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When your period has blessed you with a case of cramps that feel like a knife is being twisted in your uterus, your game plan for pain relief might include popping an Advil and binge-watching the new season of Cheer with a heating pad. While those tried-and-true tactics will likely alleviate some of the pain, noshing on certain foods that help with period cramps may also save you from your agony — especially if you eat them before you see the first drop of blood.
Here, registered dietitians who specialize in functional medicine break down the best foods that help with period cramps and explain the magical powers driving these pain-relief effects. (Related: The Best Yoga Poses for Period Cramps and PMS)
These two minerals play key roles in supporting proper muscle contraction, and if you're falling short on your daily quota, your muscles may become tighter or tense, says Sarah Thomsen Ferreira, M.S., M.P.H., R.D., an integrative and functional nutrition certified practitioner and manager of clinical nutrition at Cleveland Clinic's Center for Functional Medicine. In turn, "it makes excessive cramping more likely to occur" during your period, she adds. In fact, a 2021 study found that low calcium levels cause an increase in uterine muscle contractions, and consuming calcium can help reduce the severity of period cramps. Research, albeit limited, has also backed up magnesium's mid-menstruation benefits: A review of three small trials found that magnesium was more effective than a placebo to alleviate pain, and participants who consumed it needed less pain-relief medication (think: NSAIDs). (BTW, period cramp relief isn't the only benefit of magnesium.)
Diosmin and hesperidin — two types of polyphenols (aka antioxidant compounds found in plant foods) — have been shown to decrease the release of prostaglandins, says Thomsen Ferreira. The polyphenol curcumin, which is primarily found in turmeric, has also been found to have anti-inflammatory effects and help reduce the severity of PMS symptoms. And just like its counterparts, it can also inhibit prostaglandin production, adds Lauren Papanos, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a registered dietitian specializing in functional medicine.
ICYDK, prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that are involved in pain and inflammation. They trigger uterine muscle contractions during your period, which helps shed your uterine lining, according to the Mayo Clinic. Since higher levels of prostaglandins are linked with more severe period cramps, upping your intake of these polyphenols could help keep your pain in check. (Related: 'Period Flu' Is Worse Than Your Average PMS — Here's What You Can Do About It)
Premenstrual symptoms such as abdominal cramping and back pain have been linked to elevated levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammation, according to research published in the Journal of Women's Health. The problem: "When the body doesn't have enough omega-3 fatty acids, it's actually very difficult to resolve an active inflammatory pathway," says Thomsen Ferreira. "There's reasonable data for the use of or intake of omega-3 fatty acids for reducing all types of pain, and that includes period pain."
Even though certain foods may come with a few benefits for your menstrual cycle, don't expect to eat one salad and watch your cramps disappear. Regardless of the time of the month, it's important to hit your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for these vitamins and minerals each day. But you'll want to up your consumption of them in the week leading up to your period, says Thomsen Ferreira. "Often the week before the menstrual cycle starts is probably the time where you want to be extra, extra intentional about the incorporation of these foods…and then into the beginning of the cycle, as well, if there are still symptoms present," she explains. "[You'll] almost kind of prime the body." (Related: What's the Difference Between Macronutrients and Micronutrients?)
Papanos agrees: "I like to aim for one week prior to when you think your period's coming," she says. "Of course, that can vary month to month, but if you can set a little reminder for yourself for that seven-day period prior to when you start bleeding, that's a great place to start."
If you're feeling stressed AF about how to prioritize all those nutrients while menstruating, don't fret. Increasing your intake of foods that help with period cramps can be as easy as making simple switches. For example, "take the normal piece of chicken you would have and just start swapping it out for salmon," suggests Papanos. "It can feel really overwhelming to try to incorporate these foods, but you can just think of swapping what you normally have for a protein or a vegetable for some of these higher magnesium and omega-3 sources. That's a really easy way to incorporate them."
Mixing some dark leafy greens into your diet is an easy way to get your fill of magnesium, says Thomsen Ferreira. One cup of raw spinach, for example, provides about 8 percent of the RDA for the mineral per cup, while a cup of turnip greens offers roughly 5 percent of the RDA. Add them to your morning smoothie or lunchtime stir fry, whip up a quick sautée with eggs or chicken, or use them as a base for your favorite salad toppings, she suggests.
Pumpkin seeds are one of the best sources of magnesium, according to the National Institutes of Health, packing 41 percent of the RDA per half-cup. To get your fill of the food that helps with period cramps, blend the seeds in a food processor to create a homemade pumpkin seed butter that’s the perfect dip for apples, says Thomsen Ferreira. You can also mix them into your salads or coleslaw for a crunchy addition, use them in place of pine nuts in pesto, or incorporate the seeds or butter into no-bake energy bites, she suggests.
Just 1 ounce dark chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cacao packs a whopping 21 percent of the RDA for magnesium, and luckily it’s pretty effortless to incorporate into your diet. Aside from eating a few chocolate squares straight-up, consider mixing cacao powder with some honey and pumpkin seed butter for a fudge-like treat, says Thomsen Ferreira.
Lemon, lime, and orange juices are all rich in hesperidin, the polyphenol that helps decrease the release of those pain-inducing prostaglandins, says Thomsen Ferreira. To boost your consumption — and potentially minimize your period cramping — nosh on an orange for a simple snack, sip on a glass of lemon water in the morning, or add a generous squeeze of lemon juice to your cup of tea, she suggests. (Need more reasons to make use of lemons? The citrus offers countless health benefits.) 
This potent-smelling herb is packed with two of the aforementioned polyphenols: diosmin and hesperidin. “When it comes to peppermint, often the easiest way to bring that [into your diet] is through peppermint tea, which is a really popular way to sip on it and consume it,” says Thomsen Ferreira. Not a fan of the beverage? Get your fill of the food that helps with period cramps by finely chopping the leaves and adding them to a salad or stirring them into Greek yogurt with berries.
To boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, look for ways to add fish, such as salmon, wild-caught tuna, herring, and sardines, to your meals, says Thomsen Ferreira. Try incorporating anchovies into your Caesar salad dressing, baking salmon with that polyphenol-packed citrus, or concocting homemade spicy tuna rolls. (Wait, is sushi good for you?)
Ginger has a reputation for being an anti-inflammatory all-star, and one systematic review found that consuming the root orally (via capsules containing ginger powder) may be a potentially effective pain relief treatment for period cramps. While there’s no guarantee eating ginger straight-up will have the same effects as those found in studies, it’s easy enough to incorporate into your diet and, thus, worth a shot. Consider brewing a cup of ginger tea or blending it into your green smoothie. “A ginger-based smoothie with some berries would be a fabulous period drink or cycle-specific drink in the morning,” says Thomsen Ferreira. (Related: Ginger Tea Benefits That’ll Convince You to Brew a Pot)
A single golden spice can help you score that anti-inflammatory, prostaglandin-inhibiting curcumin. “I really love adding turmeric into stews, or you can even use that as a seasoning onto the fish, like the salmon or mackerel,” suggests Papanos. “Turmeric lattes, as well, are excellent, like a golden milk latte you can do before bed. That warm, soothing beverage can also help reduce some of that cramping and that pain, too.”
Instead of seafood, plant-based eaters can get a hit of omega-3 fatty acids from chia seeds, says Papanos. The small but might seed is one of the top sources of the nutrient, according to the NIH, and can be sprinkled on toast, mixed into your desserts and baked goods, or added to your go-to smoothie.
While dairy is typically what first comes to mind when you think of calcium, you can also get your fill from tofu, which provides 12.5 percent of the RDA per 3 ounces. Transform the plant-based protein into a crispy taco filling, mix it into soups or curries, or use it to create an animal-free take on scrambled eggs
Along with satisfying protein, you’ll nab nearly 30 percent of the RDA for calcium per cup of plain, whole milk yogurt, which makes it one of the top foods that help with period cramps (potentially, of course). Eat the dairy product by the spoonful, turn it into a creamy salad dressing, or use it as a dip for fresh veggies.

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