What to eat (and avoid) during each phase of the menstrual cycle. The best foods for PMS symptoms & foods that make symptoms worse.
By Lydia Carron (Medically Reviewed by Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD)
The menstrual cycle, a recurring sequence of hormonal changes over roughly 24-30 days, has many coinciding symptoms, such as mood swings, bloating, cramping, fatigue, and gastrointestinal issues. As a matter of fact, there are over 140 different symptoms that have been associated with menstruation!
It can be overwhelming to understand all the different changes that happen in your body from month to month, let alone figure out how to manage them. Ibuprofen and aspirin have their time and place, but slightly altering your diet patterns throughout the month will help naturally manage the unpleasant symptoms.
The best foods to help manage PMS symptoms
Not only are plant-based diets beneficial for a number of diseases, they have also been shown to lower PMS symptoms. Low- fat high-fiber vegetarian diets have been associated with decreased overall inflammation and fewer and less painful menstrual symptoms.
Additionally, high-fiber diets (20-35 g/day) help eliminate estrogen from the body. Estrogen is the hormone partially responsible for hot flashes, mood swings and tender breasts. Fiber binds to estrogen in the intestine, increasing estrogen excretion in bowel movements.
Let’s take a closer look at the type of foods that are rich in fiber and help manage PMS symptoms.
These have been shown to slow down the production of prostaglandin, the hormones that cause cramps during the luteal phase. It’s important to eat whole grains all month long, but definitely include complex, fiber-rich grains in your diet from cycle days 15-28. Here are some examples:
- brown rice
Foods with phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are plant-derived compounds that compete with other estrogens for receptor binding. They have been shown to lengthen the follicular phase by an average of 2.5 days, therefore lowering peaks of LH and FSH and reducing the length of the luteal phase (when PMS symptoms occur).
The plant foods highest in phytoestrogens:
- soy products: tempeh, tofu, soy beans, soy milk
- legumes: beans, peas
- flaxseeds and sesame seeds
- apples and carrots
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3’s, a type of “good” fat, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory actions. Inflammation, which is the immune system’s response to infection and injury, may cause an increase in cramp-inducing prostaglandins.
In the week leading up to your period, eat more of these omega-3 rich foods:
- Nuts, especially walnuts
- Seeds, like chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds
- Oils, like olive oil
Do certain nutrients help with PMS symptoms?
Certain micronutrients may help alleviate PMS symptoms, so include plenty of these in your diet throughout the month.
Iron- rich foods have been shown to decrease brain fog, cramping, fatigue, and mood swings associated with your period. Animal foods are high in iron, but these plant-based foods also contain ample amounts of this important micronutrient:
- dark chocolate
This mineral has been shown to decrease the metabolism of prostaglandins, therefore decreasing cramps. Eat these foods for your daily dose of zinc:
- legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans)
- seeds (hemp, pumpkin, sesame)
- nuts (pine nuts, cashews, almonds)
- whole grains (wheat, quinoa, rice, oats)
Magnesium and Vitamin B6
These nutrients together have been shown to decrease PMS symptoms by relaxing the muscular contractions in the uterus (i.e. what causes the painful cramp-feeling). You don’t have to eat this mineral and vitamin at the same time to reap the benefits.
- Foods high in magnesium: pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, soy milk, black beans, edamame, avocado,
- Foods high in Vitamin B6: peanuts, soy beans, wheatgerm, oats, bananas, some fortified cereals
This vitamin also suppresses prostaglandin production and decreases their concentration in the bloodstream. Foods rich in Vitamin E includes:
- sunflower seeds
- nuts, like almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts
- peanuts/peanut butter
- spinach, broccoli, red pepper, turnip greens, beet greens, butternut squash, mustard greens
Are there foods you should avoid when you’re PMS-ing?
Certain foods will make you feel worse when you’re experiencing PMS symptoms during the luteal phase. Try to avoid these foods during this time.
Although you may feel like you need a drink, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that you lose more liquid than you take in. Alcohol consumption can lead to dehydration, which can increase the severity of nausea and headaches, which are PMS symptoms. Try to keep your alcohol intake to a minimum the week before your period.
A diet high in refined grains and ultra-processed foods is usually low in fiber. Without adequate fiber intake, the estrogen rises and makes you feel awful. Try to keep ultra-processed foods to a minimum, including:
- white bread
- refined cereals
- fried foods
- doughnuts and other sweets
You may have heard that omega-3s are the golden child of the fatty acids, and that you should not consume omega-6 fatty acids (found mostly in vegetable oils). That’s not necessarily the case.
It’s more important to eat a balanced ratio of both omega-3’s and omega-6’s, rather than completely eliminate omega-6 ‘s from your diet. Generally speaking, a diet rich in processed foods contains an omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA) ratio of 15:1, but the healthy ratio is more like 1:1.
Omega-6 unsaturated fatty acids are precursors to prostaglandins and associated with increased inflammation. Therefore, during the luteal phase, minimize your consumption of:
- high fat foods, like sour cream, mayonnaise and butter
- certain oils: safflower, sunflower, soybean
- processed foods
Putting it All Together
As you can see, lifestyle modifications can play a big role in the severity of your menstrual cycle symptoms. But you may be asking yourself, “How can I apply all this information to my own cycle?” Let’s take it day by day. (Keep in mind the exact days are according to a 28-day cycle, but each person’s cycle may differ by a few days.)
First day of bleeding (i.e. your period starts) and the first day of the follicular phase. Hormones (estrogen and progesterone) are low. You may be feeling depressed, irritable, increased appetite, and low energy.
This is a time to avoid alcohol completely, because it can increase the intensity of these mood swings. On the first day of your period, eat iron-rich foods (to counteract the iron lost through blood loss), such as eggs, sunflower seeds, tofu and chocolate! Reduce foods that can exacerbate bloating, such as high-fat foods, spicy foods, starchy foods w/yeast, and foods high in salt.
You’re in the middle of the follicular phase. Estrogen is on the rise! You are most likely feeling a surge of energy due to a boost in those “feel good” endorphins. Also, you’re most likely relaxed and emotionally less reactive.
Even though you may have stopped bleeding, continue to eat iron-rich foods to make up for the iron from blood loss. Throughout the week, your energy levels should gradually increase. Fiber-rich foods, such as legumes, fruits, and vegetables, will also make sure that the excess estrogen being produced is properly cleared out of the body.
If you’ve been wanting a night out on the town with a drink or two, this is the time for it! In general, from day 7 to ovulation, you can be the most relaxed with your diet and still feel good.
Ovulation occurs and your “fertile window” is open for 12-24 hours. Estrogen peaks right before ovulation, which increases luteinizing hormone, the hormone that stimulates the release of the egg from the follicle into the uterus.
You’re about to experience a drop in hormone levels. Plan out a grocery list that contains all the foods that will help you combat those unfavorable premenstrual symptoms (PMS).
This marks the beginning of your luteal phase. The ruptured follicle is making progesterone, which further thickens your uterine lining in preparation for fertilization. There is a slight decrease in estrogen, which can zap you of the energy you had pre-ovulation. You might be feeling foggy and fatigued and experiencing fluid retention and headaches. Avoid alcohol to prevent a worsening of headaches.
A little caffeine could help with fluid retention and fatigue, but make sure you drink plenty of water. Reduce simple carbohydrates and sugar to stabilize glucose and energy levels. Eat fiber-rich foods with healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts, and seeds to increase satiation and fight cravings.
You’re in the middle of the luteal phase. If your egg is not fertilized, estrogen and progesterone drop, causing more extreme mood changes like anxiety, irritability, and depression. This time is what’s often referred to as the PMS week.
The two weeks of the luteal phase require the most attention to diet to combat unwanted symptoms. Continue to eat a diet of whole grain, which can combat those sugar and starch cravings. Avoid processed foods, alcohol, and animal products. Increase your consumption of dark leafy greens (collared greens, kale, spinach, chard), grains (quinoa, amaranth, teff, black rice), fruits berries, cherries, grapefruit, apples, oranges, pears), omega-3 rich fats (avocado, extra virgin olive oil, hemp seeds, walnuts), high-protein zinc-containing foods (lentils, chickpeas, beans), magnesium-rich seeds (pumpkin seeds and chia seeds), and vitamin E- containing vegetables (broccoli, red peppers, turnip greens, butternut squash).
Know Your Cycle
To get the most out of this information, start tracking your cycle (if you are not already). Those slight hormonal fluctuations from one phase of the cycle to the next can result in dramatically different symptoms.
Apps such as Flo or Clue can help keep you on top of your cycle and symptoms. Avoid the surprise of PMS every month by planning meals that can facilitate a more pleasant period experience.
Lydia Carron is a dietetic intern with an MS in Nutrition Education from Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Originally from New York City, she modeled professionally for 5 years, which precipitated her interest in women’s hormonal health and nutrition. Her favorite physical activities are boxing, running, yoga, and hiking. See more of Lydia’s tips and advice on her Instagram: @LydiaTreatNutrition.