How foods can help your periods

We all know we should be eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, but do you know that foods can influence your moods, your hormones and your periods?

Cornucopia of healthy foodsThis month's feature, written by Kim Crundall of Balance Nutrition, will help you to understand a little more about:

  • how foods affect the way your body works, and
  • which foods supply the nutrients that help to make your periods nice and easy.

Don’t worry. It’s not going to be a chemistry lesson! It’s more like you're getting a shopping list that will help you to choose the right foods to help you during puberty.

What are nutrients?

Nutrients can be described as "the goodness" in food that helps your body to be healthy, to grow, and to work well. There are many different nutrients that you may have seen written on packets of food. Different foods contain different nutrients, which is why you will often hear people talking about a balanced diet – meaning that eating a variety of the right foods will give you the right variety of nutrients your body needs.

Setting you straight about periods!

Before we start, we need to set a few things straight. There’s a lot of talk in magazines and newspapers about symptoms you might get with your periods, and it can make them seem quite frightening. Much of this is unlikely to happen to you, so please don’t expect the worst!
Calendar
Let’s start off with what a period should be, as this often gets forgotten. Once your cycle settles, which may take a year or two, your periods should come around every 28 days, with a light flow of nice, bright-red blood for about 3-5 days, and you should be able to easily go about your normal activities.

If you're feeding your body all the right foods, then you shouldn’t really notice much else. That sounds fine, doesn’t it?

Okay, now we need to look at what support your body needs to be like this. To do this, we do need to look at some of the symptoms you may have heard about. (A symptom is like a sign that something is going on.) As we do, we’ll look at what foods can prevent this happening to you. Here goes …

Too heavy or too long?

A lot of women have problems with heavy periods, lasting for a week or more. There are two problems here – too heavy, and too long. These often happen together and can often show a need for more magnesium or more iron.

You may have heard that iron comes from red meats. Vegetarians needn’t worry because you can also get iron in good amounts from many other foods. In fact, dried apricots, raisins and beetroot are particularly good choices.
Nuts and seeds
So that leaves magnesium. This is a biggie when it comes to periods, so a good one to make sure you eat plenty of. Think of things like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts. Also, have you tried snacking on sesame, pumpkin or sunflower seeds?
Green vegetables

Other great foods in which to find magnesium are lentils, beans of all types, and leafy green vegetables, so things like broccoli, cabbage, kale, watercress, spinach and spring greens. So, if you feel your periods are too long or too heavy, add these to your shopping list and eat two or three of these foods every day.

Pain, cramping, or headaches?

Girl with period pain & headachePeriods shouldn’t really hurt. A little mild cramping is okay, but if you are reaching for painkillers, then you can help yourself through foods instead, and this is much better for you.

It’s the same for headaches: painkillers might make you feel better for a short time, but they’re not going to stop the same thing happening again.

However, both cramping and headaches around your period are often linked to the same nutrient, and – guess what – it's magnesium again. So use the shopping list above to get yourself pain-free and enjoying life!

With headaches though, please make sure you are drinking plenty of water.

Tender breasts?

One of the things you can experience are tender breasts, which can happen from half-way through your cycle, right up to your period starting. If you experience this, you can help yourself by increasing the amounts of "good" fats you eat.

Now, listen here … fats are good for you, so ignore the magazines! Some fats are absolutely essential to your well-being, and if you don’t have enough fats in your diet your periods may well stop altogether. Now that’s definitely a sign you are NOT healthy.

SardinesOn your shopping list should be foods that give you two different types of healthy fats.

The first type – Omega 3 – come from oily fish. These include mackerel, sardines, anchovies (pizza anyone?) salmon and tuna, and oils from seeds like hemp and linseeds.

The second type – Omega 6 (you don’t need to remember these names!) – also come from seeds, as well as nuts.

A variety of seedsSo start sprinkling nuts or seeds over your breakfast cereal, and have oily fish a couple of times a week. If you don’t like fish, then have a spoonful of walnut, hemp or pumpkin seed oil on a salad a few times a week. Over a few months, your "good" fat levels will build up, and you’ll not even remember having sore breasts!

So, what have we got on our shopping list so far? Apricots, raisins, beetroot, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans (yes, baked beans too!), lots of different fish and plenty of green vegetables. Feeling hungry yet?

Irregular periods?

It’s always nice to know when to expect your periods, so hopefully your cycle will settle down quite quickly and be around 28 days. But if you find your cycle is a bit crazy with no pattern at all, varying from 2-3 weeks, or up to 5 weeks or more (use the chart in the PoGo Pack™to track it), then you can choose foods that will help to put you back on track.

As well as some of the foods we’ve talked about already, you may need to find more ways to get zinc or some of the B vitamins into your diet.

BananasYou’ll find zinc in fish again, and seafood such as prawns. It also comes from wholegrains (like wheat and oats) and most nuts and seeds, with pumpkin seeds and pine nuts being two of the best.

There are many different types of B vitamins and we don’t need to look at them all, but it's good to know some of the very best foods to find them in. Eggs are great for B vitamins, as are avocado, white meats like chicken and turkey, yeasts like ‘Marmite’, bananas, wholegrain rice, plus nuts, seeds and fish again.

Wholegrains explained

In the supermarket, there are lots of foods described as "wholegrain". This is where the grain in the food has not had some parts stripped away and so still contains lots of goodness or nutrients when used in making foods. The easiest examples to explain this are bread and pasta. The wheat grain used in the flour for white bread and pasta have had lots of the nutrients stripped away, but the flour used in wholegrain or wholemeal bread and pasta still contains lots of goodness.

Wholemeal breadAnother example is your breakfast cereal. Some breakfast cereal brands are now using wholegrains, giving you more nutrients.

It's always a good idea to choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties of foods. They can sometimes take a bit of getting used to, but are much, much better for you and worth the effort.

Spotting between periods?

Sometimes women can get a little blood showing in-between periods. This can often be brown rather than red blood, and may happen for a few days before your period, or around the middle of your period. This is known as "spotting", and shouldn’t really be happening on a regular basis. It can be a bit harder to know exactly what your body is asking for here, but it can often be one of the minerals, so use the shopping list to increase the foods that are rich in iron, magnesium and zinc.

Exercise may also be helpful as it increases blood flow round your body and helps to build healthy tissues.

Feeling run down, or having ‘flu-like symptoms?

This one is a bit more complicated and may involve quite a lot of nutrients being out of balance. It’s really best to contact someone for professional help, like your doctor, or a nutritional therapist, to work out exactly what foods your body needs most. However, this is very unusual, so when you start your periods think about eating the right foods to support them, then it’s very unlikely you’ll ever feel like this. You’ll probably be feeling really energetic and enjoying life instead!

The final shopping list

Shopping list
So, what’s on our final shopping list?

  • Eggs
  • Avocado
  • Bananas
  • Apricots
  • Raisins
  • Beetroot
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Lentils
  • Beans – all types, including baked beans
  • Wholegrains – oats, rice, pasta, breads, cereals, pittas, etc
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Fish and seafood – lots of different types
  • Green vegetables – plenty of them
  • Oils - walnut, hemp or pumpkin seed.

Girl giving thumbs upWell, that really covers a whole heap of different foods, and that’s really important – lots of variety in what you eat! This should give you plenty of good choices for eating the foods you like while helping your body to feel great.

Be willing to experiment. There will be some foods you'll like and others you won't, but you may be surprised at something new that you do enjoy which is really good for you!

Who does the shopping?

Talk to whoever does the shopping in your house. Ask for these foods to be added to the weekly shopping list, and explain how they will help you. Why don't you go along and help to choose them?

Case study: how eating the right foods helped Sam's periods

Sam started her periods when she was 11½ but didn’t really know what was normal, so she started using the Period Planner in the PoGo Pack™ to track her periods.
Happy teenage girl

By the time she was 13, she discovered her periods were happening every three weeks, and she had noticed cramping for up to a week before her period. Each period was lasting up to 7 or 8 days, and she felt they were quite heavy. She also felt a little more tired than usual during a period.

Up till then, Sam sometimes skipped meals, and rarely ate fish, eggs, nuts or seeds. She also ate quite a lot of white breads rather than wholegrains like rice and oats. This meant she wasn’t getting enough "good" fats, zinc or magnesium, and some B vitamins and her iron levels were a little low too.

Sam wanted to be healthy and help her periods, so she began eating more of the right foods to support her body, and made sure to have both breakfast and lunch every day. She started noticing that her energy levels were better when she did. Each month her periods became easier, getting shorter and further apart, and she noticed the pain was less each month too. Now she has only has mild cramp on the first day of her period, which happen every 27 or 28 days, they last only five days and aren’t at all heavy.

If it works for Sam, it can work for you too!

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Balance Nutrition is a well established practice based in St Albans, catering to clients throughout Hertfordshire. The practice specialises in food sensitivity testing and helping clients to achieve great health through good eating. Kim Crundall is a fully qualified nutritional therapist with extensive experience of working with digestive problems, IBS, hormonal imbalances, PMS, chronic tiredness, recurring infections and weight management. She has worked with many children on a wide range of conditions. Her particular passion is helping couples to prepare for pregnancy. Kim has lectured for many groups, including Breast Cancer Care and The Parkinsons Society. Contact Kim on 01727 894739, or visit her website www.balancenutrition.co.uk.

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