A Functional Medicine Doc Reveals Exactly What You Should Eat During Your Period
Many of my patients struggle with sugar cravings during their periods. As in, "OMG, that chocolate cake screamed my name and I devoured two pieces the day I got my period." Research shows what I see repeatedly: Sleep problems, digestive issues, and yes, food cravings can all be not-so-nice accomplices during your period.
As if these aren't bad enough, you might also have erratic periods. I'm talking about massive unpleasantries like missing periods, irregular periods, light periods, heavy periods, and more that can sabotage your already not-so-fabulous mood.
In my book Beyond the Pill, I discuss loads of strategies to deal with your painful periods and other period irregularities, like the lab tests, nutrients, and the exact lifestyle modifications you need to alleviate these problems. And one of the best ways to get annoying period symptoms under control? Change what's at the end of your fork.
Here, I'm going to touch upon how you can counter these period problems with some key nutrient-dense foods.
What foods exacerbate annoying period symptoms?
A big player in many period problems is estrogen. In and of itself, this hormone—just like any other hormone—is not bad. But when you have too much estrogen—a condition called estrogen dominance—you can experience headaches, weight gain, tender breasts, heavy periods, irritability, and mood swings.
Lots of things can contribute to estrogen dominance during your period, including certain foods. Let's take a look at some of the biggest culprits:
- Foods high in sugar, refined carbs, dairy, and caffeine can create blood sugar imbalances that trigger or exacerbate period symptoms.
- The pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables also hate your hormones. They beat them up, block receptors, and act like big old bullies.
- Meat (unless you're buying grass-fed and organic) and soy can also contribute to estrogen dominance. Conventionally raised farm animals are given lots of pro-inflammatory grains, hormones, and antibiotics, which get passed on to you when you eat them. Soy is known to have weak estrogenic properties, and if you're eating it frequently, this may cause trouble for your system.
- Sadly, even the so-called healthy nutritional strategies can amp up these problematic period symptoms. For instance, opting to eat an ultra-low-fat or vegetarian diet may contribute to short, light, or irregular periods.
5 ways to stay happy, healthy, and energized during your period using food.
When patients visit me with period problem complaints—or they want to minimize the symptoms of their period—I always discuss food as the foundation. What you eat can dramatically improve how you feel, and often quickly.
A good overarching nutritional rule: If you struggle with monthly PMS symptoms, period irregularities, or just plain dread your period, you'll want to eat an anti-inflammatory, fiber-rich diet with tons of colorful veggies and other nutrient-dense foods, which will help balance hormones and reduce your symptoms. Here are some specific foods and strategies that can make all the difference during your period:
Prioritize iron and B-vitamins.
If you have heavy and/or long periods, I often incorporate iron-rich foods along with foods rich in B12, B6, and folate in higher amounts. All women require these nutrients to build blood and need to be eating them during their period. Some of my favorite foods that contain both of these nutrients are grass-fed organic meat, leafy greens, and avocado.
Load up on omega-3s.
Eating omega-3-rich foods such as cold-water fish (think salmon, sardines, anchovies), walnuts, and hemp seeds provides you with anti-inflammatory support that can improve your mood while reducing period cramps.
Think fiber-rich veggies.
Aim for at least half your plate to be filled with fiber-rich vegetables at each meal to ensure you're getting plenty of estrogen-eliminating fiber and nutrients to fuel your system. Give leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables a lot of love. Avoid too many starchy vegetables, like potatoes, squash, and peas.
Get plenty of magnesium.
Incorporating magnesium-rich foods such as Brazil nuts, spinach, and cashews before and during your period can help reduce cramps, improve sleep, and make you feel a whole lot more chill.
Don't skip meals.
For the majority of women, I recommend breakfast, lunch, and dinner during your period. While I love intermittent fasting, you want to stabilize blood sugar and your hormones. You don't want to be in a situation where you're hungry, you lose energy, and you grab a quick carb-laden snack that causes blood sugar dysregulation (and thus, exacerbates period problems). If you have symptoms of hormone imbalance, address those first before jumping into intermittent fasting.
A sample 1-day "food prescription" for your period.
So you may be wondering exactly what I recommend eating for your period. This one-day plan provides you guidance, but I can't overstate the importance of listening to your body's needs. Also important to note: For painful periods and other period problems, you might need two to three months for your diet to really take effect. But following my recommendations (starting this month!) is a great place to start getting your period under control.
Breakfast: Morning Matcha Smoothie
This nutrient-rich, hormone-stabilizing smoothie will give your morning a boost without the caffeine crash. Matcha is loaded with antioxidants and supports optimal estrogen levels.
- 1 cup coconut water
- 1 cup roughly chopped spinach
- 1 frozen banana
- 1 teaspoon matcha
- 1 teaspoon decaf matcha powder
- ¼ avocado
- 1 serving protein powder
Combine all the ingredients in a high-speed blender until the mixture is smooth.
Lunch: Mango Chicken Collard Wraps With Golden Curry Sauce
Protein, leafy greens, healthy fats, and anti-inflammatory turmeric stabilize your blood sugar and your mood so you stay full and focused all afternoon.
Makes 2 wraps
- ¼ cup full-fat coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- ½ teaspoon curry powder
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3 to 4 ounces shredded chicken
- 2 tablespoons chopped raw cashews
- ¼ cup julienned fresh basil leaves
- ¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
- ½ mango, cut into small cubes
- 2 collard leaves
- To make the sauce, whisk together the coconut milk, ginger, curry powder, turmeric powder, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Alternatively, place all these ingredients in a small blender or mini food processor and blend or pulse until the dressing is well combined.
- Place the shredded chicken in a small bowl and pour half of the sauce over it, reserving the other half for dipping. Toss the chicken and sauce together with the cashews, basil, mint, and mango.
- Prepare the collard leaves by slicing off the thick stem at the base of each leaf. Then use the butt end of a chef's knife to crush the stem along the center of the leaf.
- Half fill a skillet with water and set it over high heat. Once the water comes to a soft boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Add one collard green at a time and submerge it under the water for 30 seconds. The leaf should turn bright green. Remove each leaf from the water in turn and place them on a kitchen towel to pat dry.
- Place a blanched collard leaf on a cutting board, with the base of the stem pointing toward you. Spoon half the chicken mixture in a spot three-quarters of the way down the leaf, not directly in the center. Fold up the end and each side of the leaf, on the left and right, then roll the wrap up like a burrito. Do the same with the other leaf and the remaining chicken.
- When ready to serve, cut each collard wrap in half on a diagonal, and use the extra reserved sauce for dipping.
Dinner: Red Curry Salmon (with cauliflower rice or a green salad)
Salmon provides a powerful anti-inflammatory wallop along with nutrient-rock-star leafy greens or cruciferous cauliflower rice.
- 2 salmon fillets
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 teaspoons coconut oil or ghee
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1½ teaspoons red curry paste
- ½ cup full-fat coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Rinse the salmon and pat the fillets dry on both sides. Sprinkle them with the salt and black pepper to taste. Place them in an 8-by-8-inch glass dish.
- To prepare the red curry sauce, heat the coconut oil in a small saucepan set over medium-low heat. When the coconut oil is melted, add the ginger and garlic, and toss them in the coconut oil for 30 seconds. Add the red curry paste and continue to toss for another minute.
- Add the coconut milk to the saucepan, stirring frequently to combine it well with the curry paste. Lower the heat, and allow the sauce to simmer for 5 minutes.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the lime juice. Adjust the salt and black pepper to taste.
- Reserve a third of the red curry sauce and pour the rest over the salmon fillets in the dish. Flip each fillet to ensure the sauce evenly coats the fish.
- Bake the fish in the oven for 12 minutes, or until the edges flake but the middle is still pink. For thicker fillets, bake them 3 to 5 minutes longer.
- Remove the fish from the oven and cover it with foil. Allow it to rest and continue cooking for 5 minutes.
- Serve the fillets drizzled with the reserved sauce. Serve over cauliflower rice or alongside a green salad featuring a cruciferous green like arugula, kale, or mustard greens.
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Jolene Brighten, N.D., is a women’s health expert currently working as the President and Chief Medical Officer at Rubus Health in Portland, Oregon. She received her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine at the National University of Natural Medicine and a bachelor’s in Nutrition Science from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. She is the best-selling author of Beyond the Pill, in which she shares her clinical protocols aimed at supporting women struggling with symptoms of hormone imbalance, including Post-Birth Control Pill Syndrome and birth control related side effects. Dr. Brighten has been featured in the New York Post, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, ABC News, and The Guardian.