Okay, let me be real. Periods can be living hell on Earth. They hurt, let’s face it. But, while they are painful and messy and just not very fun, believe it or not, they’re actually a good thing. They are a sign that you’re healthy and that your reproductive system is working the way it should be. Because while losing your period may be something you couldn’t wait to sign up for, sometimes when people do lose their periods (whether it’s due to dieting, birth control, etc.), it’s not generally a great sign. So to everyone who has a period, I want to give you this advice on how to eat, exercise, and keep clean during your menstrual cycle.
Foods that Help
There are a number of foods that have the nutrients needed to help you during your period that people with uteruses have been taking for centuries to help relieve pain and boost uterine health.
Avocados: Avocados are high in healthy fats, omega-3s and 6s, vitamin A, and vitamin E, which will not only help improve reproductive health but also help with skin health.
Whole Grains: Whole grains include naturally occurring nutrients like fiber, magnesium, iron, and protein and are often fortified with nutrients like vitamin A, calcium, and potassium. They are also typically low in sodium. The naturally occurring (and sometimes added) iron is specifically helpful during menstruation to help with the blood loss and building of new blood cells.
Potatoes: Whether it’s a regular potato, sweet potato, yam, or ube, potatoes are not only an affordable super food containing many different nutrients, but they additionally offer mood-boosting benefits to keep serotonin up when typically serotonin drops, causing mood swings.
Red Meat: Red meats such as beef, lamb, steak, venison, and veal are all very high in iron and protein, which helps restore blood levels and prevent anemia. Protein helps provide energy to lessen mood swings and heighten productivity.
Seafood: Seafood, including seaweed, laver, shrimp, fish, and more, is good for periods due to high protein levels, omega-3s, and vitamin E.
Mushrooms: Mushrooms are one of the only foods with naturally occurring vitamin D, which is quintessential for reproductive health and for mood regulation.
Burdock: My mom and I always drink at least two cups a day of burdock tea when we are on our periods and throughout the rest of our cycle since it helps with pain and cramp relief. We get our supply of it at the Korean market near our house but you will probably be able to find a good brand online or at a store near you. Burdock is a root vegetable, so alternatively you could find it whole and cook it.
Ginger: I like to add ginger powder and cinnamon powder to my water at least a few times during my cycle, and I don’t know the science behind it, but it somehow magically cures period pains–at least for me it does.
Foods That Don’t Help
Salty Foods: I try not to have a very high sodium diet as is, but especially since I have a menstrual cycle, I find that while eating chips or fries may be very satisfying, it also increases my cramping by 115%. Sodium is an important nutrient to have, but as with everything, moderation is key. I like a little soy sauce here, some homemade garlic butter with garlic salt there, but eating a diet full of sodium is not only detrimental for your cramping, but it also can dehydrate you which can cause a million other problems.
Refined Sugars: The term refined sugar is a tricky one since it means different things to different people. Mainly, it just means added sugars, including cane sugar, brown sugar, etc. I find I have very strong cravings for sugary foods while menstruating but once I eat them, I regret it when my cramps amp up and my moods crash. I’m not one of those people who are super anti-sugar. I enjoy pop tarts, ice cream, and cookies and I bake a lot, so I do have sugar. But when on my period, I try to opt for healthier sweeteners, like honey, coconut sugar, or maple syrup.
Caffeine: Look, I love coffee. And I also really like tea. But caffeine can cause cramping and a number of other symptoms on your period, so it may be best to just stick to decaf coffee and herbal teas during menstruation.
As a society, we are pretty inactive. In fact, only 28% of Americans are as active as we need to be. Some people go to the gym, others hike, and some do home workouts, but exercise of any kind is incredibly important. Exercise has been shown to help with mood and mental health, boost metabolism, and increase life span. And while it may sound strange, it actually does help relieve menstrual pain and actually shortens your cycle.
However, some ways of exercising are good for your cycle and others are not good for your cycle. Low-intensity workouts such as yoga, pilates, and walking have been proven to help with period pain, shorten the amount of days spent bleeding, and balance mood swings. High-intensity workouts such as weight-lifting, vigorous HIIT workouts, and jogging have been proven to be harder and less beneficial while bleeding and more likely to cause more cramping and pain.
While this may contradict the points about the importance of exercise, it is also important to get rest while menstruating. Whether that’s a full 8-10 hours of good sleep or just taking it easy for a few days, it’s important to allow yourself to slow down a bit. I know on my first day or two of bleeding, I barely get any exercise due to my body telling me to rest and allow some of the pain to blow over. Around day three or four, I’m ready to exercise and move more. But since we live in a society where we’re taught to go-go-go, it’s hard for us to slow down. Make sure to take some time to yourself, not push yourself too hard, and listen to your body. Sometimes it’s nice to have a day of just doing really nothing. And that’s okay. We’re all taught in our modern society that we need to make each day count and to be productive as possible, but it’s okay to have a day or two where you just spend time on yourself, focusing on you or your hobbies, putting some tasks aside that only you have labeled as urgent, and treating yourself gently. Human beings can only work so hard–we’re very limited creatures. So give yourself a break every once in a while.
- Bleeding only happens once a month. Truth: For some people, that’s accurate. However, for others, considering some of their life and environmental factors, sometimes they bleed two or three times a month, and sometimes it’s more sporadic, around every few months. Irregularity is okay. They say a couple years after your first cycle, things will straighten themselves out, but sometimes that’s not the case.
- Only women have menstrual cycles. Truth: Untrue! People of all gender identities can have a menstrual cycle. Not all women have menstrual cycles, and not everyone who has menstrual cycles is a woman.
- Your cycle is only when you’re bleeding. Truth: That’s actually not true. Your cycle is just that–a cycle. Even if you’re not bleeding, your reproductive system is still active and working. That’s almost like saying you only have an immune system when you’re sick. If you study all the stages of your cycle, you will learn to predict it and it’s a bit more bearable.
- Bleeding only lasts for three to four days. Truth: This is true for some people, but it’s also untrue for other people. Personally, mine tend to last from five to nine days. I know people who only bleed for three and people who have bled for ten. Everyone is different and there’s really no normal.