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Food choices to beat menstrual cramps

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Negotiating menstrual pain is part of every woman’s life. While some women resign themselves to the pain, others pop pain killers. Fortunately, research suggests that simple diet changes can help reduce the pain. A study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology in February 2000, found that a low-fat, vegan diet significantly reduced pain and PMS symptoms. The diet eliminated all animal fats and nearly all vegetable oils. Secondly, it emphasised on plant-based foods, resulting in more fibre in the diet.

The root of the pain

Before drafting a diet to reduce menstrual pain, we need to understand what causes it. Dr Amrapali Patil, an ayurvedic expert and nutritionist, explains, “Menstruation is the monthly shedding of the inner lining called endometrium of the uterus. The lining is shed along with blood and the pain is due to contraction of the womb to allow passage of blood. Uterine contraction along with a chemical called prostaglandins also plays an important role when it comes to menstrual pain.”

Research conducted in the 1960s found prostaglandins to be a central part of the problem. Made from traces of fat stored in cell membranes, they promote inflammation and are also involved in muscle contractions, blood vessel constriction, blood clotting, and pain.Shortly before a period begins, the endometrial cells that form the lining of the uterus make large amounts of prostaglandins. When these cells break down during menstruation, prostaglandins are released. They constrict the blood vessels in the uterus and make its muscle layer contract, causing painful cramps. “It is important to eat foods which are high on Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine), Magnesium and Omega 3 fatty acids as they have anti-inflammatory properties to act as prostaglandins blocking agents,” says Janvi Chitalia, a fitness nutritionist.

Balancing the hormones

A classical feature of menstrual cycles would be that it causes hormonal imbalance as the oestrogen levels rise at the beginning of the period and fall by the end of it. This imbalance can also be caused by wrong eating habits, an erratic lifestyle and physical exertion.

“Research proves that a fibre-rich diet which is low in fat can influence oestrogen levels favourably,” adds Dr Patil. Studies have also shown that a diet dominated by animal food meat, fish and yoghurt don’t help in meeting the daily fibre intake and can increase the chances of excessive menstrual pain. “Wheat germ, spinach and oats are high on fibre and help soak oestrogen levels and reduce pain during menses,” adds Chitalia.

The menstrual diet

Apart from a fibre-rich diet, one also needs to power the body with nutrients and soothe the body of menstrual pain. A diet rich in green leafy vegetables, pulses, fruits, green tea, chamomile tea, beans, whole grains has been found to be beneficial.”The composition of our blood depends on the food we eat. Good food makes good blood. If we eat certain foods like animal products, dairy, refined sugars, white flours, chemical additives then our blood becomes heavy (or pH acidic), full of mucus which makes for a painful period,” explains Shonali Sabherwal, macrobiotic nutritionist.

“Stay vegetarian two weeks before your period and include millets, nachni, jowar, legumes, beans, lentils, green leafy vegetables in your diet. Fermented foods like instantly-prepared pickles made in salt can help too as they have probiotic properties,” advises Sabherwal.

Snacking away the pain

Healthy snacks to munch on during the 4 pm-hunger-pangs can also do wonders. Chitalia recommends, “Sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are high in Vitamin C which works as an antioxidant to relieve menstrual pain. They contain properties which are prostaglandins blocking in nature.” Flaxseeds and walnuts are also recommended as they are high on Omega 3 helping reduce inflammation, increase blood circulation and alleviate pain.

Staying hydrated

Right from the pre-menstrual period, water retention can leave the body dehydrated. Eating foods like parsley, celery and ginger which are high in Vitmain B6 can help in with the uneasiness caused by water retention. Also, alcohol and coffee should be minimised as they further dehydrate the body. A well-hydrated body (three litres of water a day) would also helps in reducing painful cramps.

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