become the nutritional equivalent of Taylor Swift and her squad. They come together to do amazing things, like significantly reduce pain and inflammation. All of this translates to less cramping, bloating and pain.
Omega-3s are found in some of the same awesome foods that contain magnesium, seeds and nuts. This is known as a two-fer.
Walnuts are a mega-source, but you’ll generally find some in all nuts. Flax and chia seeds are mega-loaded with omega-3s as well. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines (and fish oil supplements) are also sources.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria. Taking a probiotic supplement that contains at least one strain of Bifidio and Lactobacilli bacteria can significantly improve overall health.
Fermented foods and foods with bacteria added into them (such as yogurt, kefir and probiotic drinks) will also help you get healthy bacteria into your gut. Supplementation establishes a healthy intestinal microflora (colony of healthy bacteria), and foods containing probiotics maintain that healthy microflora.
The list of health benefits from probiotics is lengthy, but with relation to aunt Flow, a healthy intestinal microflora can help regulate hormones, thus keeping your cycle on an even keel. The key function of probiotics is healthy digestion.
A healthy microflora can help lessen gas, bloating and diarrhea during menstruation. These same wonder microbes can help keep skin healthy, and help prevent or lessen period-related breakouts.
It’s more probable that you’ll see menopause before you see the global adoption of a “period policy.” Opt for the more realistic option of eating well and taking a couple of supplements to make your period more bearable.
But for these tweaks to be effective, you have to take care of yourself all month long. Here’s to a healthy, happy, well-nourished you.
Sheila Amir is the owner and author of NutritionSheila.com, and she has a real-life aunt named Flo. Seriously. Click here to get the latest on food, nutrition, health and wellness, including laughs and random Stallone references.