If you’re someone who menstruates every month, you probably know what your body likes to be fed throughout the month. Before you start bleeding, you might crave burgers and fries — classic comfort food. You might have learned in high school that dark chocolate can help alleviate period cramps, alongside that hot pack.
Sure enough, certain nutritional strategies might help alleviate period pain, while others might help you hit the gym harder exactly when you want to. No matter how you interact with your cycle, your nutrition during your period may play a big role in how your body feels.
To learn more about the subject, BarBend chatted over email with Dr. Soma Mandal, MD, a board-certified internist at Summit Health in New Jersey, and Dr. Sara Twogood, MD, a board-certified OBGYN in Los Angeles and co-founder of Female Health Education. Read on to find out everything you didn’t know you needed to know about nutrition during your period.
- What Are the Phases of Your Menstrual Cycle?
- How Does Your Menstrual Cycle Impact Your Diet?
- Foods for Relieving Menstrual Cramps
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
If you menstruate, it’s tempting to split your month into two phases — bleeding and not bleeding. And while that’s certainly one way to look at it, it might be helpful to learn what’s going on in your body throughout the month.
Just as you can benefit from knowing how your body builds muscle or digests food, it might benefit you to know how and why your body is doing whatever it’s doing before, during, and after your period.
Follicular Phase (Bleeding to Ovulation)
Your menstrual cycle starts on day one when you start bleeding. The follicular phase constitutes days one through 14 of your menstrual cycle — so, it starts when you begin bleeding and continues after you’ve stopped. Different people bleed — with different degrees of heaviness — for anywhere from three to seven days, depending on the month.
Right before you started bleeding (in the luteal phase, described below), it became apparent to your body that no egg had been fertilized. Correspondingly, your FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone), LH (luteinizing hormone), and progesterone levels dropped.
But during the follicular phase — while you’re bleeding and especially afterward — your FSH and estrogen levels are on the rise. These levels peak toward the end of this phase.
Your follicle-stimulating hormone levels are doing exactly what it sounds like — stimulating the ovaries to produce an egg. This will come to fruition during ovulation, which happens around day 14, bringing an end to the follicular phase.
Along with the heightened levels of FSH, you also get rising levels of estrogen here. Heightened estrogen levels increase GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone). GnRH functions to the level of LH, which in turn causes a brief surge in testosterone.
Luteal Phase (Ovulation to Start of Bleeding)
The luteal phase of the menstrual cycle occurs between roughly days 14 and 28. It starts when a person ovulates and ends at the start of bleeding (which restarts the follicular phase).
Through the luteal phase, FSH and LH diminish. The corpus luteum — a structure that forms on an ovary after ovulation — gets to work secreting progesterone, which prepares the body for pregnancy if fertilization occurs.
If no egg is fertilized, the corpus luteum disintegrates. Progesterone levels start dropping accordingly, and the endometrial lining — which was built up to prepare for potential pregnancy — is ready to be shed. That means the body is ready to restart the bleeding part of the cycle.
Why Do the Different Parts of Your Cycle Matter?
Many strength athletes experience anything from bloating and discomfort to extreme pain during their menstrual cycles. Understanding a little bit of the hows and whys can help you craft a strength training plan that’s catered to the way your body tends to operate.
You can also craft a nutritional plan based on your different needs throughout the month. At the very least, you may be gratified to know exactly what’s going on in your body when you’re bloated, irritable, or just in excruciating pain.
During your follicular phase, estrogen levels start out low and end high. Estrogen levels peak about 14 days or so after your period begins. When estrogen levels are lower during the beginner of your follicular phase — during your period — nutrition can really help with your performance.
Research suggests that a carb-heavy diet can boost your muscle glycogen stores and increase exercise capacity during your period. (1)(2)(3) Having some carbs during your workout itself may help boost your energy levels during your follicular phase (your period and the week after). (3)
Progesterone levels rise during your luteal phase. These levels peak about three weeks after your period (or one week before your period, depending on how you prefer to think about it). Research suggests that when progesterone levels are high, getting extra protein during and around your workout might boost energy levels. (1)
A Personalized Approach
All bodies are not the same. Some research hasn’t found any difference between carb breakdown during the different phases of the menstrual cycle. (4) Since “average” data does not apply to everyone without variation, research suggests that there’s a lot of benefit in taking a personalized approach to nutrition during your period. (5)(6)
Dr. Twogood recommends an intuitive approach to nutrition regarding your cycle. “Instead of being strict with the percentage of carbs, proteins, and sugar in a diet, I want people to pay attention to their bodies and how they feel,” she explains.
She says that finding your personal balance is key.
I want people to make nutritional decisions that make them feel good but are also sustainable for them.
Especially right before and during your period, you may have a strong desire for comfort food — which may well be heavily processed. And that’s okay.
“I counsel patients that it’s important to strike a balance between paying attention to what they’re eating but also being able to enjoy food,” Dr. Twogood says. That means choosing a dietary practice that’s sustainable for you — even if that means comfort food during your period.
- Have some carbs during your workout when you have your period and during the week after for an energy boost.
- Increase carb intake during your period to increase your exercise endurance.
- Increase protein intake during and around workouts about a week before your period starts (aka, three weeks after your last period began).
- Take a personalized approach — if the above methods don’t seem to work for you, that’s okay. Research suggests that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition during your period, and you should take note of what works best for your body.
It is widely acknowledged that period cramps — also called primary dysmenorrhea — can be nearly as painful as a heart attack. (7) Up to 95 percent of people with periods experience cramps ranging from mild to extremely debilitating each month or most months. (8)
While this kind of experience is common, it’s important to check in with your doctor when you experience persistent and/or especially painful cramps. Nearly 70 percent of adolescents with periods cramps that don’t respond to initial treatments (think: over-the-counter pain relievers) are later diagnosed with endometriosis. (9)
Foods to Reduce Period Cramps
“The best foods to have to relieve menstrual cramps include foods rich in iron, magnesium, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids,” says Dr. Mandal. She particularly recommends salmon, which research suggests — alongside other fish rich in omega-3s — may significantly reduce dysmenorrhea. (11)
Dr. Mandal also recommends these other iron-rich foods:
For example, dairy products — particularly high calcium levels — have been shown to relieve symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and period cramps. (12) But Dr. Twogood points out that others feel bloated and much worse when they eat dairy.
Some good news for people looking to take in some comfort food during their period? While they don’t seem to relieve period pain, research suggests that pastries, bread, pasta, and rice don’t seem to make it worse. (10) So if that extra big bowl of pasta helps you psychologically feel better when everything hurts, have at it.
Supplements to Reduce Period Cramps
Getting a little extra minerals and vitamins in your during your period may also be able to help alleviate period pain.
Research suggests that supplementing with magnesium can significantly reduce symptoms of dysmenorrhea. (13)(14) In addition, supplementing with vitamins B6 and B1 has been shown to alleviate period cramps. (14)
However, other studies suggest that there is not a reliable correlation between most supplements and a reduction in period pain. (17) So — as with food — you might want to take some time to figure out what works best for your body.
Meal Timing During Your Period
Skipping meals in general — no matter the time of day — seems to have a negative impact on period pain. (21) If you experience bad period pain, you may want to try eating as regularly as you can manage to help alleviate your symptoms.
Foods to Avoid During Your Period
Since everyone has different reactions to foods, Dr. Twogood suggests paying attention to foods that tend to make you feel inflamed and bloated. Once you identify which foods give you that bloated feeling — which can increase discomfort and pain during your period — consider reducing them during that time.
“In general, avoidance of highly processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, and foods high in sugar are important at least a week before your menstrual cycle,” Dr. Mandal says. Why? “In excess, these types of items can disrupt your hormones and cause more irritability, cramps, and bloating during the cycle itself.”
Research does indeed suggest that sugary foods may increase the risk of intense cramping during your cycle. (22)(23) However, there are other studies that didn’t find any correlation — negative or positive — between sugar intake and dysmenorrhea. (24)(25) So it really might depend on a combination of factors and your own body’s responses.
If gastrointestinal issues are a particular concern during your period, Dr. Mandal also suggests reducing your dairy intake.
Nutrition for a Better Cycle
For people who menstruate, navigating nutrition and training can be made a lot more tricky by monthly cycles of bleeding and hormones. Those who experience intense menstrual cramping can have an extra tough time figuring out how to optimize their training and nutrition when experiencing potentially debilitating pain.
You may choose to modulate your carb and protein intake throughout the month to give yourself maximum energy under a loaded barbell. Or, you might choose to eat foods that can help relieve your period cramps. Whether you’re optimizing training, minimizing pain, or both, knowing about nutrition during your period — and throughout your cycle — is a valuable resource. Check on where you are in your cycle and eat accordingly.
- Oosthuyse T, Bosch AN. The effect of the menstrual cycle on exercise metabolism: implications for exercise performance in eumenorrhoeic women. Sports Med. 2010 Mar 1;40(3):207-27.
- Devries MC, Hamadeh MJ, Phillips SM, Tarnopolsky MA. Menstrual cycle phase and sex influence muscle glycogen utilization and glucose turnover during moderate-intensity endurance exercise. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2006 Oct;291(4):R1120-8.
- Campbell SE, Angus DJ, Febbraio MA. Glucose kinetics and exercise performance during phases of the menstrual cycle: effect of glucose ingestion. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Oct;281(4):E817-25.
- Horton TJ, Miller EK, Glueck D, Tench K. No effect of menstrual cycle phase on glucose kinetics and fuel oxidation during moderate-intensity exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Apr;282(4):E752-62.
- Rocha-Rodrigues S, Sousa M, Lourenço Reis P, Leão C, Cardoso-Marinho B, Massada M, Afonso J. Bidirectional Interactions between the Menstrual Cycle, Exercise Training, and Macronutrient Intake in Women: A Review. Nutrients. 2021 Jan 29;13(2):438.
- McNulty KL, Elliott-Sale KJ, Dolan E, Swinton PA, Ansdell P, Goodall S, Thomas K, Hicks KM. The Effects of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Exercise Performance in Eumenorrheic Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2020 Oct;50(10):1813-1827.
- Guidone HC. The Womb Wanders Not: Enhancing Endometriosis Education in a Culture of Menstrual Misinformation. 2020 Jul 25. In: Bobel C, Winkler IT, Fahs B, Hasson KA, Kissling EA, Roberts TA, editors. The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies [Internet]. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan; 2020. Chapter 22.
- De Sanctis V, Soliman A, Bernasconi S, Bianchin L, Bona G, Bozzola M, Buzi F, De Sanctis C, Tonini G, Rigon F, Perissinotto E. Primary Dysmenorrhea in Adolescents: Prevalence, Impact and Recent Knowledge. Pediatr Endocrinol Rev. 2015 Dec;13(2):512-20.
- Highfield ES, Laufer MR, Schnyer RN, Kerr CE, Thomas P, Wayne PM. Adolescent endometriosis-related pelvic pain treated with acupuncture: two case reports. J Altern Complement Med. 2006 Apr;12(3):317-22.
- Bajalan Z, Alimoradi Z, Moafi F. Nutrition as a Potential Factor of Primary Dysmenorrhea: A Systematic Review of Observational Studies. Gynecol Obstet Invest. 2019;84(3):209-224.
- Deutch B. Menstrual pain in Danish women correlated with low n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1995 Jul;49(7):508-16.
- Abdul-Razzak KK, Ayoub NM, Abu-Taleb AA, Obeidat BA. Influence of dietary intake of dairy products on dysmenorrhea. J Obstet Gynaecol Res. 2010 Apr;36(2):377-83.
- Parazzini F, Di Martino M, Pellegrino P. Magnesium in the gynecological practice: a literature review. Magnes Res. 2017 Feb 1;30(1):1-7. English.
- Proctor ML, Murphy PA. Herbal and dietary therapies for primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(3):CD002124.
- Pakniat H, Chegini V, Ranjkesh F, Hosseini MA. Comparison of the effect of vitamin E, vitamin D and ginger on the severity of primary dysmenorrhea: a single-blind clinical trial. Obstet Gynecol Sci. 2019 Nov;62(6):462-468.
- Bahrami A, Avan A, Sadeghnia HR, Esmaeili H, Tayefi M, Ghasemi F, Nejati Salehkhani F, Arabpour-Dahoue M, Rastgar-Moghadam A, Ferns GA, Bahrami-Taghanaki H, Ghayour-Mobarhan M. High dose vitamin D supplementation can improve menstrual problems, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual syndrome in adolescents. Gynecol Endocrinol. 2018 Aug;34(8):659-663.
- Pattanittum P, Kunyanone N, Brown J, Sangkomkamhang US, Barnes J, Seyfoddin V, Marjoribanks J. Dietary supplements for dysmenorrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Mar 22;3(3):CD002124.
- Fujiwara T. Skipping breakfast is associated with dysmenorrhea in young women in Japan. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2003 Nov;54(6):505-9.
- Fujiwara T, Nakata R. Skipping breakfast is associated with reproductive dysfunction in post-adolescent female college students. Appetite. 2010 Dec;55(3):714-7.
- Fujiwara T, Sato N, Awaji H, Sakamoto H, Nakata R. Skipping breakfast adversely affects menstrual disorders in young college students. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2009;60 Suppl 6:23-31.
- Jeon GE, Cha NH, Sok SR. Factors Influencing the Dysmenorrhea among Korean Adolescents in Middle School. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014 Sep;26(9):1337-43.
- Muluneh AA, Nigussie TS, Gebreslasie KZ, Anteneh KT, Kassa ZY. Prevalence and associated factors of dysmenorrhea among secondary and preparatory school students in Debremarkos town, North-West Ethiopia. BMC Womens Health. 2018 Apr 24;18(1):57.
- Ozerdogan N, Sayiner D, Ayranci U, Unsal A, Giray S. Prevalence and predictors of dysmenorrhea among students at a university in Turkey. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2009 Oct;107(1):39-43.
- Abu Helwa HA, Mitaeb AA, Al-Hamshri S, Sweileh WM. Prevalence of dysmenorrhea and predictors of its pain intensity among Palestinian female university students. BMC Womens Health. 2018 Jan 15;18(1):18.
- Grandi G, Ferrari S, Xholli A, Cannoletta M, Palma F, Romani C, Volpe A, Cagnacci A. Prevalence of menstrual pain in young women: what is dysmenorrhea? J Pain Res. 2012;5:169-74.
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