Cramps. Bloating. Mood swings. PMS symptoms are no joke. But research shows that eating certain foods—and avoiding others—can help ease many period problems. Here's what experts have to say.

Laurie Herr
November 18, 2019

PMS is no joke. Even for women with mild symptoms—and that's most of us—the cramps, bloating, headaches, nausea and mood swings are enough to make you want to curl up on the couch in your stretchy pants, maybe with a heating pad and a big bowl of cheese dip.

Pictured recipe: Avocado Toast with Burrata

Then there are the roughly 1 in 5 women whose symptoms are severe enough to meet the clinical definition of PMS, where symptoms significantly interfere with daily life.

Related: 8 Foods to Help You Debloat

Help is on the way. Emerging research suggests that eating certain foods and avoiding others may help ease many PMS symptoms. "Good nutrition can keep your reproductive system going like a well-oiled machine, powered by real foods," says Tracy Lockwood, M.S., RD, CDN, author of The Better Period Food Solution: Eat Your Way to a Lifetime of Healthier Cycles.

Best Foods to Eat

Try adding the foods below to your regular diet for better health overall—and better periods.

Milk, cheese and yogurt

Think of it as a one-two punch: the calcium helps ease bloating, while vitamin D makes calcium easier to absorb. Milk is also high in riboflavin (vitamin B2), which may lower the risk of PMS, according to a study by Harvard and the University of Iowa. Order a latte with milk or try this mango smoothie bowl made with yogurt.

Spinach, kale and other dark leafy greens

Consider them your BFFs for PMS. Dark leafy greens are high in iron, vitamin C (which aids iron absorption) and calcium—all nutrients that can improve PMS symptoms. They're also good sources of magnesium, which boosts mood and fights water retention. Try these healthy spinach recipes, including salads and cheesy casseroles, to get your fill.

Mandarin oranges

"You can throw them in your purse," says Susan Albers, Psy.D., a Cleveland Clinic psychologist and the author of Hanger Management: Master Your Hunger and Improve Your Mood, Mind and Relationships and 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. Naturally sweet and low in calories (only 50), these little gems are loaded with vitamin C, which can help your body when it's body under stress. Plus, Albers says, "The smell of citrus has been clinically shown to be calming." Just look for fresh mandarins—try clementines or tangerines too—instead of buying them canned in syrup. You can also try these 6 foods with more vitamin C than an orange.

Breakfast cereals

Fortified cereals have riboflavin and thiamine, B vitamins that may lower the risk of PMS. Top a bowl off with low-fat milk and you get even more vitamin D and calcium, two other PMS secret weapons.

Avocados

They're rich in healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, so they help satisfy fatty cravings, and they're delicious. "Filling up on some creamy avocado toast can be soothing," Albers says.

Seeds

Snack on a small handful of pumpkin seeds in the afternoon, or blend some flaxseeds in your morning smoothie for a healthy dose of mood-boosting magnesium.

Salmon

Along with calcium and vitamin D, salmon is swimming in omega-3 fats, which research shows may help fight PMS. In a small three-month study, women who took omega-3 supplements had less bloating, headaches and breast tenderness during their periods, as well as lower anxiety, better mood and improved focus.

Omega-3-enriched eggs

All eggs are a good source of vitamin D, which helps with calcium absorption. Like salmon, eggs that are fortified with omega-3s may also help ease breast tenderness and PMS pain caused by inflammation, Lockwood says.

Peanuts and almonds

These nuts are good sources of magnesium—plus their protein helps keep you full, so you're more likely to resist cravings. Just make sure they're unsalted, or you may be back to feeling bloated.

Dark chocolate

"Chocolate is your friend!" Lockwood says. "Dark chocolate (85% or higher cacao) can actually help calm you down, thanks to the relaxing powers of magnesium," she adds. Don't overdo it, though—a few nibbles a day are all you need.

Beans and lentils

While the researchers caution that more studies are needed, one study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that eating more nonheme iron (the kind found in beans, lentils, soybeans and other plant foods) may be associated with a lower risk of PMS symptoms.

Water and herbal teas

Feeling so swollen, you can't zip your jeans? Drink up, says Lockwood. Water and other fluids ease belly bloat, reduce salt retention and help relieve period constipation. "Opt for soothing teas such as peppermint, spearmint or ginger tea to both ease inflammation and hydrate," Lockwood adds.

Foods to Limit or Avoid

Your period may be telling you to make a beeline for the Ben and Jerry's in your freezer, but you don't always have to listen. "Sometimes when we get our period, we feel like it gives us a reason to abandon all healthy eating," Albers says."Instead, it's the time to be even more attentive to it. In the long run, comfort eating can make our bodies feel worse rather than better."

Try cutting back on these foods, and see if it helps:

Alcohol

"Some research suggests that there may be an association between drinking alcohol and PMS symptoms. If you do drink, stay within the current recommendations of one drink a day," advises Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition.

Salt

When your belly feels like a balloon about to pop, the last thing you need is more salt, which increases water retention. Nix the chips, canned soups and deli meats, Al Bochi says, and drink more water to flush out extra sodium.

Added sugars

Loading up on caramel-drizzled lattes and break-room doughnuts will only make your energy crash later—something you don't need when you're already feeling like a slug (you'll also want to watch out for these sneaky sources of added sugar). That doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself completely, though. Plan ahead and have natural sweets on hand like dark chocolate, nut butters, smoothies and dried fruits, Lockwood suggests. "Although dried fruits may be high in natural sugar, you'll only need a few bites to satisfy your sweet tooth," she says. Plus, they deliver potassium, which may help ease stress.

Caffeine (maybe)

There's no hard evidence linking caffeine to PMS, Al Bochi cautions. Still, other experts say cutting back on your morning joe may help, especially if caffeine tends to make you jittery."Caffeine adds fuel to the fire when it comes to PMS," Lockwood says. "During PMS, we're often tired and sluggish due to falling hormones, so we turn to caffeine for more energy. Unfortunately, that short-term jolt comes with side effects that can maximize PMS symptoms like stomach issues, skin troubles, migraines, bloating and sleep disruptions," she explains.

The Bottom Line

The No. 1 thing to do to help ease PMS? "Work with it, instead of against it," Lockwood says. "Come to grips that it may be an inevitable (and short-term) disruption, and provide yourself with solutions to get ahead of the problem." And of course, if your periods are especially painful, see your doctor.

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