Period about to begin? Now's the time to veg out.
an illustration of a woman holding her stomach while in pain
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About 90% of adolescent females experience a common phenomenon, according to The North American Menopause Society. While you might be guessing an infatuation with Harry Styles, we're actually talking about menstrual pain.

And it doesn't stop in your 20s: Researchers estimate that 84% of young women struggle with bloating, cramping and abdominal pain during their monthly periods. Anyone who has struggled with menstrual pain (aka dysmenorrhea) can confirm this often makes them put their lives on pause for several days.

Serah Sannoh, a medical student at Temple University's Lewis Katz School of Medicine in Philadelphia, was among them. As a result, she designed a project during her internship with Rutgers University's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to study how we might be able to shift our lifestyles to potentially prevent the pain before it happens. The research was so well done and the findings so universal, that she was invited to present her work as a poster at the NAMS Annual Meeting in Atlanta on October 12.

The verdict from her analysis of relevant studies related to menstrual cramps, just shared via a NAMS press release: A vegan, anti-inflammatory diet is best to possibly prevent cramps, while a diet rich in sugar, processed foods, salt, coffee and animal meat tends to trigger them.

What This Health Study Found

Many people turn to over-the-counter pain-reliever and anti-inflammatory drugs to ease the aches, Sannoh says, but there's actually a fair amount of science regarding dietary patterns and menstrual pain.

Using a review of current published and peer-reviewed literature on the topic, Sannoh found that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids tend to reduce inflammation, which is a key contributor to menstrual pain. Diets high in omega-6 fatty acids, conversely, usually promote inflammation. She also cross-referenced the Dietary Inflammatory Index, and discovered that the best foods to prevent period cramps appear to be:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Olive oil

On the flip side, these foods and drinks usually increase the risk for cramps:

  • Sugar
  • Processed foods
  • Sodium
  • Coffee
  • Animal meats

Prior to a menstrual period, endometrial cells build a lining inside the uterus to prepare to possibly host a fertilized egg to make a baby. In the absence of pregnancy, these cells then release a lot of prostaglandins, a specific type of fatty acids (that work like hormones), which essentially communicate to that uterine layer that it should contract and expel itself from the body. During this process, blood vessels and muscles constrict, and may lead to cramping and discomfort if strong, the American Association of Family Physicians explains. Prostaglandins tend to overdo it during inflammatory conditions. As you're probably well aware if you've been hanging around with us at EatingWell, diet can most definitely play a role in chronic inflammation.

"Learning about different foods that increase and decrease inflammation, which subsequently increase or reduce menstrual pain, revealed that diet is one of the many contributors to health outcomes that is often overlooked. I am hopeful that this research can help those who menstruate reduce the pain they experience and shed light on the importance of holistic treatment options," Sannoh says in the NAMS press release.

Exercise, sleep and stress reduction are also all important pieces of the pain-reduction pie, she adds.

As for Sannoh herself, she utilized her findings IRL. By reducing her intake of red meat, sugar and coffee, she noticed less severe menstrual cramps. She's well on her way to adopting a more anti-inflammatory lifestyle, which can do much more than help her period feel less like a pain. Research links an anti-inflammatory meal plan with lower risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and more. (BTW, another recent study found that eating enough vitamin D may also help reduce chronic inflammation.)

The Bottom Line

In addition to integrating enough physical activity, managing stress levels and scoring an adequate amount of sleep, eating a plant-based diet light in inflammatory ingredients and heavy in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and heart-healthy fats is best to quiet cramps, this new research review finds.

If you're hoping to combat cramps—or simply want to potentially reduce your risk for several chronic diseases—stock up on the best foods to eat to fight inflammation. And if you're ready to give a plant-based program a try, our anti-inflammatory vegan meal plan is a great guide for how to get started.