Most women greet their monthly period with Eeyore-like apathy. “Oh, bother. Here we go again.” But menstruation is a normal, healthy part of life; something to celebrate rather than dread. While that doesn’t mean getting the confetti out, your menstrual cycle is a dependable reminder that your body goes through phases and requires more attention at certain times. Many experts believe it’s not healthful to shun this natural aspect of being female—and they help explain why your period is yet another opportunity to become a better listener to your body’s messages.
In fact, ignoring those messages is why some of the menstrual-related symptoms women experience become so severe in the first place, says Christiane Northrup, OB/GYN, women’s health advocate, and author of Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being (Hay House, Inc., 2015). While it’s not always possible to slow down when your monthly period arrives, there are ways to relieve the pain and discomfort. And it doesn’t involve buying every painkiller—or candy bar—in sight.
What to eat for relief
Many of the lifestyle tips you hear often—move more, reduce sugar intake, eat more vegetables and calcium-rich foods—are even more important to adhere to as you start your period. That’s because those actions can help reduce inflammation and muscle spasms. Herbalist and women’s health specialist Amanda McQuade Crawford recommends drinking 1 cup of carrot juice (or eating up to five carrots) daily for a week before your expected first day. Carrot juice and carrots help thin the menstrual blood, ease the flow, and improve circulation, she says, which can preempt the discomfort and heavy feeling in the uterus that some women experience.
If you experience cramps, McQuade Crawford recommends trying an appropriately named herb called cramp bark, which is available where herbal medicines are sold as a liquid extract or capsules. She says cramp bark is a mild, effective way to reduce the pain associated with menstrual cramping.
You might be able to find some menstrual pain relief in your own kitchen, too. A February 2014 study in the Journal of Reproduction & Infertility suggests fenugreek seeds may help reduce the severity of pain associated with uterine contractions. Study participants who received fenugreek seed powder rather than a placebo also experienced a reduction in fatigue, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. In addition, fenugreek may have a diuretic effect that relieves pelvic congestion, breast tenderness, and weight gain.
Fenugreek also has antihistamine properties that can ease premenstrual tension. Other beneficial herbs include peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon, and basil—which can all be found in comforting herbal teas.
McQuade Crawford says fennel and ginger have been associated with menstrual pain relief, too. Eating fresh fennel or ginger may reduce bloating and nausea. There is some evidence that eating these foods can also help keep food cravings in check—which is helpful, especially if cravings for high-fat, high-sugar treats increase during your period.