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The best foods to combat PMS symptoms

Lady with brown hair enjoying food
It’s that time of the month, and you’re suffering from cramps, irritability and bloating. When you’re experiencing PMS, your first impulse might be to reach for sweet, salty, or fatty foods as a way of dealing with troublesome symptoms.

But, as tempting as that may be, focusing on foods loaded with nutrients, minerals, and vitamins could actually help ease your symptoms a lot more effectively.

Read on to learn more about which powerhouse foods you should prioritise when trying to avoid PMS pain, boost your energy and curb your mood swings.

What is PMS?

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is the collective name given to a wide range of symptoms experienced in the days or weeks before your period. Each person experiences it differently, and your symptoms may even vary from month to month.

Some of the most common PMS symptoms can include:
  • mood swings and irritability 
  • bloating 
  • cramping 
  • breast tenderness 
  • fatigue 
  • difficulty sleeping 
  • headaches 
  • change in sexual feelings 
  • acne 
  • change in appetite 
  • food cravings
While it’d be nice, there’s no magic formula to ease PMS symptoms. So if you want to relieve your symptoms, looking at your lifestyle choices, including food, is one of the best places to start.

However, before we get into which foods you should prioritise, it’s important to look at the ones you shouldn’t, as there are various things you may already be eating that could be making your symptoms worse.

What are the most common period cravings?

Whether it’s a big tub of ice cream or multiple packets of crisps, food cravings are a common PMS symptom.

But while it’s absolutely fine to indulge in these snacks from time to time, overly sweet and salty snacks can all worsen your symptoms, so it’s important to be balanced with what you’re eating.2

Some of the main foods that might be worth limiting during PMS include: 
  • foods high in salt: since sodium causes our bodies to retain water, this can make symptoms like bloating feel even worse3 
  • foods high in refined sugar: eating too many sugary foods can make it difficult for our bodies to regulate blood sugar levels, contributing towards period weight gain and emotional symptoms like moodiness and anxiety
  • caffeine: having too much caffeine in drinks like tea or coffee can lead to water retention, sleep disturbances and digestive issues. So if you struggle with diarrhoea or stomach issues during your period, it might be best to cut down
  • alcohol: since alcohol makes you pee, it dehydrates your body, which can lead to further bloating and cramps. Drinking it can also affect your quality of sleep, which can then have a huge knock-on effect on your overall emotional wellbeing3

What are the best foods for PMS symptoms?

When looking for the best foods to help alleviate your PMS symptoms, here are some helpful dietary guidelines to consider.

Try eating complex carbs

Refined carbs and sugary foods cause rapid spikes in blood sugar, which can lead to mood swings and additional food cravings.4

To avoid this cycle, focus on eating complex carbs like wholegrain pasta, bread, lentils, beans, brown rice, and porridge instead. These will take longer to break down in your body and keep you feeling full for longer.

Focus on foods high in omega-3 fatty acids

From potentially promoting our brain and heart health to reducing inflammation, some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may play an essential role in our overall health.5

During one trial in particular, researchers found that women taking omega-3 supplements for PMS showed reduced levels in the severity of depression and anxiety, as well as improvements in concentration and bloating.6

Another small study found that taking fish oil might actually be more effective than ibuprofen in reducing period pain.7

So when PMSing, try adding foods like fatty fish (such as mackerel and salmon) and nuts and seeds to your diet.

Load up on calcium and vitamin D

With novel and emerging research finding that an increased calcium intake may reduce menstrual cramps and various emotional symptoms of PMS, like mood swings and anxiety,8 why not consider adding some calcium-rich foods to your diet?

Foods like low-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt, as well as non-dairy products, such as broccoli, kale and tofu, are all rich in calcium.

Vitamin D also helps the body absorb calcium, so try to consume foods that are high in both, such as salmon, sardines, egg yolks, mushrooms, fortified milk (both dairy and plant), and fortified orange juice.

Boost your intake of iron-rich foods

When you menstruate, you’ll often experience a dip in iron – especially if you have heavy periods. This can then lead to symptoms like fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath.

The good news is that your food choices can help you maintain healthy iron levels, keeping these symptoms at bay.

Some of the best sources of iron to eat during your period include fish, lentils, beans, and leafy green vegetables like spinach or kale.

Foods that may help PMS mood swings

Depression, anxiety, mood swings, and irritability are all common psychological symptoms of PMS. However, unless managed correctly, these can all result in a bit of a catch-22.

When you’re feeling low or anxious, for example, it can become ever more tempting to reach for your favourite foods. But, eating foods high in sugar and salt can result in weight gain, bloating and low energy, all of which can further exacerbate feelings of low mood or anxiety and result in a vicious cycle.

Instead, it’s better to opt for foods that have a potentially positive effect on relieving the emotional effects of PMS.

This could include foods like: 
  • yoghurt: an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, yoghurt may help keep the emotional effects of PMS at bay. Although this is yet to be proven! That said, however, recent studies on mice into Lactobacillus – a good bacteria commonly found in yoghurt and probiotic drinks – have shown that it can help assist the body in managing stress
  • beans: as part of the legume family, beans provide high levels of protein, fibre and complex carbohydrates.10 Specific types of beans, like black beans, also contain high levels of magnesium, while pinto beans are high in calcium and iron, both of which are important while experiencing PMS-related mood swings10,11 
  • peanuts: peanuts are a rich source of magnesium and vitamin B6 – a vitamin that plays an important role in creating serotonin and contributes to normal psychological function. According to one study, for example, a high dose of B6 may potentially help improve symptoms of anxiety and low mood12 The type of peanut you choose matters though, so make sure to opt for an unsalted variety, as salted peanuts could lead to water retention or bloating

Foods that may help PMS cramps

While over-the-counter painkillers can help you manage your period pain, certain foods have been acclaimed by people with PMS cramps to provide a similar, more natural form of PMS pain relief. These can include: 
  • oily fish: more and more evidence is highlighting the positive impact that an anti-inflammatory diet can have on managing PMS symptoms and cramps. The omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish may play a critical role in controlling inflammation, for example, so eating foods rich in these might help reduce the severity of your cramps13 
  • bananas: for a hit of vitamin B6, potassium and fibre, have a banana. While some people say it helps with their cramps, there’s no evidence to support this – but it’s always a good idea to eat fruit anyway. This is because the fibre that fruits like bananas contain helps you maintain regular bowel movements, leaving you feeling less bloated and in less pain overall14 
  • chamomile tea: this caffeine-free herbal beverage is a traditional remedy known for its alleged ability to treat muscle spasms and calm your nervous system.15 However, the key word here is ‘alleged’, as there’s little actual evidence for this. But why not have a calming hot drink anyway? After all, the process of making tea can be relaxing in itself

The final say

Your diet could be an incredibly powerful tool in the fight against PMS symptoms. By choosing healthy foods rich in nutrients, minerals and vitamins, you might alleviate many of the common symptoms of PMS – from cramping and bloating to mood swings and fatigue.

What’s more, by avoiding foods that could potentially worsen your PMS symptoms (as much as you might crave them!), you may find that you become more energetic and calmer before, during and after your time of the month.

However, balance is key, so there’s no harm in eating your favourite foods, as long as you do so in moderation.

Sources

1. NHS. PMS (premenstrual syndrome) [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 20]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pre-menstrual-syndrome/.
2. Hashim, M., et al. Premenstrual Syndrome Is Associated with Dietary and Lifestyle Behaviors among University Students: A Cross-Sectional Study from Sharjah, UAE. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1939. doi: 10.3390/nu11081939.
3. Siminiuc, R. & Turcanu, D. Impact of nutritional diet therapy on premenstrual syndrome. Front Nutr. 2023;10:1079417. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2023.1079417.
4. Bhardwaj, B. Death by Carbs: Added Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates Cause Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease in Asian Indians. Mo Med. 2016;113(5):395–400. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6139832/.
5. Dighriri, I. et al. 'Effects of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Brain Functions: A Systematic Review'. Cureus. 2022;14(10):e30091. doi: 10.7759/cureus.30091.
6. Sohrabi, N., et al. ‘Evaluation of the effect of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: “A pilot trial”’. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2013;21(3):141–6. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23642943/.
7. Zafari, M., et al. ‘Comparison of the effect of fish oil and ibuprofen on treatment of severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea’. Caspian Journal of Internal Medicine. 2011;2(3):279–82. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3770499/.
8. Shobeiri, F., et al. ‘Effect of calcium on premenstrual syndrome: A double-blind randomized clinical trial’. Obstetrics & Gynecology Science. 2017;60(1):100. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5313351/. 9. Merchak, A., et al. Lactobacillus from the Altered Schaedler Flora maintain IFNγ homeostasis to promote behavioral stress resilience. Brain Behav Immun. 2024;115:458–469. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2023.11.001.
10. Mullins AP, Arjmandi BH. Health Benefits of Plant-Based Nutrition: Focus on Beans in Cardiometabolic Diseases. Nutrients [Internet]. 2021 Feb 5 [cited 2024 May 2];13(2):519–9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7915747/
11. Zielińska M, Edyta Łuszczki, Katarzyna Dereń. Dietary Nutrient Deficiencies and Risk of Depression (Review Article 2018–2023). Nutrients [Internet]. 2023 May 23 [cited 2024 May 2];15(11):2433–3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10255717/
12. Wyatt, K., et al. ‘Efficacy of vitamin B-6 in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome: systematic review’. British Medical Journal. 1999;22;318(7195):1375–81. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC27878/.
13. Mohammadi, M., et al. ‘Effect of omega‐3 fatty acids on premenstrual syndrome: A systematic review and meta‐analysis’. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research. 2022;48(6):1293–1305. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35266254/.
14. Mitsou, E. Effect of banana consumption on faecal microbiota: a randomised, controlled trial. Anaerobe. 2011;17(6):384–387. doi: 10.1016/j.anaerobe.2011.03.018.
15. Srivastava, J., et al. 'Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future'. Mol Med Report. 2010;3(6):895–901. doi: 10.3892/mmr.2010.377.
 
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